The Historian by Robert Wood: Old Inns and Taverns of Swamp, New Hanover, Part 2

Swamp Hotel

When William Penn stepped ashore in Philadelphia in 1682 the first thing he saw was a tavern, The Blue Anchor.

In New Hanover as in most other villages and towns, taverns and inns were a necessity of village life. First, inns were friendly meeting places where men, isolated on the farm, could meet, exchange gossip, learn the news and, as we say today, “bond.” Tavern buildings were also meeting houses for political parties, polling places, overnight rest and shelter for farmers and tradesmen taking their goods to the city and also for drovers taking herds to city markets. Local government and court were often held there. Indeed, in New Hanover, the Swamp Hotel was the seat of township government until 1960. The Swamp Hotel is now called “Our Place.”

Most importantly too, taverns were rest stops and overnight lodging for the teamsters who drove Conestoga wagons—the freight trucks of their day. It is estimated that by 1800 it required 7,000 to 8,000 large wagons to serve Philadelphia. Most taverns also provided feed and shelter for horses.

Taverns were licensed in Pennsylvania from the start. There was a staggering amount whiskey distilled here and also very cheap imported rum readily available. As early as 1710 legislation was deemed necessary. An act was passed “that no public house or inn be kept without a license.” The object was stated to be “preventing of disorders and mischief that may happen by a multiplicity of public houses of entertainment.” However, the license money “formed no inconsiderable revenue to the pockets of several colonial governors” (Bean’s History).

These tavern licenses are on record and allow us to see the inn owners’ names but unfortunately not where the inns were located. The were no address other than “New Hanover.” At any one time there were usually three or four taverns operating in this township. The earliest one, licensed in 1742 but operating before that, was at the intersection of New Hanover Square Road and Rt. 73. Few passers-by today would imagine that the untenanted white apartment building that sits very close to the corner is actually an historic building.

The following curious undocumented newspaper clipping from around 1910 can be found in the County Historical Society archives:

“The hotel kept for many years by Mr. Francis Weand at Swamp, New Hanover Township is one of the oldest in the county. It is believed to have been built about 140 years ago and its quaint style of construction sustains that belief. A century ago it was known as ‘Falconi Swamp Hotel’ and its swinging sign was the picture of the rising sun. About seventy years ago it was kept by a man known as ‘Ole Wessel.’

The landlords who succeeded him were:

John Snyder

Charles Snyder

Philip Bitting

Samuel Hartranft

Samuel Thomas

George Ziegler

Peter Fritz

Matthias Wartman

Josiah Huber

William Thomas

Francis Weand

Mr. Weand kept it from 1848 to 1877 when he died and the property was sold to one of his sons.”

These names do appear on New Hanover inn keeper licenses, but mostly, it seems, for the old Schneider’s Tavern in the Brendlinger Building that was described last week.

The clipping couldn’t be describing what became known as the Swamp Hotel, currently called “Our Place.” The Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission has pegged that building’s style of construction at about 1870, and our documents support that date. An 1848 map of the township shows no buildings on that site. The first mention of a tavern there is a deed of 1867.

Also, in the year 1800 a tavern sign might announce an inn or tavern or even public house, but never “hotel.” “Hotel” is a Victorian era term.

The clipping mentions Francis Weand who did keep a tavern from 1848 to 1877 but he bought it from Moses Kehl who kept it for many years. The 1848 map shows “Weand’s Tavern” located directly across from Schneider’s Tannery just below the Minister Creek bridge on the Swamp Pike. It was demolished sometime about the turn of the century and a double dwelling erected on the old foundation, but it was a small tavern, the type often called a public house.

Storekeeper Frederick Brendlinger bought the colonial era Schneider’s Tavern Building (described last week) in 1867. He converted the bar room into a store that operated until about 1940. The tavern license was transferred to the “Swamp Hotel” then under construction a few hundred yards away. The era of the country inn was ending and Schneider’s Tavern was probably not worth keeping open.

By then the trains running from Reading to Philadelphia through Pottstown would have taken over most of the freight and passenger business. There would have been few wagons and no drovers that needed shelter for the night with the freight now going by train. The first train departed Reading for Philadelphia on December 5, 1839 carrying 1,635 barrels of flour, 73 tons of iron, 6 tons of coal, 2 hogsheads of whiskey, and 60 passengers. Good-bye Conestoga wagons. The track extended to Pottsville in 1842 which occasioned a celebration using 75 passenger cars, three bands and 2000 passengers. The spur to Boyertown soon followed. With few travelers or teamsters needing shelter for the night there was little need for the old colonial inns.

Although still renting rooms to travelers, the 1867 Swamp Hotel was build more as a resort where the “better class” of people could flee the air pollution and summer heat of the towns and cities for a country holiday or extended stay. It was very convenient. At the turn of the century the electric trolley would stop at the hotel connecting travelers to the rail system in Pottstown, Boyertown, Reading and all points beyond. The trolley provided fast, affordable, light rail service for New Hanover residents.

Between 1867 and 1937 there were twenty-two deed holders of the Swamp Hotel. There were times in the early twentieth century when it had a somewhat checkered reputation and a seemingly new owner every year.

But like its neighbor, Fagleysville Hotel to the south, the Swamp Hotel still exists. Village taverns have existed in New Hanover for at least 270 years.

An act of 1794 states that the “great abundance of taverns and public houses for the vending of spirituous liquors has been found to promote habits of idleness and debauchery; to the end that the number thereof be determined by the means of real utility and necessity.” It didn’t work. In 1794 there were about seventy taverns in Montgomery County, in 1883 two hundred and nine. The one hundred dollar annual license fee might have been an incentive to allow their increase.