Lodging and Accommodation

This article concludes the series that remembers travel and transportation in the years following the founding of the state of Indiana. There were many inns and lodging places along the National Road in its early days. These varied in who they catered to and the quality of their accommodations. Of those finer hotels was the Vinton House in Cambridge City and the Mansion House built in 1840 in Centerville. Those who stayed at the Mansion House were not families in covered wagons headed for a new life west, but were more likely to be salesman and businessmen traveling by stagecoach. Typically they might have stayed one to three days, perhaps more if court was in session. Meals were served in the large room that is believed to be the dining room. The Mansion House was a hotel for twelve years then was under the management of the railroad in 1852. During this time it was likely used for accommodating officials of the railroad. Later the Mansion House was made into apartments. Walls were knocked down and doors cut between rooms to make small, studio apartments. Restoration of the Mansion House is ongoing.

The accommodations in places like the Mansion House and The Vinton House, while considered to be catering to the classier traveler of the time, would not likely appeal to the twenty first century traveler. Once a traveler emerged, travel-weary and dusty from his stagecoach, he could look forward to a night on a rope bed and there was a good chance he would share it with a complete stranger, or perhaps two, as he bought a place in a bed, not a room.  Not every room was supplied with a means of heat and those that were, had inefficient fireplaces. You might be able to make use of a bed warmer, an article like a long handled pan, filled with coals and run between the sheets to warm them.  If nature called at night, there was a chamber pot, placed ever so thoughtfully under your bed.  There might be a single basin and towel, accompanied by a dish of soft, slimy, yellowish lye soap. The towel was usually sewn together in a circle on the rack perhaps to prevent theft.  In this way it could be flipped to a dryer, though not always cleaner spot. You would not encounter the means to take a full bath, as it was almost unheard of in inns. Your meals would be taken in the public dinging area with other travelers.  Much pork and beef, was served, sourced from local farmers.  In Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) the author, Frances Trolloppe wrote of hotel food of the time as “abundant, but not delicate”.  The humble sturdy potato and turnip were likely to be the main fare for vegetables as they overwintered well in root cellars. Rice and hominy were commonly considered “vegetables” on bills of fare. Cider and coffee were staples for beverages. In the Mansion House, there were separate sitting rooms for ladies and gentlemen as it was not considered proper for ladies to sit in the company of the men who would be smoking, drinking and perhaps using indelicate language.

The Vinton House, a thirty-four room, brick Federal building was established as a hotel in 1847 in Cambridge City by Elbridge Vinton. It boasted a ball room and fine dining as well as a pub in the basement. The canal lapped right at the doors of the Vinton house, carrying passengers and freight via the canal from far-off Cincinnati. During the Civil War it served as a recruiting post. At various points in its history it was also a stagecoach stop, a post office and a telegraph office. Currently it serves as an antique shop. The very top floor houses a fine exhibit showcasing Cambridge City’s early canal days.  

The Vinton House has seen an enormous amount of change in our country. There was allegedly a hotel register, since lost, that listed travelers arriving chronologically by stagecoach, canal boat, steam engine and automobile. Elbridge Gerry Vinton, as a young man planned to migrate to Iowa from Boston, Massachusetts, but when he arrived in Cambridge City, he found that the Whitewater Canal had made it a boom town and so he decided to stay. He began his career in the hotel business as a porter at the White Hall tavern, owned by Sol Meredith who later came to fame as a Civil War General. Later Vinton bought the United States Hotel and renamed it the Vinton House.

In nearby Auburn, Indiana, lodging was somewhat different for those families of poorer means who were traveling west via Conestoga wagon on the National Road. Just west of Cambridge City still stands the Huddleston house, built in the early eighteen forties, a great three-story brick building where hundreds of emigrant wagons stopped on their way to the west. The wagon yard is still there and the huge brick oven where travelers were at liberty to do their baking. One morning, so the story goes, Mr. Huddleston found that a party of emigrants had departed at daybreak, forgetting their bread that had been put in the oven the night before. Hastily saddling a horse, he followed them with the bread only to discover that their hurried departure had been caused by the fact that they had taken his best set of harness.

From Lee Burn’s The National Road in Indiana: “In Richmond, Indiana, were the Starr tavern, Gilbert’s tavern, Bayles’ Sign of the Green Tree and Sloane’s brick stage house, all of which shared in the business of the road. There was also at the comer of Main and Franklin ‘the Friends’ Boarding House’, known afterwards as Nixon’s, and later on as the Huntington House.”

Paton Yoder recounted in his Taverns and Travelers of the Early Midwest: “Richard W. Wyatt of Virginia in 1830 spoke of a settlement near Brownsville, Indiana: ‘…the people act as if they were all one family and they go into each other’s cabin without ceremony.’  There was little emphasis placed on privacy, something the European traveler found unsettling.”

Sometimes those in private homes along the way kept weary travelers overnight. A stagecoach in which John Parsons was riding, broke down near Logansport, Indiana in 1840. When the teenage girl who answered the door was addressed; “May we stay here the night, my girl?” she had a ready reply: “I ain’t your girl that I knows of, but we sometimes keep strangers and I reckon you can stay here if you like.”

Even in the best establishments bedbugs were more than just a mere nuisance. Travelers spoke of them on numerous occasions.  With such comments as “bedbugs without number”, or “one might as well sleep in a hornet’s nest”.  In one inn, bedbugs caused such inflammation and swelling on the face of one young mother, a doctor was needed. Regular cleaning with a dose of quicksilver as an insecticide was the antidote to the bedbug infestations. In Lydia Child’s The American Frugal Housewife (1833), was this remedy: “An ounce of quicksilver, beat up with the white of two eggs, and put on with a feather, is the cleanest and surest bed-bug poison.” Mercury, perhaps comparable in toxicity to the later use of DDT, was then the only defense against the pests for the unwary occupants of these lodging places.

If it was not bedbugs and fleas, other vermin were as surely as off-putting. Rats and mice sought refuge in dwellings and mosquitoes from nearby water sources plagued travelers. At some establishments, travelers may have had to put up with free ranging hogs and geese as well.

A tavern keeper was required by law in the old Northwest Territories to retain a license, the applicant of which was required be of good moral character, attested to by as many as twenty-four neighbors.  If this application was approved, the tavern keeper had to pay a license fee which could range anywhere from two to fifty dollars.   Indiana 1821 law required the inn to have at least two beds besides those used by the family and a stable with stalls enough to accommodate at least four horses.

Northwest Territory law regulated the amount of alcohol that could be sold and not be considered wholesale, as in the case of Centerville, where in 1843, the leaders of the temperance movement moved forward a ban on alcohol sales altogether unless in gallon jugs or larger. The Mansion House sold liquor up to this time. The Vinton House in Cambridge City, not under the same jurisdiction, continued to operate a bar at its basement level.

A room in the Mansion House now known as the textile room was reputedly used for gambling, though an Indiana law in 1818 forbid the playing “in an ordinary tavern or race field, or in any booth, arbor or out house connect with any tavern…, or at any other public place, at any game or games whatsoever, except games at athletic exercise.” The as now, of course, such stringent rules were made to be broken and the temperance laws certainly did not prevent travelers from other localities from bringing in their own booze.

Altogether, the establishments for lodging in Wayne County went a long way towards establishing the locale as they contributed to westward expansion, as in the case of the Huddleston House and to the local economy as in the case of enterprises like the Mansion House and the Vinton House.  Their preservation as part of the historical landscape benefits our understanding of travel and transportation in the early years of the state of Indiana.

— Gretchen Brown


National Road by Lee Burns

Taverns and Travelers: Inns of the early Midwest

Bacon, Beans, and Galantines, Joseph R. Conlin

Stagecoach and Tavern Tales of the Old Northwest by Harry Ellsworth Cole

Thanks also to Carolyn Lafever for her personalized tour of the Mansion House and contribution to the information leading to this article and to James Bond to whom the pictures are accredited.

Travel and Transportation in Early Wayne County – Part 4

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