For some time, I have been writing articles about the early taverns in Hunterdon County, knowing how important they were to both travelers on Hunterdon’s earliest roads and the communities that built up around them. One of the taverns on my to-do list was Larason’s Tavern on the Old York Road north of Ringoes. Fortunately, Dave Harding, administrator of the Hunterdon County Historical Society, did the job for me. His history of the tavern appeared in the most recent issue of the Hunterdon Historical Record (vol. 59, no.1), the Historical Society’s regular newsletter.
With Dave’s permission, I am reprinting the article here along with some footnotes and additional information at the end. This has been a real treat for us both.
Popular Tavern Had Its Sinister Side
By David Harding
By December of 1943, any hope of saving the old Larison Tavern had long-since passed. A local reporter, wandering about the dilapidated building like a melancholy ghost who had missed the party, marveled at the rotting remains of this once-popular landmark.1
The tavern’s great hand-hewn beams—joined by wooden pins and hand-cut nails—had kept the barn-like structure intact. But wind and rain had rotted the weaker weather-boarded sections, revealing the brick lining underneath. The 150-year-old lime and sand mortar crumbled to the touch and could be pushed from the bricks with an index finger. Above, the sagging roof admitted patches of blue sky. The veranda’s floorboards, running parallel to the Old York Road, groaned beneath the tread of careless feet.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Decades earlier, convivial parties of smartly dressed men and women danced the night away. Glasses clinked, and laughter echoed off its walls. Meanwhile, above the revelers, gamblers hunched over playing cards in a windowless room. Supposedly, fortunes were lost and won overnight.
Though solid evidence of its earliest days is lacking, tradition states that wealthy landowner Tunis Quick loaned money in the late 1790s to an Englishman, George Thompson, so a tavern could be built. However, Quick acquired the building and its 55 acres in a sheriff’s sale shortly thereafter.
Known in earlier days as Pleasant Corner Tavern, the establishment proved a popular and convenient stopping point. The Swift-Sure stagecoach rumbled through, carrying passengers and mail between New York City and Philadelphia. The coach frequently stopped at the tavern to change horses, according to Imogene Van Sickle in her book, The Old York Road and Its Stage Coach Days.2
A succession of owners operated the tavern during the early 1800s including Edmund Burke, Isaac Servis, and Joseph Kugler. Around 1829, Kugler sold the tavern for $2,600 to its most popular proprietor, and the man for whom the area would later be known: John W. Larison.3
He was born July 11, 1801, the third child of Andrew and Mary (Wilson) Larison. On May 9, 1822, he married Mariah Fisher, who lived on the old Fisher Homestead near Rocktown, and together they had four children: George, John Fisher, Lucretia Ann and Abraham. Larison was the uncle of Cornelius Larison, the doctor/pedagogue/author/champion of phonetic spelling, and—as per the New York Times—a “world class eccentric.”4
Under Larison’s Ownership
The tavern became widely known during Larison’s tenure. In the winter, young men and their sweethearts traveled by sleigh from as far away as Trenton and Easton, and when the weather turned warmer, coaches halted before its doors, dispensing youths ready to dance. “On these festive occasions the four large double doors, that divided the several rooms were opened, also a board partition at the west end of the bar room, which hung on hinges, was raised and fastened to the ceiling by immense iron hooks, converting the entire lower floor into a great ballroom,” Van Sickle wrote. A 1929 Hunterdon County Democrat article records that “[t]he orchestra, a single fiddler, bolstered in his chair by plenty of drink, which was his only pay, sawed out the reels, waltzes, polka-mazurkas” and whatever else the dancers demanded.
A Sinister Side
The tavern also served as a makeshift headquarters for cattle herders and farmers. Herders drove their cattle from Pennsylvania and Ohio, turned them loose in the surrounding pastures and conducted a public auction from the tavern’s veranda. These sales could last a week or more, according to the Democrat.5 During these times, the tavern rooms would be overfilled with four guests sleeping in one bed. A sign hanging in each room reminded patrons “Please Remove Your Boots Before Getting Into Bed.” Those without a room dozed in the hay mow, others in the stable.
The cattlemen were a boisterous lot and – to put it mildly – not particularly kind. One anecdote tells of Prime Hoagland, who claimed he had a head so hard he could split a wheel of cheese with it. And he often proved his claim if free drinks were in the offing. One day, the cattlemen found a grindstone of similar dimension to a wheel of cheese, wrapped it in cheesecloth and set it on a stand. Hoagland got a running start and slammed his head into the grindstone, which fell with a resounding crash. The stone broke in its fall. One story claims Hoagland rubbed his head and said it was the hardest cheese he ever broke. Another says he suffered a concussion and swore revenge on the practical jokers.6
The tavern had an even darker side. According to the Democrat, the tavern was thought to be “the greatest gambling house in the State” under Larison’s ownership, and games of dice, poker and faro were played under the watchful eye of a croupier.
The gambling den was nestled in the center of the second floor. Knock on the door, which was bolted from the inside, and a thin slat slammed open, revealing a pair of dark, questioning eyes. Inside, a few candles burned in sconces on the wall; in one corner a Franklin stove emitted heat. Card sharks enticed farmers into playing, only to fleece them of every dollar and dime in their pockets. Legend has it that one season an enterprising gambler fleeced the fleecers by playing the rube.
Fisticuffs frequently settled disputes whether they arose from matters of politics, religion or – well, anything that men loaded with liquor fight about. Surprisingly, only one man reportedly met his maker inside the tavern: He choked on a piece of beef while eating his dinner.
A stretch of Old York Road between the tavern and Reaville (back then, known as Greenville) was kept smooth for horse racing. Bets could range from a round of drinks to a hundred-acre farm.
Larison exited the tavern business shortly after the Civil War ended. He died on April 23, 1889, and is buried in Barber Cemetery in Mt. Airy.
New tavern owner Augustus Blackwell ended the horse racing and kicked the gamblers out.
In 1932, the Plainfield Courier-News caught up with a former bartender, Bill Gulick, who postulated: “The ground that divides the infernal region from the people above it, is thinner at Larison’s Corner than it is any other place in the world. It is so thin that the flames of brimstone often leak through. . . From this bar into hell is but a step and many who drink here are soon to be found there.”
Ownership of the tavern continued changing hands. Sarah Ball was the last full-time tenant. She had a life right to the property and passed away in 1924. The family of George Conover were the last to reside there. Workers began razing the building in late 1943, finishing their demolition the following year.
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James Snell, in his History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, gave the tavern a nod (p.356) in his chapter on East Amwell Township. In his paragraph on Pleasant Corner (the village’s name before it became Larison’s Corner), Snell wrote: “Larison’s Hotel (on the Raritan side of the road) is likewise enjoying rest, although formerly a popular hostelry.” This was written in the 1880s. Clearly, the hotel had a very long rest before it was taken down.
When Dave Harding and I decided to publish his article on the Goodspeed Histories website, it was understood that I would take some liberties and add material that Dave did not have room for. I find that the period of time preceding the ownership by John W. Larison is most interesting to me, back in the days when Larison’s Corner was known as Pleasant Corner.
Let’s start with that “Englishman” who borrowed money from Tunis Quick to buy the tavern lot. I’m not so sure about him being an Englishman. In 1746, Catharine Lummox, widow of William, made a deed of gift to the young brothers George and Lummix Thompson, naming John Reading, Esq. their guardian. (Catharine and William Lummox had no children of their own.)
In 1767, William conveyed his rights in the property to brother George, being “eldest son & heir of Alexander Thompson, who had purchased land from sd William Lummix.”
According to The History of East Amwell (p.12) “George [Thompson] inherited his father’s land and eventually bought out Lomax and came later in the century to own most of the area north of Ringoes on both sides of the Old York Road as far as Larison’s Corner. It was from his land that the congregation bought the glebe for St. Andrew’s Church in the 1760’s. At the end of the Revolution, in 1783, Thompson sold part of this land, i.e., 29.5 acres, to Tunis Quick.7
Sometime after this, Thompson departed for Loudon, Virginia with his wife Anna Hardin and two daughters. In a deed of January 31, 1791, we learn that John Schenck of Amwell recovered a debt of over £12 against George Thompson in the Court of Common Pleas. Sheriff Corshon seized a tract of 55 acres belonging to Thompson, probably part of the land bequeathed to him and his brother William and offered it at public sale. Tunis Quick was the highest bidder, bidding much more than £12. The sale cost him £302!8
The last we hear of Thompson is a deed recorded the next year. On Oct 3, 1792, Thompson was living in Loudon, VA when he sold 61 acres to Rev. William Frazer for far less than Quick paid for the 55 acres in 1791. Perhaps it was because Frazer was a minister, but he only paid £20 for 61 acres, which surrounded the property conveyed by William Lummox years earlier for an Episcopal parsonage.9
Tunis Quick & John Barcroft
So much could be written about Tunis Quick and his family! I will have to focus on the connection that Quick had with George Thompson. Tunis Quick, Sr. (1698-1774) wrote his will on Sept 22, 1770, naming sons Cornelius and Tunis his executors. He died in January 1774, and his inventory was compiled by George Thompson and Daniel Hull. So, clearly, Thompson and Quick had a close connection.
Tunis Quick, Jr. & wife Catharine Phillips had ten children and managed to reward all of them. For their youngest child, daughter Rhoda (1775-1859), they gave a very small lot, but one that had considerable value—the tavern lot. It was described as
a lot of 1 acre 95 perches in Amwell bordering the road from the Duch Presbyterian Church to the episcopalian church, corner of John Schenks land, the burying ground, being on the southeasterly side of sd road, and is a part of a larger tract of land the sd Tunis Quick purchased at publick sale of Shf Joshua Corshon who sold the same by virtue of an execution as the property of George Thomson [no date given].
Rhoda Quick had married a man named John Barcroft in 1796, who was born in Bucks County in 1772 into a large family. His brother Ambrose married Phoebe Quinby, daughter of Isaiah Quinby & Rachel Warford. His sister Elizabeth married Reuben Lake, son of John Lake & Mary Hall of Hunterdon County, and his brother Wood Barcroft also removed to his father’s property in Amwell Township, after marrying Anna Jewell.
Barcroft turned out to be the tavern’s briefest owner, to whom Tunis Quick sold the property on March 31, 1800 for $100. But the Barcrofts were not interested; Barcroft already owned the tavern at Howell’s Ferry. The very next day, April 1st, the Barcrofts sold the lot along with two others to Edmund Burk of Hopewell. The two other lots were only 7 and 3 acres, but Burk paid a total of $2,666.66.10
Barcroft was an interesting person. A week after selling the Quick lots, he manumitted his slave Cato. A few years later he was listed with the subscribers to The Christian’s Defense of Death, “With Seasonable Directions How to Prepare Ourselves to Die Well.”11
Things did not turn out well for John Barcroft. By September 1813, he was described as an absconding debtor, and 22 acres of his property was seized by the Sheriff. The property bordered the tavern lot he had sold to Edmund Burk, the road to Price’s Tavern [Ringoes], the road to Flemington, Titus Quick and Tunis Quick.12
By 1814 John Barcroft was dead, only 42 years old. His widow survived him many more years, marrying second in 1825 Richard Hunt of Hopewell.
Edmund Burk (c.1765-1834) was a resident of Trenton in 1789 when he married his wife Elizabeth Downing. I cannot say what he was doing between 1789 and 1800 when he bought the tavern property from the Barcrofts. I also cannot say anything about their families.
I can say that Burk was a property owner in Pennington when he bought the Tavern at Pleasant Corners. He sold a lot in Pennington to John Hunt “Inkeeper of the same place” on the same day he bought the tavern lot in Amwell from the Barcrofts.
I can also say that Edmund Burk was serious about operating the tavern—he got himself licensed for running a tavern from 1800 through 1808. Here is Burk’s petition for a tavern license in 1802:
Burk’s license fee in 1801 was $2 more than the norm, indicating that this was a prominent location. (The tavern petition for that year was signed by Cornelius Hoppock, Jacob Schenck, Tunis Hoppock, Albert Covenhoven, Ralph Schanck, John Schanck, Thomas Gordon, Abraham Williamson, Peter Risler, Gershom Craven, Samuel Williamson, Daniel Stull, Lewis Chamberlin, Jacob Dilts, and Isaac Pall.)
In 1808 the license cost him $16; the only licenses more expensive were the ones for the Flemington taverns.
Burk was also smart about keeping up good relations with the local religious group. Only six months after buying the tavern lot, he sold a small piece of property adjoining the burying ground and the tavern lot to the trustees of the German Presbyterian Church of Amwell for $30.13
The tavern lot itself was 1 acre 95 perches, as described in the deed of 1801 from Tunis & Catharine Quick to daughter Rhoda Barcroft.14 In the deed of Edmund Burk to Isaac Servis in 1811, the property was described as “bordering the road from the Duch Presbyterian Church to the episcopalian church, corner of John Schenks land, the burying ground, being on the southwardly side of sd road.” I am inclined to think that sometime during the 19th century, the York Road got shifted to the south side of the tavern.
Here is what James W. Snell has to say of Edmund Burk:
“Pleasant Corner (alias “Larison’s,” after its quondam hotel-keeper) is a small hamlet, about one mile from Ringos, on the York Road. Its hotel is now closed, but thirty years ago, when Burke was “mine host,” it was much frequented by the sporting gentry, and was noted for its amusements and good cheer. Racing and cock-fighting were of frequent occurrence. Most of this settlement, except the hotel, is in East Amwell.”15
I have to wonder about Snell writing “thirty years ago when Burke was ‘mine host’ because that would be around 1850, but Burke ran the inn in 1800 and he sold it only 11 years later to Isaac Servis.
Tavernkeeping seemed to be just fine with Burk. He sold the Pleasant Corner tavern along with another lot in Amwell he had inherited for a total of $3,942, very close to the amount he needed ($4,000) to purchase the Crosskeys Tavern in Trenton from William & Martha Anthony, which he kept for four years afterward.
Isaac Servis was a tavernkeeper for several years before acquiring what was known as Burk’s tavern. He was licensed in Locktown in 1801 and in Flemington in 1808. Then again in 1812 and 1813 at Pleasant Corner.
Isaac Servis (c.1770-1846), son of George Servis & Rebecca Servis, married Catharine Case c.1790, daughter of Jacob Case & Catharine Housel of Amwell. The couple had four children, the eldest being a son named Tunis. They were all well grown by the time Isaac bought the tavern at Pleasant Corner.
Servis had to pay $2900 for the three small lots.16 The deed once again described the property as bordering the Dutch [i.e., German] meeting house. Jacob Case, father of Catharine Case Servis, was a trustee of the German Presbyterian Church, which was another name for the Old School German Church.
But by 1814, Servis was ready to give up tavernkeeping for farming on a 120-acre tract near Locktown.
On April 23, 1814, Isaac and Catharine Servis sold the three lots in Pleasant Corner to Joseph Kugler of Amwell for a whopping $4,588, suggesting that the property had significantly increased in value.17 It seems quite likely that it was Servis who had enlarged the tavern house, which seems to fit with the appearance of the old tavern.
During the years prior to 1814, Joseph Kugler owned the tavern lot in Quakertown. In 1805 when he bought the lot he was identified as living in Amwell, but in 1806 when he sold it, he was “of Solebury Township, he and wife Elizabeth.18
I cannot say what the Kuglers were doing between the years 1814 and 1829 when they sold the tavern at Pleasant Corner—presumably they carried on the tavernkeeping business. An example of this is this notice that appeared in the Hunterdon Gazette on March 21, 1827:
Special Town Meeting. A special town meeting will be held at the House of Joseph Kugler, in Amwell, on Saturday next the 24th inst. at 2 o’clock P. M. for the purpose of taking into consideration the propriety of exchanging the present lot belonging to the township (for the support of the poor) for a farm of a larger size.
Then on April 9, 1829, Joseph & Elizabeth Kugler of Amwell sold the tavern property to John W. Larason for only $2600.19
What they sold was in fact four separate lots, three of them being the same lots that Isaac & Catherine Servis conveyed to Kugler on April 23, 1814 and the fourth sold to Kugler by Wm G. Schenck on March 27, 1824.20
After selling the tavern lot and adjacent lots to John W. Larison, Joseph Kugler bought himself a farm in Kingwood of about 60 acres from Ezekiel Everitt, where he remained until 1832, a year after wife Elizabeth’s death. She was buried in the Sandy Ridge Baptist Church Cemetery. I cannot say what happened to Joseph after that, other than that he died at age 80 on March 30, 1840, in Harrison County, Ohio.
John W. Larison & Family
As Dave Harding ably pointed out, John W. Larison (or Larason) was the most significant of the various tavernkeepers who ran the old tavern, so much so, that the whole village got named after him.
John Wilson Larison (1801-1889) was the son of the Hon. Andrew Larison and Mary Wilson. In his book, Country Doctor, on the life of John W.’s nephew Cornelius W. Larison, Harry B. Weiss wrote of Andrew Larison:
Although he always owned a farm, he never operated one, although the farm on Old York Road was a showplace, and he made money as a drover.
Andrew Larison prospered as merchant and land investor, and in 1835 was elected to the NJ State Legislature. This was many years after son John W. had left home and set up his tavern operation in the location that was named after him. But it says something about the type of household that John W. grew up in—no doubt an interesting one.
If the tavern was really as rowdy a place as Dave Harding has described, then it says a lot about people’s attitudes toward political candidates. Clearly Andrew Larison was not harmed by his son’s reputation.
On May 9, 1822, when he was 21 years old, John W. Larison married Maria L. Fisher (1803-1886), daughter of Jacob Fisher, Jr. and Anna Chamberlin. Maria was only ten when her father died. Her grandfather, Jacob Fisher, Sr., had made provisions for Maria and her family in his will of 1814. He left to his two granddaughters Sarah and Mary Fisher (daughters of deceased son Jacob) the amount of $1067 to be divided equally between them.
It’s always interesting to check out children and siblings. I notice that Maria Fisher’s brother was Caleb Farley Fisher, who became a prominent Presbyterian minister in West Amwell. In fact, he was a member of the first township committee in 1846 when West Amwell was separated from the Township of Amwell. One wonders how he felt toward his very easy-going brother-in-law.
As Dave Harding so well described, the tavern during the years of John W. Larison’s ownership was a very lively place. But one can take only so much of that. When a Civil War arrives, the partying tends to wind down. And once it was over, the Larasons sold the tavern property along with the other three lots to son-in-law Augustus Blackwell for a remarkable $9,000.21 This was a considerable amount of money, but Blackwell came from a very prosperous family, and it may be that it was intended to support the Larisons in their later years.
The Larison’s daughter, Lucretia Ann (1824-1886), married Augustus Blackwell (1822-1874) about 1849.22 Dave Harding wrote that “The new tavern owner Augustus Blackwell ended the horse racing and kicked the gamblers out.” That may be but only a few months later, on Feb. 25, 1867, Augustus & Lucretia Blackwell sold the tavern lot back to John W. Larison’s wife Maria for $2,000.23 The property was described as a lot of 1 acre 95 perches in East Amwell bordering, “as per old deed,” the York Road, corner to John Schanck, the church yard; being the same lot sold by Joseph Kugler & wife to George Dilts in trust 17 March 1818 described as bordering the burying ground and Capt. John Schanck, and was lot 3 in a deed from John Q. [sic] Larason to said Augustus Blackwell on Sept 6, 1866.24
In 1867, John W. Larison was 66 years old and Maria Larison was 64 years old. Perhaps this arrangement was intended to allow the Larisons to remain in what had become their home of 38 years.
I think we can safely assume that the old “hostelry” was “taking a rest” during Mrs. Larison’s ownership. (I have not located a tavern license for Larason’s Corner for the 1870s and 1880s.) In 1870, John W. and Maria C. Larison were still living at the East Amwell property, but the next year they sold part of their small lot on Old York Road to Hiram Hoffman.25
The census of 1880 indicates that the Larisons had moved to the home of son Jacob Fisher Larison in West Amwell. And yet, on Dec. 12, 1882, the Larisons were still identified as residents of Raritan Township when they sold more of their property, this time a lot of 0.77 acres in East Amwell to John Rudebock.26
Maria Fisher Larason died on Dec. 8, 1886 at the age of 83. Her husband John W. survived her for three years after her death (dying on April 23, 1889, at the age of 87), but had no interest in administering her estate. That task was handed over to Maria’s great-nephew, Oliver I. Blackwell, who sold the old tavern property of 1 acre 95 perches on May 24, 1887 to Maria’s brother, Caleb F. Fisher of West Amwell.27
Elder Fisher did not turn the old tavern into a Presbyterian meeting house, although he certainly could have. It was probably left empty until after Elder Fisher’s death on Jan. 8, 1892. By the end of the 19th century, there was no longer such need for local tavern houses in every village and the old tavern stand was left to decay until it was finally taken down.
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