22 April 2021

Woods Tavern (circa 1738 - 1932)

Let's begin by lamenting that the one singular iconic structure that identified historic Hillsborough Township, New Jersey was lost in a fire 89 years ago. Variously renamed by owners-of-the-moment as the Union House Tavern, or Hall's Hotel, it was best known by its first and last moniker, Woods Tavern.


Illustration of W. W. Hall's Hotel
from the 1860 Farm Map of Hillsboro'


After a bridge was built across the Millstone River in 1720, the Amwell Road became an important thoroughfare between the port city of New Brunswick and the Delaware River. While not primarily a stagecoach route - that privilege went to the Old York Road - Amwell Road was used by farmers and drovers to bring their grain, produce, and livestock to the markets in New Brunswick. There they would fill their wagons with "city goods" for the return trip.

The rutted dirt road and the heavy loads conveyed generally made these trips a multi-day affair. The first inns were built along the route in 1738 at Millstone, Flaggtown, Neshanic, Clover Hill, and "in the woods" midway between the first two. The location for Woods Tavern was somewhat of an odd choice as it was not at a major crossroads. Today, of course, the site is THE major intersection in Hillsborough - Amwell and 206 - but in the 18th century, there was no north-south road at that spot. Travelers coming north from Princeton made a left on Homestead Road and then a right at Amwell Road and then a few twists and turns to get back on the road to Somerville.



Clockwise from top left:
1850 Somerset County, 1860 Philadelphia and Vicinity,
 1873 Atlas, and 1860 Farm Map


Nevertheless, Woods Tavern proved to be one of the best hostelries along the route. With stables for the horses, acres of fenced pasture for cattle, and a comfortable room for the weary driver, the inn on Amwell Road was a popular choice. So popular that even the dining room and kitchen might be made up for overnight guests on busy days. Woods Tavern was also a popular meeting place for groups, and a provider of food - and especially drink - for special occasions. No social event, from a church raising to a funeral, could take place without the proper libation - especially rum - and the local inn was the place to get it.

Music, dancing, boxing matches, even cockfights, were some of the early entertainments offered to guests as Woods Tavern remained popular for well over a century.  By the time William W. Hall bought the tavern from Isaac Bennet in 1860, railroads were already beginning to make the traditional roadside tavern obsolete.  Indeed, by the end of the decade, Woods Tavern had given up its liquor license and was sold and resold many times over the next six decades. 



Horace Greeley

The most famous visitor in the nearly 200-year history of Woods Tavern was undoubtedly newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. One of the founders of the Republican party in the 1850s, Greeley was running for president in 1872 as a "Liberal Republican" against incumbent Republican president Ulysses S. Grant. Greeley made a campaign stop at Woods Tavern that year on his way from Jersey City to Lambertville.

One last bit of excitement occurred in 1927 during prohibition when the Somerset County Detective and the State Police raided the tavern and charged the owner with selling intoxicating liquor. An additional charge of "conducting a disorderly house" and the fact that a woman from New Brunswick was taken into custody and a young man was held as a material witness begs the question as to what else was taking place at the old inn. 


16 January 1932 Courier News

On the evening of January 15, 1932, firemen from Millstone, Somerville, and Neshanic responding to a call found Woods Tavern engulfed in flames. With a strong wind blowing, they concentrated on saving the buildings on the opposite corner of the highway. At that time the inn was operating as a general store, and the caretaker, Mrs. Matilda Kleyling, was able to save herself, her son, and the cash register. Everything else was completely destroyed.


Plaque at the "Shoppes at Woods Tavern"

In 2011 an interpretive panel was installed at the site during the renovation of the Shoppes at Woods Tavern. 

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