Sunday, October 23, 2011

Merchants and Drovers tavern: the Turnpike rest area of its time... and more

The intersection of St. Georges Avenue (Route 27) and Westfield Avenue in Rahway is a busy one, and likely the real estate surrounding it is pretty valuable from a retail perspective. That's one of the things that makes the occupant of the northwest corner so remarkable. Instead of a bank or a Dunkin Donuts or drugstore, there's an imposing four-story wood colonial-era building. It's the Merchants and Drovers Tavern, once the hub of early Rahway and an important stop for travelers making their way between Newark and Princeton. Ivan and I visited during Four Centuries Weekend to get a fascinating look at travel and community in the times during and after the formation of the country.

Enjoy a drink in the taproom - bar in the left corner!
During colonial times, Merchants and Drovers was just one of several taverns along the roadways linking towns and cities in New Jersey and the other original 13 states. These taverns were often stagecoach stops and also served as a social gathering place where local residents could grab a drink and a meal. You might even say they were the internet or cable news outlets of the day, offering both news and commentary on current events. Often the largest gathering place in the community, taverns also hosted government meetings from time to time. Food and lodging prices were regulated to protect travelers from price gouging on the road.

Merchants and Drovers itself opened in the 1790s at the crossroads of two roads that were busy even in those early days. Over time, the tavern expanded to four floors, with a tap room, parlors, an assembly room and 12 bedchambers. It continued in that function for well over a century before being given to the local Girl Scouts as a headquarters. The Rahway Historical Society acquired it in 1971 and restored it in stages.

Rooms were simple yet surprisingly big.
Today, the tavern looks much as it did in the 1820s, with an authentic bar and Colonial era furnishings, including rope-strung beds that conveniently fold upright for the daytime hours. As we walked around the three accessible floors, I was reminded of visits to tavern buildings in Colonial Williamsburg, but in its own way Merchants and Drovers feels more authentic. Maybe it's because nothing is finished to perfection, you feel as if you're walking into a heavily-used cornerstone of the community. It doesn't feel as if they've restored it to meet visitors' expectations of what a restoration should look like (i.e. back to the day the place originally opened), but as a representation of what it would have looked like had you visited in 1840. Well, except for the stairs leading to the second floor. They show the signs of a building in the process of settling, and we were tempted to go back to the car to find a golf ball or something to test our theory that they're listing a bit.

Upstairs, the long (assembly) room has been given over to an informative exhibit explaining the role of the tavern in New Jersey's Colonial and post-Colonial society. A display on the entertainment available at taverns includes a reproduction of an Egyptian mummy that was shown at Merchants and Drovers by a traveling showman, and there's a simple yet fun board game that underscores some of the challenges a traveler might have faced in getting to the inn. And like today, inns were battling the war with bedbugs, as illustrated by a display showing infested bed linens and bugs encased in lucite. Fun for the whole family!

As a bonus to the tavern, the adjacent Rahway Cemetery was also open to visitors for Four Centuries. We intended to make our visit quick but ended up spending about a half hour wandering through to find gravestones from colonial times through to the present. Most notably, Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence, is buried there with his wife Sarah. He's memorialized with both a gravestone and a large obelisk dedicated in 1848.

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