Much like the rest areas of today’s modern automobile travel, or the busy interchange laden with fast food options, the roadside tavern beckoned to the weary 18th and 19th travelers. Don’t be misled! It was much more than your friendly neighborhood bar. Taverns provided lodging, food, and a gathering spot for the local community – many taverns also operated a post office, or functioned as polling place. Many Kentucky taverns were substantial investments, so the building was often well-built. While early taverns, like other buildings, may have been of log, many were also of brick or stone construction.
As I wandered along US 68 the other day, I abruptly pulled to the side of the road to get a closer look at the James Ellis Stone Tavern in Nicholas County. Also known as the “Old Stone Tavern,” the two-story, five bay wide building was originally constructed of dry-laid stone, but subsequent “renovations” resulted in the application of mortar to the stones. (This can be very, very bad, as modern mortars typically don’t have the appropriate composition to work with the historic masonry.) The tavern was located in the community of Ellisville, which served as the county seat of Nicholas county from 1804 to 1816. James Ellis settled at what was then Ellis Station in 1778, building a log structure and eventually, in 1807, beginning construction on the stone tavern/house. He first applied for a tavern license in 1800.
Located on “Smith’s Wagon Road,” which connected Limestone (Maysville, Kentucky) on the Ohio River to Lexington, Kentucky, in the Inner Bluegrass part of the state, the tavern prospered. It was also a stop on the mail stage-coach line that ran from Zanesville, Ohio, to Florence, Alabama. But when the county seat moved to Carlisle, six miles to the east, the once bustling little town – dwindled. At some point in the 1820s, the tavern was sold and became solely a private home.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the ensuing years have not been kind to the Ellis Tavern. Even at the time of its listing, it was noted that the the building was “somewhat forlorn and abandoned in appearance.” Today, with window sash missing, like giant holes in the face of the building, the tavern clings to the hillside – but for how long?