J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Preserving the Truth about the James Bell Tavern

I’ve seen a lot of news stories about the interrupted demolition of a stone building on the Harrisburg Pike in Silver Spring Township, Pennsylvania.

Most recently this building was Stone House Autos, and before that it was Stone House Computers, but back in the 1780s it was a tavern run by a man named James Bell.

Historical preservationists got upset enough about this demolition that the owner stopped the process partway through. That might give the owners and locals a chance to consider their options.

Unfortunately, the story that’s being spread around the web has a lot of overstatements. The latest version appeared on the Daily Mail website, and it’s riddled full of errors. The building was not called the City Tavern. The demolition was not done “accidentally” or by mistake, but with a permit and plans. And then there’s this sentence:
It was in this cozy watering hole built in 1780 that Adams, Washington et al had seminal discussions before finally drawing up the Bill of Rights.
Adams, Washington et al” were never at James Bell’s tavern, and they weren’t the authors or proponents of the Bill of Rights. There’s no value in preserving a historic building if we’re just going to tell lies about its history.

These reports from Pennlive and the Cumberland Sentinel are better grounded. They make clear that local authorities chose not to protect the stone building in the 1990s. They didn’t follow through on seeking a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. They didn’t list the site as one that needed protection under the local zoning ordinance. So if there was a mistake involved in this demolition, it was a mistake in judgment over twenty years ago.

Now what about the building might qualify it for listing as historically significant? Pennlive’s version:
It was at the tavern on July 3, 1788, with pending ratification of the new federal constitution at hand, that a band of Cumberland Countians led by Robert Whitehill, Benjamin Blythe and others declared the need for changes in the document before they could accept it.
And the local Cumberland Sentinel’s:
According to meeting minutes obtained by Musser, the 1788 Stony Ridge Convention held at the former James Bell Tavern was attended by Benjamin Blythe, one of Shippensburg’s first settlers, and Robert Whitehill of Cumberland County. Whitehill is noted as the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” according to ExplorePAHistory.com, with its conception reportedly happening at that meeting at the Bell Tavern.
Some news stories have therefore called that tavern the “Birthplace of the Bill of Rights.”

That’s not a label with a lot of history. Which is to say, I can’t find a single source that applies that phrase to this stone building before the last two months. The usual claimant to the “Birthplace of the Bill of Rights” is the church in Eastchester, New York, where a local election in 1733 got reported by John Peter Zenger in a way that led to a court case strengthening freedom of the press. That’s just one right, so I don’t think that site has a strong claim to the label, either.

TOMORROW: So where was the Bill of Rights born?


Steve Collins said...

The convention supposedly held here occurred at "a small log tavern," which doesn't seem to fit what this place looks like. https://books.google.com/books?id=djxIAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA115&dq=%22Stony+Ridge+Convention%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjWpPiN-sPKAhXGrD4KHQUzC1QQ6AEIIjAB#v=onepage&q=%22Stony%20Ridge%20Convention%22&f=false

J. L. Bell said...

I also came across that reminiscence about a "Stony Ridge Convention," and also found a 1780s newspaper reference to a "Stoney Ridge Convention" from people who favored the Constitution.

It's true that letter describes the convention's meeting-place as a log cabin owned by someone named Tom Bell while this building is a stone house owned by James Bell. The letter is also about a gathering during the Revolutionary War, and speaks particularly of raising troops and choosing officers. So that's obviously different from this 1788 gathering at the tavern, which has contemporaneous documentation.

My guess is that the frontier settlers of central Pennsylvania adopted the name "Ston(e)y Ridge Convention" during the war. Five years later, after the area became a little more settled (with stone buildings), some of those same men gathered again to organize opposition to the Constitution. Their opponents dredged up the old name to paint those men as rebellious hicks. And some recent historians saw those newspaper references to the Stoney Ridge Convention and thought that was what Whitehill, Blyth, and their comrades actually called themselves. Just a guess.

Another question is whether Tom Bell and James Bell were related—or perhaps even the same man misremembered.

Anonymous said...

What I understand is that Thomas Bell was the son of James Bell, and Thomas continued the tavern after James died, but I don't know for sure.

J. L. Bell said...

This Find a Grave webpage says a Thomas Bell succeeded James Bell as keeper of the tavern on the Harrisburg Pike in 1807.

One possibility is that there was an earlier Thomas Bell remembered as the host of the Stony Ridge Convention early in the Revolutionary War. Perhaps an uncle or grandfather of the Thomas Bell who took over the tavern.

Another possibility is that the reminiscence linked above, which described Tom Bell hosting the convention in his log cabin to raise troops during the war, was inaccurate, with information about the most recent Thomas Bell slipping in.

Heish1 said...

Stoney Ridge is the name of a small continuous hill that marked the boundary of Silver Springs Township (since conception of said township0 and what is now the Appalachian Trail that runs about 1000 feet away from where the tavern sits. Silver is not named because of the color of the Water, that was the founders last name. James Bell was a tailor, farmer and tavern keeper. The papers do tell of a log cabin. In the process of sorting out debris from the partial demolition, we do see some reused log structures. As was typical of the day, they would either build around the log house, move the log house, or reuse the timber. We are still trying to figure out if a log structure was on the property. We do know that under the painting on one of the walls, is the history written down on the wall. Once stabilization takes place, we'll have a chance to strip the layers off and see what it says. It was still visible in the 1940's. We are trying our best to put the pieces of the puzzle together. We do believe this place holds a historic value to the nation. You can visit us on Facebook under Patriots of Capt. James Bell's Tavern.