The Merchants and Drovers Tavern began its life about 1795 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 at Rahway . . . in the house lately occupied by Squire Pierson as a store.” Physical evidence indicates that the structure was extended about eleven feet to the north, probably shortly after Anderson acquired the building, and extensively remodeled to create the present taproom and floor plan. Before the enlargement, the staircase to the second floor was located closer to the front entrance. Evidence of the original layout can be seen in the long room on the second floor. A small house that became the present kitchen wing was attached to the main block shortly before 1820.
Business must have been brisk because the building was expanded once again when the third and fourth floors were added in the 1820s. This enlargement, which may have been undertaken by Dr. David Craig when he acquired the tavern from the Anderson estate in 1822, created the hotel as it stands today. Although a simple execution of the federal style, the gambrel-roofed building is graced by four elegant dormer windows with intersecting muntins.
Following its 1820s expansion, the hotel remained substantially unchanged until the early 1930s when the owner, a descendant of John and Catherine Anderson and Dr. Craig, made a few changes, including removal of a Victorian-era wraparound porch (a replacement of an earlier porch) and modernization of the second floor assembly room, or “long room,” and donated use of the site to local Girl Scouts.
From the late 18th century through the early 19th century, this inn, like many others in New Jersey, served a multitude of functions. In addition to providing bed and board for travelers, the hotel served as a place of public entertainment. Scientific experiments, demonstrations of magic, animal acts, displays of curiosities such as Egyptian mummies, puppet shows, lectures and musical performances were among the offerings at this and other area taverns. In the absence of public buildings, this establishment was sometimes used for government meetings. In 1804, the meeting to organize Rahway Township was held here, and for several years, men of the town met at the hotel to plan the annual Fourth of July celebration. Sheriff’s sales, business transactions, dental services, stud service and other commercial ventures also took place at this tavern. The taproom, exclusively the domain of men, was a favorite hangout for locals. The building also functioned as a stagecoach stop.
Now owned and operated by the Merchants and Drovers Tavern Museum Association, the structure retains a high degree of architectural integrity. Its four-story height makes it an unusual example of an early public house. What is most remarkable, however, is that it was continuously operated as an inn during three centuries–from the time of the first tavern license in 1798 until the mid-1930s. In fact, the same family owned the building from 1798 to 1971, when the Rahway Historical Society, now the Merchants and Drovers Tavern Museum Association, purchased the building after a community-wide fund drive.
Restoration and Interpretation
When the organization acquired the building in 1971, the old hotel had suffered years of deferred maintenance. In 1976, the society restored the taproom, and in 1988 restored the exterior and made some structural improvements. In 1999, the building was closed to the public, and a complete interior restoration and rehabilitation was undertaken. This work included reinforcement of three floors; foundation repairs; restoration of original floors, windows, walls and moldings~ new heating and electrical wiring; upgraded security and fire alarm systems; the installation of exterior drainage systems; exterior repairs, the installation of a barrier-free entrance and an accessible toilet room; and repainting of the entire building. This work was funded by grants from the Department of Transportation, the New Jersey Historic Trust, Union County Community Development and the Rahway Savings Institution, plus organization-sponsored fundraisers, and numerous individual contributions.
To plan for interpretation of the museum, extensive research was undertaken. The two-year project was funded by grants from the New Jersey Historical Commission. Interpretive exhibits on early tavern life and stagecoach transportation, to be installed in the tavern long room, are being designed and funded with financial support from the Department of Transportation, the Merck Foundation, the New Jersey Historical Commission and the County of Union.
In 2000, Monmouth University’s summer archaeological field school, led by Dr. Richard Veit, began investigation of the tavern yard. The field school crew is continuing their work this summer. Their investigations will provide data for a team of consultants who will prepare a Historic Landscape Report, which will include a master plan for the restoration and interpretation of the tavern yard. To date, the locations of a well, a cistern, a building on the north side of the tavern, an area of brick paving and two privies have been determined, and more than 10,000 artifacts have been retrieved. The archaeologists located the foundation of a store that stood on the Westfield Avenue side of the tavern, as well as the location of the original carriage barn.