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Oct 30, 2014

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Fraunces Tavern

By Gregg Smith

America's beer town? It was originally New York. To the earliest settlers beer was a major part of daily life. Perhaps it was the lack and mistrust of water; maybe it was the great Dutch beer that was imported; it might have been that era's diet and the need for extra nourishment. Whatever the cause there was no lack of beer in New Amsterdam. Proof of the importance of beer is easily seen in the makeup of the young city. In those days an official survey found that nearly one of four city buildings was a brewery, alehouse, tavern, or in some way related to beer.

As the colony grew, beer was instrumental in its development. Traders came to the settlement because beer was available. Governor Peter Styuvesant learned this lesson when he levied an onerous tax on beer. Soon after he instituted his tax the streets were nearly deserted, then, when the tax was lowered, trading picked up once again.

Catering to the traders, craftsmen, businessmen and merchants was the path to wealth and taverns proliferated in the areas adjacent to piers and along well traveled thoroughfares. When brewing began in earnest it was the area close to the taverns and piers where the brewers located. The hub of this activity was at the foot of Broad Street, which was then a canal. The nearby street on which the brewers located was called Brouwers Alley. When their activity turned the street into a muddy mess the city made it the first paved street in America. It remains to this day under its newer name, Stone street.

As the city grew the beer and tavern business continued to be a lucrative occupation. Despite this, what was to become one of New York's most famous taverns began as something different. In 1719 Stephen Delancey began construction of a mansion on Pearl street in what was then one of the more prestigious neighborhoods in the city. With time however this changed and as lower Manhattan increasingly became the center of trade the once residential area succumbed to business. In 1762 the building was purchased by Samuel (Black Sam) Fraunces, a leading Black-American of his day, who promptly named his establishment "The Queens Head" tavern.

Then, as now, location was everything, and Sam had picked a spot directly upon the Boston Post Road. Business boomed and Sam's attention to detail, service, and value came to be known up and down the eastern seaboard. The reputation he earned brought him the patronage of the merchants and well-to-do throughout the colonies making Sam one of its leading tavern keepers. This stature also brought him into contact with those who would become leaders in the upcoming fight for independence, including the friendship of George Washington.

As hostilities drew closer "The Queens Head" became the center of dissent revolutionary leaders often plotted strategies and planned for the day they would be free of England's yoke.

In 1776 things went badly in New York, and colonial forces abandoned it to the British. Normally this would spell disaster for a tavernkeeper with the reputation Sam had for entertaining rebels. But Fraunces also had the reputation of running the best place in the America's so the top ranks of the British Army took to frequenting Sam's for the remainder of their stay.

When the British were defeated in 1783 Governor Clinton hosted a celebration to honor George Washington, and what better place than in the General's favorite inn. With a new country formed it was time for a new name, and so Sam put aside the old name.

On December 4, 1783 the tavern hosted one of the revolutions most memorable and final events, Washington's farewell to his troops. In the long room,amongst glasses of beer and wine, the general bade farewell to his former officers. Soon after this event Samuel Fraunces sold the tavern and retired to a farm in New Jersey.

This was neither the end of Sam nor the General; both would be back to New York. Sam decided after only three years that retirement wasn't for him, and the country wouldn't let the General retire. Thus in 1789, when the country selected New York as its temporary capital, Washington asked Samuel Fraunces to serve as the presidential steward. The infant country could hardly have made a better choice for its first caterer and Sam was soon supervising the culinary (and beer) affairs at the presidential mansion on 3 Cherry Street.

Over the years the tavern on Pearl street was greatly altered from its days as a tavern and eventually fell to neglect. Then in 1904 the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York bought the structure and restored the building its original appearance when owned by Sam. In 1937 the group had the foresight to restore even the tavern operations when it forged a lease with Robert Norden who brought the tavern service to its former glory.

Today Robert junior runs the tavern and you can still enjoy a beer in much the same surroundings which attracted George Washington. While you're there you can visit the upstairs museum, try old blacksmith's games at the bar and hoist a pint of beer. When you order up your beer make it a porter (it was George's favorite) and somewhere old Sam will be smiling.

Gregg Smith

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