Taverns were part of social fabric in old Johnstown


This article was written and generously contributed to this website by our Fulton County Historian, William G. Loveday, Jr. and kindly transcribed by volunteer William Hunt.  It was also published in THE SUNDAY LEADER-HERALD, on March 10, 2002, page 8A.

  In the early 1770s, Johnstown was a bustling, newly formed community of several hundred people, most of whom had been persuaded by Sir William Johnson to venture from their homes in Scotland and Ireland to settle the forest-encircled town named after his eldest son.

  The forest was still being cleared, but much had already been accomplished. His baronial estate had been completed, a jail and courthouse built to satisfy the needs of the newly designated seat of Tryon County, a church built to accommodate the religious needs of the majority of the settlers, and about 10 houses built to fulfill enticing promises made by Sir William to a few select immigrants who would provide key services to the community.

  The old adage that all work and no play spreads discontent was true in Johnstown, as well as elsewhere, so enterprising citizens recognized a need and soon filled this void by converting their homes into taverns and inns. The early taverns fulfilled many more needs than just a place to "wet one's whistle," however. They also provided central locations where people could congregate and exchange news, conduct business, and talk politics. Also, the growing traffic to and through Johnstown created a need for overnight and meal accommodations, so the taverns, also called inns, soon satisfied these needs, as well as recreation.

  The first establishment recognized as a tavern or inn in Johnstown was the Tice Tavern, built by Gilbert and Rebecca Tice before 1772 on the northeast corner of South William and Clinton streets, behind what is today the First Presbyterian Church. Sir William Tryon, the last Royal Governor of New York, and his wife slept and ate there when they visited Johnstown to dedicate the new courthouse in 1772. General Lafayette also stayed there during a visit in 1778.

  The Tice Tavern was not only famous for its visitors, though, but also for an event which occurred
there in 1775. It achieved a page in history when the first shot fired west of the Hudson River during the American Revolution was fired there. By 1775, local citizens were either Loyalists or Patriots. Gilbert Tice was a confirmed Loyalist (Tory), as was Tryon County Sheriff Alexander White, who used the new jail as his office. The jail, which doubled as Fort Johnstown, was located just up the hill from the Tice Tavern.

  Sheriff White had riled local Patriots by arresting John Fonda of Caughnawaga for raising
Liberty Poles and disturbing the peace by allowing his livestock to wander freely. Fonda was locked in the jail, and Sheriff White went down the hill to spend the night at the Tice Tavern. In the meantime,
Fonda's brother, Maj. Giles Fonda, along with Sampson Sammons and about 50 others with Patriot leanings, came up from the valley and freed John Fonda, then marched triumphantly down the hill to rouse the sheriff at Tice Tavern.

  After a short verbal exchange, Sheriff White became flustered and fired a shot at Sampson Sammons, but this historic shot missed it's mark and lodged harmlessly in the doorsill of the tavern. White was slightly injured by return fire, but hid in a chimney in the tavern until rescued by about 300 Tories summoned by Sir John Johnson's cannon alarm.

  During the war, Tice abandoned Johnstown and was injured and captured en route to Canada, then imprisoned in Albany. The tavern was confiscated and used as an inn by Michael Rawlins. It was eventually torn down in the early 1800s.

  Another famous old inn was the Jimmy Burke Inn, located on an acre of land on the southeast corner of William and Montgomery streets purchased by Burke for $55. Jimmy Burke was a vestryman at St. John's Church in 1788 when he bought and moved the home of Robert Picken from it's location on South William Street just south of Main Street to the newly purchased lot.

  Picken was one of Sir William Johnson's early settlers whom Johnson hired as a surveyor and whom some researchers say doubled as a tutor for Johnson's young children. His home was one of the original houses built by Johnson around 1776 for his key settlers. There are some accounts that state Picken also dispensed spirits from his home.

  After the Picken house was moved to it's new location, Burke cut a four-foot square trap door in the floor to store and cool drinks, hung out his "Jimmy Burke Inn" sign, put a smoking bench on the porch and was in business for 24 years.

  In 1812, Burke sold the inn to Isaiah Younglove for use as a home and boot-making shop, and Younglove family members lived there until the 1930s, when the Johnstown chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution obtained the property from the last Younglove resident, Susanna Younglove. The building is still there, much as it originally was, and is still the Chapter House for the Johnstown DAR.

  Lot No. 5 on South William Street, vacated by the removal of the Picken House, did not stay empty for long. In 1788, a French officer, Jean Baptiste Vaumane DeFonClaire, bought the empty lot and built his first inn there.

  This place also has a story. It was one of Nick Stoner's favorite watering holes, and one night, a group of drunken Indians created a disturbance and provoked a fight with Stoner, who was no fan of Indians to start with because his father was murdered by them in 1782 at Fonda's Bush.

  Stoner reportedly picked up one Indian and slammed him down on a table, breaking many dishes and crushing the table, then threw him into a kettle of hot lard and pork sizzling on the fire. He then overheard another of the visiting Indians boasting about the several notches on his tomahawk, indicating they recorded Patriot scalp taken in the war, including the scalp of Stoner's father, old Henry Stoner.

  Nick Stoner immediately picked up a hot poker from the fire with his bare hand and dealt a blow to the Indian's neck that resulted in the Indian's death.

  As he was leaving the tavern, Stoner, as his last act of vengeance, ripped a large earring from the ear of another Indian passed out on the floor, taking most of his ear with it. Later, Stoner was arrested and locked up in jail, but because he was the town's war hero, he was soon released by a mob of his friends who then marched him down the hill to Throops Tavern, which was located near where the Tice Tavern stood. The tavernkeeper was the father of Enos Throop of Johnstown who later became Governor of New York State.

  In 1796, DeFonClaire built an inn called Union Hall at the fork of the two major highways to the east, one going to Fonda's Bush (later named Broadalbin) and one to Tribes Hill. Union Hall is still in business and a present day landmark in downtown Johnstown.

  DeFonClaire's original tavern became known as the Potter House and was a famous and busy inn until it burned down in 1867.

  Also in 1796, Henry Phillip Yanney built the famous Black Horse Tavern where the old Caughnawaga Road to Fonda (the extension of S. William Street) bent to the west and was met by South Melcher Street.

  This building still stands at 805 S. Melcher St. and is owned by the Levin family. Two of' the old Black Horse Tavern signs are still located within the home.

  The building of the State Road from the valley through the center of Johnstown created a great flow of settlers heading west during the early 1800s, but after the opening of the Erie Canal, much of this flow dried up, and along with it, many of the taverns and inns of Johnstown.

  When Johnstown went totally dry just before World War I, the death knell was sounded for most of the then-existing hotels, inns and taverns.

  There were many more famous taverns too numerous to mention in Johnstown, but I believe it is obvious that these businesses fulfilled their purpose in the community well and certainly added a great deal of color to the history of the city.


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Copyright , 2002 William Loveday, Jr.
Copyright , 2002 William Hunt, Jeanette Shiel
All Rights Reserved.

Last updated Tuesday, 13-May-2008 13:14:20 PDT