Sept. 22 marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall. It’s a time for sweatshirts, carving pumpkins, and raking leaves. It is also the time of year that the Historic Preservation Trust of Berks County puts on a historic property tour of some of the oldest buildings still standing in Pennsylvania.
Held on Saturday, Sept. 28, this is the third year the trust has conducted the tour which typically lasts from 10 a.m. till about 4 p.m.
Visitors have the option of traveling to and examining seven different houses, all of which were built sometime in the 18th century by the founders of Berks County.
While the first four exhibits can be found in Morlatton Village in Douglassville, the rest of the tour stretches from Oley and onto Kutztown, though the sites can be visited in any order. Through the unparalleled knowledge of the tour guides and project coordinators, the Fall into Berks History tour compliments the architecture of Berks County’s earliest homes as well as highlights the importance of the lives of its founding fathers.
The first stop on the tour of Morlatton Village takes visitors to the White Horse Inn. George Douglass purchased the site in 1762 which already had a tavern in place that was built sometime during the 1720s. Douglass decided to expand and build over the existing structure, and by 1763, the White Horse Inn was established. A new tap room was added to the building in 1798 and has remained there ever since.
In a historical context, the White Horse Inn was an important meeting place for all different types of people. It served as a stopover for farmers, merchants, and travelers of all sorts to meet and trade stories. Leslie Rebmann, one of the tour guides, stated, “this was the social media of the day.” The inn was also one of the only places at the time to provide newspapers to its patrons. This was rather uncommon in the 18th century as newspapers were expensive for the common man, but George Douglass felt it was important for his guests and customers to be up to date with current events. It was a multifunctional area which could be rented out for parties and even served as a recruiting station for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
Despite the fact that the inn and the tap room served so many functions, there was one drawback.
Women weren’t allowed in the tap room, only men. At the time, it was viewed as a place specifically for men to discuss politics, religion, and other prolific topics.
The tap room is set up much like a parlor with several tables and chairs positioned throughout the room, while the bar itself is adjacent to the fire place along the wall farthest from the entrance. Food was served along with various alcoholic beverages which were as popular then as they are now. It should also be noted that the term “bar and grille” refers not to the grill used to cook food, but rather an iron gate, or grille, that would be lowered in front of the bar after the tap room had closed at night to keep out would be thieves.
The next stop on the tour was George Douglass’s mansion, just down the road from the White Horse Inn. Douglass, who was the local justice of the peace, prominent property owner, innkeeper, and shopkeeper, saw many visitors come through the doors of his house. The right wing of the mansion was constructed to be a general store, one of the first in the area. People who would come to see Douglass could either wait in the mansion’s large hall or take a look around the store.
Douglass’s mansion has gone through many renovation phases over the years, but has most recently worked on by carpenter Tom Lainhoff and his son, Chris. Tom combines his exemplary skills as a carpenter with his vast knowledge of colonial architecture to not only restore the mansion to its former glory, but also educate visitors about its history. For instance, on the topic of the wood work, Tom stated that he could tell the carpenters of the mansion were of German descent because they built closets in the bedrooms instead of building chests. Englishmen, who were typically the first to build houses in this part of the country, placed their clothes in chests while the Germans hung their clothes in closets. This was one of several indicators Tom used to distinguish between the two prominent styles of craftsmanship.
Another interesting historical fact Tom imparted on his tour of the mansion was the use of paint the original owners used. Since these early homes were primarily lit with sunlight during the day, people would paint the interior of the house brighter colors to reflect that light and make the rooms more visible. In order to show this, Tom has worked to restore the colors on the inside of the house to what they were in George Douglass’s day.
Once outside the mansion, visitors of Morlatton Village can travel down a gravel road, known in colonial times as the King’s Highway, to two more sites, the Mouns Jones House and the Michael Fulp House. It should be noted that the Mouns Jones House is the oldest recorded residence in Berks County. Home to Swedish farmer Mouns Jones and his family, the house has stood on the same plot since 1716. Jones was known as the first European settler to reside in Berks County and while his house may have suffered from the elements, it still stands as a testament to him and all the other settlers who decided to call this county home.
The Historic Preservation Trust of Berks County will put this tour together again next fall after renovations have been completed on some of the sites. It is an excellent way for all visitors, young and old, to learn about the history of Berks County and how its earliest residents lived.