Historic Structures

DeVault Tavern and Inn, Leesburg Tennessee

Date added: June 4, 2021 Categories: Tennessee Commercial Hotel

The 1797 Knoxville Gazette announced a meeting in the new town of Washington to form a Manumission Society to prohibit slavery. The name of the place was later changed to Leesburg in honor of Leroy Taylor, a prominent citizen and the carver of the State Seal of Tennessee. In 1799 the town was established by Act of Legislature. The community grew up around the Great Stage Road, the only link of transportation and communication with all points north from the west and lower Tennessee county. There was always a need for accommodations here and several taverns preceded DeVaults. Before the year 1803 one was called "The Sign of the Bear." The chief stops along this line were Nashville and Abington, Virginia. Towns along the route included Blountiville, Jonesboro, Greeneville, Newport, Dandridge, and Knoxville.

In 1819 the two DeVault brothers, Valantine and Frederick, bought a tract of land adjoining Leesburg on which Frederick built a house and engaged in smithing. Soon however he took on the tavern business and offered perhaps the best accommodations to travelers between Greeneville and Jonesboro. This tavern and inn stands today little changed from its earliest years and offers one of the best illustrations of a county tavern of the Southeast extant.

Frederick was the ninth son of Henrich and Catherine Marie. It has come to be spelled DeVault but there were many early spellings. His father usually referred to themselves as DeWald but Frederick most commonly used the spelling Davault. Henrich and wife were from the Palantine. The came to America in 1766, and established themselves in Hanover, York County, Pennsylvania. This county was established in 1764 and was mainly populated by Germans. Henrich in time became a large landholder. He held two large tracts in Tennessee.

At Henrich's death in 1817, he willed "all that plantation and tract of land which I have purchased from a certain John Been lying in Washington County in the State of Tennessee containing six hundred and thirty-seven acres."

Frederick was born near Hanover on May 5, 1778. It is not known when either he or his brothers came to Tennessee but they probably settled on their father's land at first. On November 3, 1799 Steiner and Schweinitz noted in their journals that they crossed a ford which a German carried them through. This referred to the brother of Frederick and Valantine, Peter, who operated a tavern several miles north of their tavern in Leesburg. In 1803 Frederick married Margaret Range, sister-in-law of brother Valantine, in Washington County. He was a Lutheran, she a Presbyterian. From 1803-1818 it is thought that they all lived near DeVault's Ford on the Watauga River.

After inheriting the property from their father, Valantine and Frederick moved to Leesburg, built a house, soon converted it to a tavern, enlarged it and engaged in smithing, all of which to take advantage of the stage road trade. The first evidence of the DeVault's Tavern business is an 1825 bill for feeding three horses for 126 days at .20 each per day ($75.60) and boarding for 18 weeks at $22.

Among the original documents in the family papers is an 1827 tavern bond for $200 signed by Governor William Carroll and an 1828 bond signed by Governor Sam Houston. The 1827 bond, signed August 9, 1827 read as follows: "that the said DaVault shall keep a decent and orderly house for the term of twelve well furnished with all things necessary for the accommodation of travellers."

A bill dated 1847 reveals that the cost for a man and horse overnight was 50 cents, and drivers paid $1.25 board per week. The tavern made a good deal of its profits off the sale of tobacco and liquor. Whiskey was 50 cents a gallon. Breakfast was 9 cents, dinner 10 cents, lodging alone was 6 cents, brandy was 8 1/2 cents per half-pint, rum was 6 cents a half-pint, and a half-pint of wine was 20 cents. A bill of purchase included $1.00 for 33 lbs. of beef.

Many important guests stayed over night here. A list included, among many others, presidents Jackson, Polk and Johnson, and Bancroft the historian. For two years the newspapers of Andrew Johnson were delivered here, and the front porch was the podium for many a politician. The house was well suited to an inn. Each bedroom had its own stairway, and no two connected. The small bar with wooden screen remains intact.

The other DeVault brothers, Peter and Henry, also worked in the tavern. Later, they left to go to Missouri. They became well known there as carpenters and landowners. Peter built and operated a tavern reputedly very similar to that of his father's in 1828 on Boon's Lids Road, near Florence, Montgomery County, Missouri. It was demolished for the improvement of highway. Henry donated the site for the county seat at Danville, Missouri.

Frederick DeVault died August 9, 1847 at the age of 70. He left ten children. The sixth was John who inherited the tavern. John was born July 30, 1819 in Tennessee and died 1882. His son F. Russell DeVault inherited the house from him and continued to remain in family control. This family continuity has been important for DeVault's Tavern. Family pride and protection have preserved with few changes an impressing example of the early 19th century stagecoach inn. In the family papers and collections are many old cookbooks, newspapers, etc. A diary of daily work orders for October, 1835, and a ledger for 1859 are interesting. Also a ledger for 1814-1826 is extant but the text of the book has been pasted over with a collection of newspaper political articles. There are also calculations and drawings of the eclipse of the sun of May 15, 1836. A daily weather record exists for the years 1871-1896. There is a ledger for Buchanan and DeVault's (John) general store for 1849-50. A tavern ledger including parts of the years between 1857-1897, a student's writing and poetry book with drawings dated 1847, and several sketches by John DeVault are also fascinating. A $60 currency note on the U.S. Government dated 1779 is among the collection.

Taverns and inns remained in business to some degree after the Civil War but the coming of the railroad resulted in decline of stage and road travel. In 1850 the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad was active and it completely bypassed Leesburg. As time went on travelers and visitors decreased. The town of Leesburg actually grew smaller. In 1887 Goodspeed commented "the place never attained much importance, and has now well nigh disappeared." Yet the tavern continued to stand. It continued to serve the community as a post office well into the 20th century, but the secret to its preservance has been the lack of development of Leesburg and continued family ownership.

A near-square structure, the tavern measures approximately 35' x 45'. It is two stories in height. The facade and side elevations are all five bays wide. There are a 2-story original ell and a 1-story ell addition, which was built ca. 1827 by Frederick Davault.

The old tavern has a L-plan. The handsome interior, largely intact, includes the original wood Federal mantles, paneled doors (some artifically grained), chair railings, and door and window architraves. Each original bedroom is equipped with a separate box stairs. There is an original bar room with an original wood screen. The main stairs is a two-flight, open-well type, with scrollwork, turned balusters and newell, and a paneled wainscoting.