This year marks the 30th anniversary of the onset of the work to save Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern in Heathsville from passing into history. On February 29, 1992, I was one of seven who joined the first work party to begin the process of clearing the underbrush and accumulated trash that had enveloped the structure over a long course of time.
Cecilia Fallin Rice, the last private owner of the property, had donated the building and two acres of land to the Northumberland County Historical Society, which in turn had transferred it to a new foundation whose mission was to save the building for posterity.
The hotel had not been open to the public for many years, and its only practical purpose in recent times had been for one room on the first floor to serve as a location for the DMV on an intermittent, visiting schedule. There folks came to renew drivers’ licenses, buy tags, or register their vehicles. The site would not have passed an OSHA inspection.
Unfortunately, the two-story verandah collapsed in the late 80s, thereby ending the DMV tenancy. Some individuals wanted to push the structure back into the woods to allow for expansion of the 1851 Courthouse, but others spoke in favor of saving it. Happily, the latter side came out the winners in the discussions in the public square, to use an apt metaphor given the hotel’s site.
That cold February day marked the first step of what became a widespread initiative to save the building, drawing support from across the Northern Neck and beyond. The volunteer workers came to call themselves The Rangers. Many of them were expert woodworkers and craftsmen whose efforts saved the costs that otherwise would have necessitated even greater fundraising.
Will Gwilliam, an architectural historian from Williamsburg, served as the professional consultant to the project, traveling up on a regular schedule to supervise the undertaking. Lew and Cathy Fleming, who owned the historic home, “Springfield” in Heathsville, were mainstays until Cathy’s death in 1995. As the verandah was the first aspect of the project to be completed, a ceremony occurred at which its restored state was dedicated to Cathy’s memory.
Later, Lew and his second wife, Peggy, became the unofficial “godparents” of the tavern, hosting events, undertaking hands-on projects and shepherding the direction of the tavern’s future.
The southern end of the building is known as the Pusey Apartment. It was built in 1927 in the then-prevailing style of architecture. With Will Gwilliam’s strong support, the foundation decided to restore that section to its own period, rather than attempting to pretend that it dated from the building of the original structure in 1795.
Today, more than a generation after that initial workday, the tavern’s evolution has brought forth what the early workers had hoped for it. A transportation grant facilitated the building of a meeting hall behind the building that hosts a wide spectrum of community programs and gatherings.
The restored dining room is available to serve the desires of local patrons of fine cuisine. The tavern is the venue for a quilters’ guild, a blacksmith forge, a woodworking group and a repository of local artifacts. One Saturday each month, April through October, the expansive grounds provide the setting for the Heathsville Farmers Market.
What about the future? Between the tavern and the meeting building is the stump of a brick chimney, marking the site of an original saltbox-type outbuilding that I hope to see reconstructed on its footprint. That small frame building itself was lost as the underbrush took control.
Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern is the largest surviving courthouse tavern in the Northern Neck. Now a designated Virginia Landmark, it also is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building’s course over the last 30 years is a testament to what dedicated volunteers can accomplish with knowledge, determination and hard work, and most importantly, with a great project that was waiting to happen.