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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

When Did the Yarnall Tavern Open?

I hope I'm not boring anyone with this, now the third post related to the Conestoga Wagon Inn, also known as the Yarnall Tavern. It was truly a minor establishment with a short lifespan, important more for what came after it (the Brandywine Springs Hotel and then the amusement park) than for its own sake. But one of my first gateways into local history was Brandywine Springs Amusement Park, so things related to it have a special place for me. This whole investigation was originally just supposed to be a quick mention of the mysterious second tavern, covered in the last post, which I only became aware of (and its connection to the Conestoga Wagon) recently. Then Walt Chiquoine had to go and do some great work piecing together the early history of the Yarnall family in MCH and of property ownership in the area, so I had no choice but to do a separate post covering that and the founding of the first tavern. (Just go with me on the "no choice" thing, OK.)

Then, while putting the pieces together for that, a few things seemed like they just didn't fit. After consulting with Walt again, I decided that the conventional wisdom about the Conestoga Wagon was almost certainly not correct. I don't mean to harp on this again, but if you'll recall there was very little if anything ever written about Holton Yarnall's tavern that didn't have to do with its final years, the sale of the property in 1827, and the coming of the big, new hotel. Just about the only thing ever said about Yarnall's establishment was that it was a "Colonial Era tavern". As we saw, just going by Holton Yarnall's birth year (1774) should tell you that he didn't run a tavern in the Colonial Era. But there were other things, too....

I probably should preface this (and hedge my bet) by saying that this whole thesis could be upended by one solid account of the Conestoga Wagon being in operation prior to about 1810. However, I've not yet seen any such thing. Lots of circumstantial evidence and extrapolating the inn back in time, but no direct evidence that it was open then. To the contrary, we have several points that all seem to indicate that Yarnall's tavern didn't open until at least about 1810.

One clue comes from the sale ad seen below, published in the Delaware Gazette in late 1814. In the ad, Holton Yarnall describes the property and at the bottom it states, "The house is now occupied as a public inn." But the more pertinent part for us now is further up, where he writes, "There is on the premises a new stone house [emphasis mine], 33 feet square, 2 stories high, and well finished...". It's obvious that this new stone house he's refering to is the tavern. I know that "new" is a relative term (especially in advertisements), but I don't think Yarnall would say that if the house was 30, 50, or more years old. This seems to indicate that the house (and therefore the inn) had not been around for too long before 1814.

And as it turns out, there's a good reason why there was probably not an inn at this location too much before 1814 -- there wasn't really a road there! As noted in the post about the Newport and Gap Turnpike, the turnpike company was incorporated in Delaware in 1808. Construction started soon thereafter, but wasn't completed until ten years later. Parts were done earlier, and the section near Yarnall's property was probably completed sometime between 1810 and 1813. Common sense would say that Yarnall wouldn't open an inn until there was a need for one, meaning travellers, meaning a road.

Now, the turnpike didn't come out of nowhere. There would have been a reason why it was placed where it was, and there certainly could have been a small country lane running approximately where the turnpike is now. However, there is good evidence that prior to the construction of the Gap and Newport Turnpike, the main north-south road in the area was situated just west of there. Much more about this idea can be found in the next post (yes, one more, but this one is Walt's fault work). But even if there was a small lane there before c.1810, I don't think there would have been enough traffic to justify an inn being there.

This is not to say that house couldn't have been a little older. Holton Yarnall did take a 600 pound loan in 1802 for some reason. It's not out of the question that he may have taken the money to build a new home, maybe with the idea that a turnpike would be built, maybe not. Again, the "new" in the ad could easily be stretched to cover a 10 or 12 year old house. Perhaps the lengthy delays in the construction of the road lead to some of his financial problems and to his desire to sell his land and new house.

The final piece of evidence I'd lay out for the idea that the Conestoga Wagon had a c.1812 opening is more a lack of evidence to the contrary. I'm aware of the concept that "an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", but here it's just one more point. Later historians knew that Yarnall was running a tavern by the mid-1810's and that his family owned the property for several decades before that. I think those points just eventually ran together into the idea that he had been running the tavern for a lot longer than I think he did. I'm perfectly willing to change my thinking if I see concrete evidence that a Yarnall was operating an inn prior to 1810, but as of yet I've not. For now, I'm putting the opening of the Conestoga Wagon Inn, aka the Yarnall Tavern, at approximately 1812.


  1. Aren't there Yarnalls still living in the Wilmington area? I went to high school (PS DuPont) with Peggy Yarnall whose family lived in Westover Hills at the time. Perhaps they were connected to Holton Yarnall and might be able to shed some light?

    Ken Shelin

  2. There is a Yarnall family in pike creek, the mother is an art teacher at Newark High school