The Taverns of Beltsville
The main route between Baltimore and Washington starting about 1730 was the Post Road, later to become Route 1. In the early days, the 40-mile route was crude, meandered through farmland and forests, but made stagecoach travel possible. The trip between the two cities could take over one day to complete, and this set of circumstances opened the door for a few entrepreneurs to open taverns where travelers could dine and stay overnight.
The first tavern established in Beltsville was Rhodes Tavern, which opened in about 1730 in an area not far from the present location of IKEA. Rhodes Tavern operated until about 1833. President George Washington dined there on 18 December, 1798, on his last trip between the capital, then located in Philadelphia, and Mt. Vernon. This is noted on the historical marker near the site on Route 1 and is also cited in historical records as one of the President’s diary entries for that date, “dined at Rhodes.”
The next tavern to open in the area was the Van Horne Tavern, built by Gabriel Peterson Van Horne in 1783 atop what became known as Van Horne Hill. You may reach this site by taking Edmonston Road northward from the intersection with Powder Mill Road, turning right on Old Baltimore Pike, and taking it to the top of the hill. There you will find an historical marker designating the former location of the Van Horne Tavern. Van Horne built the tavern when he was about 41. Van Horne became well established and built a business of stagecoach lines and taverns from Virginia to Philadelphia and points north. He also operated a post office at the tavern. He communicated by letter with President Washington on several occasions. In one of these letters, he offered a plan to expedite delivery of mail between Philadelphia and Richmond.
Washington was inaugurated in New York City on 30 April, 1789. He traveled from Mt. Vernon to New York City in his personal coach. In May, 1789, plans were made for first lady Martha Washington to travel to New York City, then the U.S. capital, and Van Horne was contacted to make the arrangements. Van Horne noted that the roads on the journey to Philadelphia were poor, so he would drive the stagecoach himself. The trip to New York City took 11 days. The first lady was accompanied by her grandson, 8-year-old George Washington Parke Custis, 10-year-old granddaughter Nellie Custis, and Bob Lewis, son of the President’s sister Betty. They traveled through Beltsville on 18 May, 1789, and stayed that night at the home of Major Thomas Snowden, Montpelier Mansion. The party arrived in New York on 27 May.
On 31 May, the President sent a personal letter to Van Horne expressing the first lady’s gratitude for
“the polite attention you were so good to pay her personally through the most dangerous and difficult part of the journey.”
In 1799, the Maryland legislature authorized commissioners to formally lay out the boundaries of a town to be known as Vansville, which would be a tract of land set aside by Van Horne for this purpose.
President Washington stayed at the Van Horne Tavern on three occasions in 1795. Van Horne passed away in 1815 at the age of 73.
In 1834, the third tavern was constructed near the site of Rhode’s Tavern, which had recently been destroyed by fire. This tavern was built for John Brown, a stagecoach driver and former worker at Rhodes Tavern. At the time, he was 35. This was known as the White House Tavern and also as Brown’s Tavern. It had 24 rooms.
The tavern was adjacent to some 1700 acres of farmland and meadows. Among the usual travelers who stopped at the tavern were drovers accompanied by as many as 500 head of cattle, which would stay in the meadows while the drovers spent the night. Civil War skirmishes occasionally erupted at or near the tavern, sometimes led on the Confederate side by Major George Emack, who lived across the street from St. John’s Episcopal Church, at the time the site of a Union artillery position.
Brown operated the tavern until his death in 1862. It was open for business for another 10 years. In 1940, it was converted to a motel and was destroyed in November, 2001, to make room for new construction.
Brown and family members are buried in a family plot on the grounds of the National Agricultural Library. To view the plot, take Rhode Island Avenue toward the rear entrance to the library. There is an unimproved driveway just west of that entrance that leads to the family plot surrounded by a wrought iron fence.
To view the memorial to Brown’s Tavern and the earlier Rhodes Tavern, go to the intersection of Route 1 and Milestone Way. Parking is available nearby. There you will find historical markers among the artifacts of Brown’s Tavern, plus the original milestone, erected in 1813, indicating the mileage to Washington from that point is 15 miles; to Baltimore, 25 miles.