It was a business entrepreneur’s dream, even in 1818. Buy land where major roads meet, and build a place for people to break their journeys. Feed them, give them a place to sleep, assure the safety of their belongings. Send them off the next morning happy after a big breakfast.
Washington Drane was the businessman who opened a “new tavern on Leesburgh Road.” Drane’s “house of entertainment” sat near the junction of the Georgetown Turnpike and the Leesburg Pike, today also known as Route 7. His purpose in selecting that particular rural site, he noted, was to create a “new building on the road leading from Georgetown to Leesburgh: 15 miles from the former and 15 miles from the latter place,” breaking up the two-day trip.
Soon the area around Drane’s place expanded with a church, a post office, a store, doctors’ offices, residences — and five taverns. Dranesville was perfectly located to serve those bringing goods and animals from the rich farms of the Shenandoah Valley to the competing coastal markets of Alexandria and Georgetown. There are stories of how Kentucky farmers drove their turkeys first through tar and then through sand to coat their feet for the long trip to market.
One of the five taverns, Dranesville Tavern, was built in 1823 and remains along Leesburg Pike. The log building with massive Seneca sandstone chimneys grew with two additions over the years. It served as a place of food and lodging on the Leesburg Pike for at least 130 years. In 1865, after a renovation of the inn by owners Mr. and Mrs. George Jackson, the Alexandria Gazette newspaper described it as “one of the best roadside inns in the state of Virginia.”
When the Park Authority became the site’s owner, the agency reopened Dranesville Tavern in 1978 as a historic site. Soon, people returned to the inn to offer their own stories of earlier visits. They told of having meals and staying overnight at Dranesville Tavern in the years before Leesburg Pike became a hard-surfaced road and electricity reached as far into the country as the Dranesville area of Fairfax County.
One delightful elderly woman, Margaret Ailes Wilmer, remembered a visit she made to the tavern when she was 10 years old. She was being treated to a trip with her father from Harper’s Ferry to Washington. They were travelling by horse and buggy. It was winter — December 10, either 1909 or 1910, and very cold. They had started in Harper’s Ferry with hot bricks to warm them. At Leesburg, Mrs. Wilmer’s father went into a drug store and bought a newspaper, half of which to stuff in back of her coat and half in front to keep her warm.
They reached Dranesville Tavern after dark, halfway to their destination. Upstairs, their bedroom was on the east end of the tavern, above the closed parlor and away from the heat of the kitchen and the parlor fire. Sixty years later she still remembered the cold.
When father and daughter awoke in the morning, the water in the washbasin pitcher had an ice coating that her father broke for her to wash her face. Breakfast she recalled with glee. As the only guests, they joined the host family in the dining room at a long table where she ate a “huge” stack of pancakes with syrup before climbing back into the buggy.
Today, the trip from Leesburg to Georgetown is a brief one on a road crowded with residential communities and shopping destinations. The Dranesville Tavern is just a spot along the way, a landmark that has stories to tell of other times. It reminds us of what a difference a few decades can make in the journeys we take.
Based on research conducted by former Sully Historic Site Historian Barbara Naef.
Editor’s Note: Leesburg was sometimes spelled with an “h” in olden days.
More About Dranesville:
Dranesville Tavern on the National Register