A Look Back in History: Cultural importance of our Pennsylvania Dutch taverns and wayside inns

Gayl P. Hoskins painted this historical depiction of what an Oley Valley Tavern would have looked like in 1776 with Conestoga wagons converging at the Red Lion Tavern on old route 422.
Gayl P. Hoskins painted this historical depiction of what an Oley Valley Tavern would have looked like in 1776 with Conestoga wagons converging at the Red Lion Tavern on old route 422. Submitted photo - Courtesy Pennsylvania Folklife magazine of 1973

During the American Revolution, patriotic farmers provided hundreds of wagons for winning our freedom with a number of six horse teams, besides the necessary flour and iron supplies from our mills and foundries in the vast Oley Valley basin to fortify our troops. But perhaps the most popular aspect of trading with the natives of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country for Philadelphians was not in their iron manufacturing, but their Americana regional food dishes that became the delight of visitors who ate at their wayside Inns, following native Rhineland specialties of these German American immigrants.

Backed by bountiful harvests in the PA Dutch Country, they shared their home cooking of hearth breads, apple butter, and “Schmear Kase” (cream cheese) with the city folk of Philadelphia, not to mention soft pretzels, potato chips, hard cider, and shoofly pie, not the healthiest of choices, but also derived from our vast farmland. These food staples were eaten by Germanic natives when they traveled to far away early American farm markets, and thereby, native country foods of the PA Deitsch people apparent in every early American community brought by area farmers with their red, white, and blue Conestoga wagons a common sight on every road leading to Philadelphia.

However, in 1791, Alexander Hamilton’s Federal excise tax on whiskey caused the Whiskey Rebellion among Scotch-Irish farmers in Western Pennsylvania, but felt to a lesser extent by the Germans of southeastern PA selling their hard cider. George Washington, as President, took charge of having Federal troops put down this misunderstood ethnic tax Rebellion, which these Scotch-Irish natives thought was only against them. It was during this suppression in 1794, while traveling through the lower end of the Oley Valley en route to Western Pennsylvania, that Washington and Reverend Henry Muhlenberg stopped off to eat at the White Horse Tavern in Douglasville.

Several years ago, the American artist Gayle Hoskins caught the spirited rich cultural heritage associated with the PA Dutch taverns when he painted the “Red Lion Inn” of Berks County in a painting he called the “Rifle Frolik, 1776.” Located in the neighborhood of the Daniel Boone Homestead on Route 422 below Reading, the Red Lion (1760) was pictured among the numerous Conestoga wagons which rolled to its door. The many waggoners and militia that gathered there for sport portrayed, and the spirit of frolic which existed among them evident. Prior to the Revolution, the Red Lion was called the “King George,” but the patriotism of its owner changed its name on the eve of the war. Although this fine old tavern has been altered in several generations, was still in operation in 1973 when it was featured in Pennsylvania Folklife magazine, and much of the original portion appears as it did in Hoskins’ painting.


The cultural importance of a tavern to its community as a trading center, meeting place, and social quarters outranked its basic function as a place for food and lodging in the eyes of the native, and to the itinerant colonial traveler, the superb regional food, good lodging, and personality of the Pennsylvania Dutch taverns gained for them a reputation for outstanding hospitality at an early period along the eastern sea coast. Situated at the crossroads of early American culture, Pennsylvania’s taverns, specifically the PA Dutch ones, had enjoyed the opportunity to play host to both New England travelers and Southern gentry in our early Americana history. In fact, the relocation of the Continental Congress’s meeting sessions from British-occupied Philadelphia (1777-1778) to the PA Dutch cities of Lancaster and York brought the nation’s most industrious leaders to the heart of the Dutch Country.