In historic Chestertown, just across the Chester River, on a tree-lined street where both visitors and residents can be seen enjoying a leisurely stroll, sits an unassuming building in the center of town. Step through the door, and you find yourself in a time warp. This is the White Swan Tavern.
Although not always knows by this name, White Swan is a familiar landmark since pre-Revolutionary days. Currently owned by the Havemeyer family, the inn was conscientiously restored and now operates as a bed-and-breakfast country inn. It is also used for small conferences, weddings, and receptions, as well as afternoon teas and other special events.
On arrival, we were met by Sarah Crump, manager and head innkeeper. “I do the taxes,” she said, “and sometimes I also do the beds.” What she doesn’t take credit for is that she’s also part history teacher, part tour guide, and full enthusiast of this walk into another time and another era. As we would learn, the six available bedrooms, and some of the rooms in the house, are named after the various personalities who owned or contributed to its ‘soul.’ She would tell us their stories.
Parts of the Tavern date back to 1725, we were told, when it was then a one-room dwelling used as the home and workshop of John Lovegrove, known as the Shoemaker of Chestertown. As the town grew, the smell of Lovegrove’s tanning pits, forced the townspeople to kick him out (these tanning pits would prove to be of much importance in the future). This portion of the house was, at one time, moved off of its foundation and used as an unattached summer kitchen. Today, returned to its original location, it is one of the inn’s bedrooms and known as The John Lovegrove Kitchen. It has the most distinct 18th century feel with a large walk-in fireplace, brick floor, and open beam ceiling.
In 1733, Joseph Nicholson bought the property and added to the home. This addition is the front portion of the present structure. The Nicholsons, who were a respected Royal Naval family, had three sons, two of whom had impressive military careers. “And then there was James Nicholson,” says Crump. “James Nicholson is the infamous captain who ran the Virginia aground and abandoned it. He worked for the British and lost a ship to the Americans. He worked for the Americans and lost a ship to the British. He then sassed himself into a duel with Alexander Hamilton, that he backed out of. So that was James, born here. Not our proudest tie to history, but you know, we’ve got one.” The elder Nicholson left two items in his will, which can be seen in this section of the house: an escritoire and a grandfather clock (circa the 1750s).
John Bordley bought the property in 1793 and expanded the back half of it, converting the home to a tavern. For this distinction, one of the bedrooms carries his name. Bordley sold the inn to Isaac Cannell in 1801.
Cannell is considered the tavern’s first innkeeper and has the breakfast and tea room named after him. Afternoon tea served from 3 to 5 pm daily, is one of White Swan’s amenities and available to anyone who rings the front bell, whether or not they are guests. The room’s most noteworthy feature is an antique heavy wooden chair set in the corner of the room. The chair is wide both in the seating and sides and tall in the back. “It was something that would go in front of the fire for heat,” says Crump. This was also, very likely, a chair for ‘fine ladies’ because a ‘fine lady’ should not see what goes on in a tavern environment. So, they put blinders on the chair, set it right in front of the fire and women were told to look straight ahead. We have put it in the corner, and the ‘fine lady’ can see whatever she likes from here!”
After Cannell, various other owners and innkeepers ran the tavern and lent their names to the current bedrooms: Thomas Peacock Room, Wilmer Room, Sterling Suite, and T.W. Eliason Victorian Suite.
Of these, the most interesting is Thomas Wilson Eliason, who bought the inn, changed it into a grocery store and in 1860 gutted parts of the building. Says Crump: “[The family] were merchants in everything except hospitality. They cut a hole in the side of the wall, and the only way to get to the second floor was a new stairway they had to build to get to it. This now exists as a lead-in from our Bordley room into the bathroom.”
Unlike the rest of the inn which is in the Colonial style, the Ellison Suite is Victorian. It’s on the second floor and wraps around from the back to the front of the inn. The furniture in this room is distinct for its size. Or rather its height. It is low to the ground and, as explained by Crump, is called Victorian nursing furniture. “Women were so tightly corseted, they couldn’t actually bend down to play with their kids. So, they would sit down on the low chairs and could play with toddlers of all ages. Instead of taking the corsets off, they chopped all the furniture down.”
One more thing and worthy of mention here since it’s been written about in books and articles: Ghosts. The White Swan has its share of them. “Especially in the Lovegrove room,” says Crump. We actually had the Delaware paranormal research group come in and do an investigation, and they got voices in the Lovegrove and in our Eliason room, and some sounds out of the Wilmer as well.”
Until 1977, the building existed as shops and offices and included the P&E News Agency. The restoration of the building by the Havemeyer family began in 1978 as an archeological dig.
This became one of the most historically significant contributions to the area, as over 70,000 artifacts were recovered, many of them thrown away as trash in John Lovegrove’s leftover tanning pits.
Although most of these found objects are on display at the University of Delaware, a selected few are in the inn’s tavern room, now dedicated as a museum. Behind a glass wall are pieces of stemware, North Devon sgraffito glazed bowls, various pipes, and even chamber pots. Most significant is a ‘charger’ with a bird on it and a 1730 date. From this piece, the White Swan earned its current name.
We asked Crump about her favorite item in the house, thinking she would point to a specific relic or an antique furniture piece. Instead, she took us to the bottom of one of the stairwells and pointed upward to where an oversized American flag hung on the wall. She explained, “This flag is not colonial at all, but it belonged to Louisine Havemeyer. And Louisine was many things. She was a patron of many great artists. She was a good friend of Mary Cassatt and Mary guided her purchases. And in that way, she ended up patronizing Edgar Degas and Monet and Manet, and lots of French impressionists. But she was also a suffragette and one of the founding members of the National Women’s Party fighting to get women the right to vote.
That was the flag they used for marching and displays. She was actually jailed for five days in 1919 for burning an effigy of Woodrow Wilson. Yeah, she’s a little firecracker. She’s written a few memoirs of that time. She was a very admirable woman, and it is her great-grandson who now owns the Swan, which is how we were lucky enough to get that.”That fact was just one of the many morsels of the past we got. There are so many more stories to tell, so many more opportunities to understand life as it was lived so many years ago. Sarah Crump hopes you want to hear them. Stop by, she tells us. We’ll take you on a tour. Come and have tea with us. Come and stay at the inn.
Before we left, ready to walk through the door that would lead us back to our cars and the politics of the day, we realized what White Swan lacked in each of their bedrooms. There was no TV. We looked to Sarah Crump for the answer. “We’ll give you a mini-fridge,” she told us. “You can snack, but we won’t let you stress.” Not a bad compromise.
For more information about The White Swan Tavern go here.