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Visit Rice’s Hotel/ Hughlett’s Tavern

by Audrey Thomasson

Visit Rice’s Hotel/ Hughlett’s Tavern


It was 1795—the dawn of a new republic. The Revolutionary War was still fresh in the minds of former colonists— now citizens of 13 united states. George Washington was president. Transitions were taking place everywhere. The American court system was dispensing justice, county-by-county.

Where there was a courthouse, there must also be a place for a traveling judge to stay, and a place where attorneys and local leaders could gather over libations and debate the issues of the day.

It was in this framework that John Hughlett ran a tavern on courthouse square in the heart of Heathsville, Northumberland County’s seat of government.

Records are unclear as to Hughlett’s Tavern’s beginnings. It was first mentioned in Hughlett’s will of 1795. The ordinary, that today is called Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern, was in business when an older courthouse existed on the square. That courthouse was replaced in 1851 with the white brick structure which today houses the county administration offices, obscuring the view of the tavern from Northumberland Highway.

Hughlett built a tavern on the ground floor. Upstairs, rooms were available for overnight rental. Porches graced the length of each floor. Land behind the tavern provided space to raise vegetables for tavern meals and was the location of the inn’s stable.

“Judges did circuits, traveling between counties much like they do today—holding court in Westmoreland, Richmond, Lancaster and Northumberland counties. Court would take place over three or four days,” said Northumberland resident and historian Henry Lane Hull. The Tavern became the place where the judge and lawyers stayed.

“Lots of major decisions were made there,” said Hull.

Court Days

In the late 18th century, Court Days were a lively time of social gathering. Court proceedings were a source of entertainment. Merchants arrived to peddle their wares to people who came from all parts of the county to see justice in action. The jail house’s stocks and pillory awaited those convicted of crimes such as stealing or not paying their debts.

According to John Wilson, author of Virginia’s Northern Neck—a pictorial history, the jail was “probably cold, loathsome, insecure…totally unfit.”

In 1839,William Harding sold a piece of the Hughlett’s Tavern lot for a dollar in order to build a new jail that would replace the old debtor’s and criminal jail. The jail closed in 1958, but still stands just north of the tavern and courthouse on Back Street.

“The Tavern has served many purposes over the years,” said Corrine Anthony Becker, Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern (RHHT) Foundation director. “In addition to its long service of providing shelter, food and drink to weary travelers…the building has housed apartments, a general store and business offices.”

According to Foundation records, John Rice bought the property in 1866, and renamed it Rice’s Hotel (or Inn). His wife, Felicia, ran it for 40 years, adding a store and accommodating both travelers and permanent boarders. George Shirley leased the building in 1906, changing the name to Shirley Hotel. Perhaps having his seven children in residence contributed to only a threeyear venture.

Rice’s heir then sold the property to a cousin, James Rice Sr., who ran the facility as a general store. In 1928, a two-story apartment was added to the left side of the building for his widowed daughter, Charlotte and her three children. In 1940, James Rice Jr. and wife, Cecelia, inherited the property and reconfigured the 24 rooms into small apartments.

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) operated an office in the central part of the structure, providing licensing to county residents, until 1988. By that time, the building was in severe disrepair.

Foundation formed

In 1990, Cecelia donated the structure and 1.2-acres to the Northumberland Historical Society with the requirement that they name it Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern, said Hull, who was one of the seven to sign on for the restoration project in

Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern Foundation Inc. was formed on February 29, 1992,“Leap year day,” said Hull. “The first foundation president was Martha Robinson.” The largest existing traditional tavern on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

“About 15 years ago, a fire broke out. Fortunately, the fire was contained,” said Hull, and a second restoration took place.

Living history

Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern wasn’t just an 18th century place where things happened. It still provides the community a venue for socializing, dining and shopping. The four historical guilds—blacksmith, quilt, woodworkers and spinners and weavers guilds— all demonstrate the crafts of post-colonial days. Classes are offered in blacksmithing, weaving, spinning, quilting, woodworking and basket-making.

Inside the old tavern, the Heritage Arts Center Gift Shoppe sells the guilds’ output and the crafts of over 70 other local artists and artisans. The Tavern Cafe is run by the volunteers of the tavern’s new Culinary Guild. The gift shop and cafe are open Thursdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern sponsors the Heathsville Farmers Market on the third Saturday, April through October, from 9 a.m to 1 p.m.

Visit Rice's Hotel/ Hughlett's Tavern
Restoration of the Tavern after the fire.
Visit Rice's Hotel/ Hughlett's Tavern
Prior to the 1992 restoration.
Visit Rice's Hotel/ Hughlett's Tavern
Forging demonstration by the Blacksmith Guild 1992.
Visit Rice's Hotel/ Hughlett's Tavern
Guild volunteers give demonstrations or guided tours of courthouse square.
Visit Rice's Hotel/ Hughlett's Tavern
Weaving draws lots of attention at a Farmer’s Market.