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Unionville Tavern

This historic tavern was far more than a resting place for weary travelers. It held the title as the first tavern in Ohio. Additionally, it was the heart of antebellum and Civil War era merriment and suspicion. Originally built as two separate log cabins in 1798 long before Ohio was admitted as a state, it served as an inn first known as the Webster House, then New England House, before becoming known simply as the "Old Tavern." It is now named after the community wherein it resides, Unionville, though many locals know it as the "Old Tavern."

Strategically located along the County Line Road and the Cleveland-Buffalo Road, today's Route 84, Unionville Tavern benefited from frequent traffic. By 1818, as the Cleveland-Buffalo Road became a major thoroughfare and the tavern was designated as a stagecoach and mailstop on the Warren-Cleveland mail route, the log cabins were expanded into the two-story saltbox style inn. A covered carriage entrance and ballroom were added as well. The tavern enjoyed a steady stream of patrons that included travelers, revelers, and runaway slaves. Many travelers would stop here to rest as they made their way down the Cleveland-Buffalo Road or County Line Road in their covered wagons.

By the mid-nineteenth century Unionville Tavern was an active Underground Railroad Station. While lavish dances dominated the scene in the second floor parlor, the first floor was a hideout for fugitive slaves on their way to freedom. After leaving the safe house at the tavern, the slaves would be taken to the Ellensburgh docks to cross Lake Erie into Canada. It was rumored that a series of tunnels used by escaped slaves led from the tavern's basement under the Cleveland-Buffalo Road to the local Unionville cemetery. In August of 1843, the tavern witnessed a spectacle, infamously known as the "County Line Road Incident." When Lewis and Milton Clarke, two fugitive slave brothers, spoke at an antislavery rally, Milton was captured and beaten. Local abolitionists and anti-slavery proponents fought successfully to free him. They then vowed that no runaway slave would ever be captured and returned to captivity in Lake County. Years later, when Harriet Beecher Stowe lodged at the Unionville Tavern on her way to Buffalo, she heard the Clarke brothers' story of the "County Line Road Incident." Many believe that the character George Harris in her famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was based on Milton Clarke.

Unionville Tavern remained a functioning inn until the early-twentieth century. After a decade-long close, the tavern was restored and reopened in 1926. Sixty years later a pub was added, and the tavern functioned primarily as a restaurant and bar. Another landmark occurred in 1973 when the tavern was included in the National Register of Historical Places. Yet by 2003, the tavern was auctioned for $280,000, and in 2006 Unionville Tavern closed to the public. In 2011 after years of disrepair, the Madison Historical Society began a "Save the Tavern Campaign" to protect and preserve the historic building. The campaign evolved into the Unionville Tavern Preservation Society, which now cares for the former inn and keeps its reputation alive. The tavern is no longer open to the public, but those interested can still see the building and its historical markers.

Images

The Old Tavern Sign The Old Tavern Sign still hangs today above what was the entrence. Many people passed underneath the sign including Harriet Beacher Stowe, who stayed at the tavern in the 1840s. Source: Ohio Historical Society
Harriet Beecher Stowe Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Unionville Tavern in the 1840s. While there she heard the story of a captured runaway slave, Milton Clarke. Many think he was the inspiration for the character George Harris in Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Image Courtesy of The Ohio Memory Project.
Unionville Tavern Drawing In 1936, the Historic American Building Survey created this drawing. It was part of a series of four drawings and three photographs of the tavern. The drawing emphasizes the simplicity of the column design and provides a side view of the house. Image Courtesy of The Library of Congress.
The Unionville Tavern (1968) As people turned to more modern forms of transportation, the Unionville Tavern was forced to keep pace. As cars supplanted wagons, the tavern converted a covered wagon entrence into a garage, which was especially important in the 1950s and 1960s as more and more people began driving. Image Courtesy of The Cleveland Memory Project.
The Unionville Tavern (2012) Over the 200-year history of the tavern, many additions and renovations have been built and rebuilt. For example, an awning was placed where the covered wagon entrance once stood. Also, as part of a modernization project, window AC units were removed to make way for a central heating and cooling system in the late twentieth century. Image Courtesy of the Unionville Tavern Preservation Society.
The Unionville Tavern in Disrepair The tavern shut its doors for good in 2006, thus leaving the building to the elements. Five years later, in 2011, the Madison Historical Society began a "Save the Tavern Campaign." Strides have been taken to preserve the building, but unfortunately many aspects of the tavern need attention. Image Courtesy of the Unionville Tavern Preservation Society.
The Unionville Tavern Historical Marker Outside of the tavern a historical marker was erected in 1973 when it was added to the National Register of Historical Places. It reads: "Historic Tavern: Unionville Tavern, once a covered wagon stop and a station on the underground railway for runaway slaves, is still doing business on the same spot, at the intersection of Rt. 84 and County Line Rd. The building has stood since 1805 and bears a heritage plaque from the Lake County Historical Society." While the tavern may not be doing business anymore, it remains a cultural landmark for the people of Unionville. Image Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.

Location

Metadata

Adena Muskin, “Unionville Tavern,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 29, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/570.