January 2010 Issue
A Somerville couple adds history to their home with an authentic 18th-century tavern.
Taking a trip to Williamsburg may not be in the budget for some recession-weary travelers, but for Don and Susie Dunkelberger of Somerville, Williamsburg is literally as close as their own back yard. While the couple has been to the colonial city more than 30 times, it was their stint as Revolutionary War-period reenactors that led them to build an authentic 18th-century tavern on the back of their home.
We did reenactments at Caesars Creek Pioneer Village and Susie did period cooking demonstrations there, so we first planned to build a log cabin in our orchard to bring our hobby closer to home,” Don says. But after assessing the long walk between the orchard and their home, they decided the tavern would make a better addition.
Built in the style of those constructed in Williamsburg and Charleston between 1775 and 1783, the Dunkelbergers’ tavern is filled with a blend of antiques and reproductions. The 20-by-22-foot space is seven years old, and it took just under a year to finish. Local historical groups, including the Daughters of the American Revolution, hold meetings here, with Susie cooking period meals and the couple and guests dressing in costumes to match the historical setting.
“I don’t dress up in military garb, I try to portray my family history, which was made up of [Kentucky] farmers who were middle class,” Don says.
The authenticity of the tavern begins with the exterior’s white, hand-cut clapboard and the small 18th-century-style garden filled with sage, bay leaf, thyme and parsley. “I have about 30 period cookbooks and I use my herb garden to make many of the recipes,” Susie says.
Most every detail of the interior is authentic, from the walls to the floorboards, which were hand carved from maple and transferred to the property from an area sawmill. The only thing that is not accurate, explains Don, is the varnish that was added to the floors. “Eighteenth-century tavern owners did not use varnish on the floors, but since we allow local historical groups to use the tavern for dinner meetings, we wanted to keep it sanitary,” he says.
The top part of the tavern walls are plastered and painted with white, milk-based paint that was used in the era, and colonial green wainscoting was added to create a raised-panel effect on the bottom. A large brick fireplace filled with cooking pots and a rare legged teapot on the hearth take up most of the tavern’s back wall. The large caged bar in the corner is exactly like those that allowed tavern owners to slide a panel down from the top when it was time to close for the night. All of the glassware in the bar is authentic, and the Dunkelbergers use it to make period drinks such as spiced cider and hot flavored teas.
The tavern seats 28 at the numerous tables that fill its interior. An 18th-century gateleg table is the newest addition, which they recently purchased at a Sharonville antique show. The tilt-top table is one of the authentic antiques in the tavern and was purchased in Camden, South Carolina. The mixture of Windsor and ladderback chairs was added after one of the Dunkelbergers’ many jaunts to antique shops around the country. Blue Willow china sits on most of the tabletops, adding a touch of elegance to the rustic décor.
“The Windsor chairs were really like yard furniture in the 18th century, and I’d like to find more of them to put in here,” Don says.
The tavern’s knickknacks include: period games and a card press to hold playing cards, which was made by an artisan in Minnesota and took the Dunkelbergers 10 years to find. Hogarth prints hang on the walls, along with a map of the Carolinas from 1775 in honor of Don’s ancestors who arrived in that region when they came to America. A Bible box reproduction that was used to hold important documents is also on display, and the curtains and table linens are authentic to the Revolutionary War period.
Even with their huge collection of authentic antiques and period reproductions, the Dunkelbergers are always on the lookout for more treasures to put in their tavern. Susie continues to search for historical bowls and dishes, since so many get broken when she cooks, and Don wants to find a clock jack, a device that turns the fireplace spit. Family and friends join in the search, too, using birthdays and anniversaries for gifting tavern décor. Family vacations are spent in historical cities where the Dunkelbergers can scour antiques shops for that special piece.
While it has been seven years since the tavern was built, the Dunkelbergers say they will never completely finish it, even though they are both retired. Their search for that perfect something fills up much of their time, and Susie says that in the future, she hopes the Dunkelberger kids will continue to enjoy the adventure that the tavern has provided for her and her husband. “There are many actual antiques and many reproductions in here, and one day in the future it will be up to our kids to go through it all and figure out what is what,” she laughs.