Tavern - Merchants & Drovers Tavern, Rahway

The Merchants and Drovers Tavern was built around 1780 as a two-story commercial building. In 1798, John Anderson purchased the property from Oliver Pierson and applied for a license to operate a tavern in Rahway at the house, which was previously run as a store. Soon after purchasing the property he converted it into a tavern and hotel with a taproom, two parlors, bedrooms, and a working kitchen. In later years, he added two upper floors, a blacksmith shop, an outhouse, a stable, and a general store.(1)

Taverns such as Merchants and Drovers served a multitude of functions in early New Jersey. With the absence of civic and public buildings, the inn was used for government meetings, auctions, business transactions, patriotic celebrations, and horse breeding, and served as a stagecoach shop (on what was then Kings Highway between New York and Philadelphia). As well as providing a room for travelers, the inn served as a place of public entertainment. Scientific experiments, magic demonstrations, puppet shows, lectures, and musical performances were offered here and at other area taverns.(2) The tavern welcomed clientele from all social classes and was popular among travelers, merchants, drovers (drivers of sheep and cattle), and townspeople. Customers of the inn could buy drinks for six-and-a half cents, dinner for twentyfive cents, or a room for ten cents a night. The taproom, with its club-like atmosphere, was favored exclusively by men and was a favorite hangout for locals.(3)

George Washington stopped at the inn in 1789 on his way to New York to be inaugurated as the first president. A historic marker across the street reads: Here, on April 23, 1789, on his way to New York City, Washington was received by troops from Elizabethtown and Newark. He was entertained at the Inn kept by Samuel Smith by gentlemen of the Town.(4) In 1804, government officials gathered at the inn to ratify the creation of Rahway Township. In 1822, Dr. David Craig, John Andersons son-in-law, acquired the tavern from the Anderson estate. Merchants and Drovers Tavern remained operating as an inn during three centuries, from 1798 through the mid-1930s.(5) The last tavern owner, a descendant of John Anderson and Dr. David Craig, loaned the use of the site to local Girl Scouts. In recent years it has come to be known as Girl Scout Headquarters.

The building remained owned by descendants of the Anderson family until 1971, when the Rahway Historical Society, now Merchants and Drovers Tavern Museum Association, purchased the building with proceeds from a community-wide fund drive. Visitors to the Merchants and Drovers Tavern can experience the hospitality of the 1820s by having a drink in the taproom, sitting in the parlor, or testing out a bed at this hands-on museum. The Merchants and Drovers Tavern was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.(6)

(1,2,6) Historical Background/Main page, The Merchants and Drovers Tavern web site (see link below).

(4) The Merchants and Drovers Tavern, History of Elizabethtown/Rahway, New Jersey web site (see link below).

(3,5) Commerce and Industry, Union County Voice: September 2004 web site (

Merchants & Drovers Tavern, 1780, St. George's Avenue & Westfield Avenue, Rahway (Union County).

Tavern sign giving the construction date 1780.

The Terrill Tavern, built in the mid-18th century, was moved to the property from nearby in 1976 and now serves as a gift shop. All photographs by Meredith Sacripanti.

Soon after purchasing the Merchants and Drovers Tavern, John Anderson enlarged and remodeled the structure creating the present day taproom and floor plan. The original layout can be seen in the long room on the second floor. A small house, which is now the kitchen wing, was attached to the main house shortly before 1820. The building was expanded once again and by the mid-1820s it became the four-story federal style inn that stands today. Following the 1820s expansion, the hotel remained substantially unchanged until the early 1930s. The owners made a few changes including the removal of a Victorian-era wraparound porch (a replacement of an earlier porch) and modernization of the second floor assembly room or "long room." Merchants and Drovers Taverns four-story height makes it an unusual example of an early public house.(1) The structure is a significant and rare example of an early frame tavern/residence located on an important transportation route.(2)

In 1976, the taproom was restored and in 1988, the exterior was restored and structural improvements were made. In 1999, the building was closed to the public so that complete interior restorations could be made. The restorations included reinforcement of three floors, foundation repairs, restoration of original floors, windows, walls, and moldings, new heating and electrical wiring, additions of security/fire alarm systems, exterior repairs, and repainting of the entire building.(3) Despite minor changes Merchants and Drovers Tavern appears today as it did in the 1820s. The tavern remains the only 18th century stagecoach tavern in the city and one of only four in the county.(4)

The mid-18th century Terrill Tavern, which originally stood a short distance south of the Merchants and Drovers Tavern, was saved from the wrecking ball and moved to the Merchants and Drovers tavern yard in 1976. According to local legend, General George Washington visited the tavern kept by Abraham Terrill and his wife for breakfast during the American Revolution. This charming cottage now houses a museum shop stocked with souvenirs, craft items, and other treasures.(5)

(1,3,5) Restoration and Interpretation, The Merchants and Drovers Tavern web site (see link below).

(2) Merchants and Drovers Tavern, New Jersey Historic Preservation Bond Program web site (

(4) Merchants and Drovers Tavern, New Jersey Historic Trust web site (see link below).

(Meredith Sacripanti, Spring 2005)

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