Historic tavern to get a new lease on life

Van Horn's Tavern was a rest stop for countless travelers for nearly 80 years in the 19th century.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010 | 8:22 p.m. CST; updated 10:57 a.m. CST, Friday, December 3, 2010
Some of the interior plaster and lath remains covering the thick oak-log walls of Van Horn's Tavern, which stands near its original site, south of Interstate 70 near the Midway exit.

COLUMBIA — In 1832, the great writer Washington Irving decided he wanted to leave his New York home and travel to the mostly uncharted Western frontier.  To get there, he had to travel by stagecoach. 

There were no trains. And there were very few roads.


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One of the only routes to the frontier was the Boone’s Lick Road, which passed through Columbia as Broadway Street. On Sept. 19 of that year, Irving arrived in Columbia and spent the night at Gentry’s Tavern on the southwest corner of Eighth Street and Broadway. The next day, he continued his westward journey down the Boone’s Lick Road, according to a Sept. 29, 1832, article in the Missouri Intelligencer.

Just west of Perche Creek, some researchers believe he stopped at another inn called Van Horn’s Tavern. It is the last of the log taverns built along the road that still exists today.

Patrick Dougherty, 77, owns the land the tavern sits on. He says he would like to believe Irving stopped there.

“I must have read 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' 10 times when I was in grade school," Dougherty said. "It would be really neat to know he stayed on my property.”

The story of Van Horn’s Tavern is almost as old as Boone County and Columbia themselves, but that story is in danger of ending.

Time and the elements are threatening the old log structure, and those interested in preserving it say time is of the essence if it is to be saved.

David Sapp, the project manager trying to save this piece of Boone County history, said it will require about $250,000 to move the tavern to Boone Junction, a "history village" exhibit in Nifong Park. But in lean economic times, donations are hard to come by.

The tavern existed because of Boone’s Lick Road. For almost 100 years, this historic highway served as the one and only path from points east to the great American frontier. It was the Interstate 70 of its day, and if you wanted to travel west overland, you took this road or you blazed your own trail.

And a highway it was, though today we would think it no more than a quaint country lane.

The first Boone’s Lick Road — which originally was known as the Boone's Lick Trail — was laid out by Daniel Boone’s two sons, who used it to convey salt from a saline spring, or “lick,” near present day Arrow Rock to St. Charles. The fact that the road passed six miles north of Columbia didn’t sit well with town leaders. They saw revenue from the sales of supplies passing them by.

So, in the 1820s the road was re-routed through Columbia. The young city prospered in part from the money westward travelers spent on supplies such as wagons, pickaxes, non-perishable foods and other necessities for a journey into what was then a largely unknown Wild West. 

The road was used by fur traders, gold diggers, hunters and others who saw their fortunes in the West. Wagon trains laden with furs would pass eastward through Columbia, and were sometimes so long that the front of the wagon train had passed out of town to the east before the tail entered from the west, according to "A Boone County Journal, 1820-1972." 

Van Horn’s was one of many taverns along the Boone’s Lick Road. They were spaced all along the road about a day’s traveling distance apart, and they were the Holiday Inns of their time, though the modern traveler would be appalled at the accommodations. 

Van Horn’s was typical of the tavern style of the day. Four large rooms, two up and two down and measuring 21 feet by 19 feet, were separated by a 10-foot-wide breezeway, or “dog-walk.” One of the downstairs rooms would serve as a bar and restaurant, the other would house the owner and his family. The two upstairs rooms were for travelers: one for women, one for men. 

Unlike hotels of today, a visitor got a bed, not a room. One might have to share a room with any number of guests whom the visitor had never met. Even in those days, this was uncomfortable for many people.

Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, who refused to spend the night in Columbia due to its leaders’ Whig politics, would have his coachman take him to Van Horn’s instead, where he insisted on private accommodations.

“Benton sleeps with no man,” he once famously said to his friend Ishmael Van Horn.   

Dougherty said that unlike those who frequented city taverns, guests at Van Horn's would come in for a meal and a drink, then sometimes sleep in their wagons. 

The meals, according to John Crighton’s "A History of Columbia and Boone County,"  averaged about 25 cents and consisted of locally available game such as venison, goose and turkey. Vegetables and fruits were not big menu items, but typically consisted of cabbage, potatoes and apples.

It takes a lot of work

Dougherty had worked tirelessly toward the preservation of the old inn, but he said he was no longer able to do the physical work required to keep it from deteriorating further. So he donated it to the Boone County Historical Society.

“It’s in good hands, but I still worry about it,” he said.

Dougherty’s passion for the tavern is impossible for him to hide — not that he tries. The amazing amount of work he has done to preserve it speaks volumes to his commitment. 

He said that when he first bought the property, the tavern building was full of manure, old corn cobs, disintegrated plaster and other farm detritus. He hauled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of the muck out of the tavern and its storm cellar. Many times, he would climb onto the roof and do repairs to keep the rain, snow and wind at bay.

Aside from time and weather, animals have been a continual source of frustration. “The raccoons get in here and just tear the thing apart,” he said, obviously irritated. “The place was just full of plaster all over the floors from the raccoons.”

Dougherty bought the property on Van Horn Tavern Road, just southeast of the Midway exit on Interstate 70, in 1973.  Since then, he and his wife, Rita, have spent countless hours maintaining the historical site.

The fact that it remains intact is an accident of history. Around 1914, the owner of the tavern decided to move it about 100 yards from its original location and incorporate it into a new barn.

Sapp and Dougherty said the structure was literally sawed in half and rolled on logs to its present location about 100 yards away from its original position, and a roof was added to the barn, preserving Van Horn’s Tavern for posterity. 

The importance of the tavern

Stagecoach travel was expensive and dangerous. It was, however, among the fastest ways to travel overland. 

According to 1875's "Illustrated Atlas of Boone County," the first stage line was established along the Boone’s Lick Road between St. Louis and Franklin in 1820. The trip from St. Louis to Columbia cost $8.50 and took three days. That was very expensive considering a worker might earn a dollar a week. And what’s more, the trip was by all accounts miserable. 

Mark Twain called stagecoaches “cradles on wheels” because of their tendency to rock back and forth while in motion. They were either hot or cold, depending on the weather, and a passenger’s seat was a board shared with other passengers, of which Twain said each was allowed about 15 inches. 

Passengers had to get out and help push the coach out of mud or snow and up steep hills. There were no little bags of peanuts and no kosher meals. So the sight of a tavern was a welcome one, even though by today’s standards it would be almost inconceivable that anyone would want to stay in one. 

Hospitality was only one function of the tavern. It also served as a communication center. People traveling up and down the road would tell one another what to expect along the way. This could mean the difference between life and death, as highwaymen, antagonistic Native Americans and weather conditions could make travel extremely dangerous. The tavern was a small spot of civilization in an otherwise wild frontier.

History of Van Horn's

In 1913, as automobiles became the new preferred mode of long-distance transportation, the Daughters of the American Revolution saw the need to memorialize the Boone’s Lick Road and its importance to westward expansion.

The organization placed granite markers at important places along the old road, which by that time had become almost useless to automobile travelers. Horses could navigate the one-lane highway, but it was very hard on cars. A movement for better roads was afoot in Missouri, and the DAR saw that the Boone’s Lick Road would soon be history.

One of those markers stands in front of the old Van Horn’s Tavern site and lists the date of its construction as 1820. Dougherty says that is not the case. He had a team of tree ring experts from MU study the logs of the tavern, and they determined that the logs were cut in the fall of 1829 or spring of 1830. 

The owner of the property at that time was David Gentry, according to an article in the Dec. 3, 1973, issue of American Architecture Magazine. Sapp said it is likely that Gentry built the tavern in 1829 or 1830. Over the years, it was known by several names, including Gentry’s and Threlkild’s. In 1841, Ishmael Van Horn bought the property and gave the tavern its enduring name. He ran it until his death in 1865.

The end of the Civil War also marked the end of the days of the old-style tavern.  Railroad travel became the preferred mode of long-distance travel, and the city hotel became the stopover destination for travelers. The old taverns either went to rot or became private residences.

Van Horn’s became a home for the Goddin family in 1904. Dougherty spoke to Fergene Goddin Sims, one of the last residents of the home, in 1974 when she stopped to visit the old homestead. She was living in the old tavern when it was moved to make way for a new house sometime between 1909 and 1914.  She can be seen in an old photograph at the age of 9 sitting in a pony-wagon in front of the inn.

“She said there were beds everywhere,” Dougherty said. “In the breezeway, in the rooms, everywhere.”

Physician Lloyd Simpson, Sims’ uncle, bought the property in 1909 and decided to turn the tavern into a barn and cover it with a tin roof, Dougherty said, and that's why it's still standing. All of the other log taverns along the road are long gone.

Today, Dougherty answers his door with a smile and a firm handshake, and he seems tickled that someone wants more information about his piece of history. He walks past a 30-foot-deep freshwater well and the storm cellar that served the tavern and heads toward the barn that holds his treasure. 

The tavern building is the center section of the barn. To each side is an ell. One is a large open space, the other contains a below-ground stable. 

Walking into the storage side of the barn, one is immediately struck by the large log tavern building inside. The oak logs are huge; it appears that each is an entire oak tree. Between the logs, the original mortar is still somewhat intact, but it's badly cracked and in many places is missing altogether.

Standing before the tavern, one faces a wide door in the middle of the building; this is the entrance to the “dog-walk,” or breezeway, that separates the two sides of the tavern. Inside is a 10-foot-wide, gravel-floored “hallway.” On either side, doors open up on two large rooms with wooden flooring. The room on the left was likely the bar and restaurant, the one on the right the likely home of the tavern owner and his family.

At the far end of the dog-walk on the right is an old wooden staircase leading to the upstairs rooms where travelers would rest for the night. Up the stairs and to the left, and above the owner’s room, was the women's guest room. Here is where the only original door still hangs on its original hinges. Three or four vertical boards are held together with three horizontal boards. Privacy was not of the essence.

From this door, looking across the dog-walk, is the men's guest room. A simple plank was the only way across. 

“Yeah, the men had to walk the plank to get over there. That’s why this room was for the men,” Dougherty said.

A false step on this plank would result in a 15-foot fall onto the gravel below. That undoubtedly happened from time to time, given that people in those days tended to drink heavily.

Dougherty has added makeshift handrails on the stairs and the plank-walk for safety.  Apparently, no such precautions were extended to the guests of yore. 

Looking around the upstairs rooms, it is apparent that animals have made good use of the tavern. In one corner of the men's guest room is a circle of leaves, the nest of barn owls. 

“Barn owls are bad nest-builders, but they seem to like leaves,” said Dougherty, who said he likes the owls. In fact, he leaves one upstairs window open so they can access the place.  The raccoons are another story.

“Those are their droppings there,” he said, pointing out a pile of raccoon dung.  “I’ve shoveled a ton of that out of here over the years.” 

Dougherty said the raccoons have damaged the building badly, stripping it of nearly all its original inch-thick plaster.

Still, one can get a good idea what the 180-year-old tavern looked like in its glory days: full of life, with sojourners drinking whiskey, eating wild game and telling tales of their travels and adventures and dreams as they bellied up to the large fireplace for warmth.

What's next

Sapp is as passionate as Dougherty when it comes to saving Van Horn’s Tavern. A former president of the Boone County Historical Society, Sapp has overseen the dismantling and reconstruction of several historical properties, including the old Easley General Store, which now stands at Boone Junction. 

“I call it a statewide treasure,” Sapp said of Van Horn's. He admits that much of the tavern will be lost by disassembling it. “We’ll lose the plaster and the lath, but we want to lose as little as possible.”

Sapp said that even though much of the original structure will be lost to renovation, saving the tavern is worth it. 

“We’ll take pictures, but a lot of that will have to come out and be replaced. Otherwise, it wouldn’t survive.”

The cost to disassemble the tavern will be in the neighborhood of $25,000, and Sapp hopes to have it done by February or March of next year. Sapp said the society will need another $225,000 to move, store and reassemble the tavern. 

For now, Sapp said, the priority is to take the tavern apart and put it in storage.  

“It will be a number of years before we can raise the money to put it back together,” he said. When it is reconstructed, Sapp said, Van Horn’s will be the “centerpiece” of Boone Junction. 

In a few months, Van Horn’s Tavern will no longer occupy the small hill on the section of the Boone’s Lick Road that has since taken its name.

It has seen oxen-drawn wagons give way to automobiles, seen the Boone’s Lick Road turn into U.S. Highway 40 and stood by as Interstate 70 was built a stone's throw away. It was there some 70 years before the Wright brothers took flight, and it now rests under the contrails of jet airliners. The voices of those who laid their heads down under its roof are silent.

But thanks to the efforts of the Doughertys, Sapp and the Boone County Historical Society, it’s not going away. It’s just moving down the road a piece.

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Chris Delbert December 1, 2010 | 1:32 p.m.

Great article, I'd be willing to donate some labor to help with the dismantle, is there a schedule or contact info available?

(Report Comment)
Steve B December 1, 2010 | 7:51 p.m.

Wow, I am new to the Missourian and I am speechless. Fantastic story, one of great interest to me.
Now I feel like I have been missing out on what a real newspaper should be like.
Thank you all for the great work!

(Report Comment)
Laura Johnston December 1, 2010 | 9:20 p.m.

@Steve B: Welcome to the conversation here. We do ask that users post with a first and last name, though. I'll send you instructions on how to make your posts appear with your full name.

Laura Johnston, interactive news editor

(Report Comment)
Steven Whitaker, CRM December 1, 2010 | 10:12 p.m.

Good article; I enjoyed it. Good writing Dan.

(Report Comment)
Dan Claxton December 2, 2010 | 12:45 a.m.

Mr. Delbert, the Boone County Historical Society could point you in the right direction. Their number is 443-8936. -- Dan

(Report Comment)

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