Culpeper Currents: A celebrity visits Bell Tavern

My last column focused on a description of Bell Tavern which sat at the southwest corner of Main and Locust Streets in Culpeper. I mentioned that the proprietor Benjamin Shackelford had hosted President Thomas Jefferson. Here is a brief account of the President’s arrival:

In 1809 Thomas Jefferson had concluded his second term as President and after attending the inauguration of James Madison on March 4th, prepared for his trip home to Monticello. Traveling ahead of Jefferson on March 3rd was Edmund Bacon, his farm manager. Bacon, along with 11 slaves, was transporting three wagons piled full of Jefferson’s furniture and belongings. News of the procession had gotten around, for as the group passed through Northern Virginia, crowds turned out, hoping for a glimpse of the former Commander in Chief. As Mr. Bacon was riding in his employer’s personal four-horse carriage, some mistook him for the President which must have amused the farm manager greatly. Jefferson himself was able to better travel incognito as he was being driven in a one-horse phaeton and accompanied by just one other attendant on horseback. Of course there was no secret service detail back then.

Because of the muddy condition of the roads, the wagons moved at a slow pace and Jefferson caught up with his retinue even though he had left Washington days after his servants. The combined group reached Culpeper County in the middle of a fast moving snowstorm. By the time they made it to town, Bacon noted that the snow was “half-leg deep”. They decided to put up for the night at Bell Tavern and there they found a party atmosphere. Despite the storm, the porch was crammed with people who had learned of Jefferson’s imminent arrival. When the group rode up, the crowd, having sampled many of Mr. Shackelford’s fine beverages while waiting, made so much noise they frightened the horses. Mr. Bacon even suffered an injury when one of the startled horses stomped on his foot.

Shackelford was a superb host, having a large fire ready in a private room for Jefferson. But Jefferson had no peace until he consented to make an address to the excited crowd, after which he retired for the night. The next day he finally made it back to Monticello, traveling through another snowstorm along the way.

Julie Bushong is the historian at the Culpeper County Library