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Nellis Tavern has survived war, road expansion and neglect

Friday, March 21, 2014
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Farmer Christian Nellis built a log cabin when he arrived with the Palatine Germans in the Mohawk Valley near what is now St. Johnsville in 1725. Descendants believe the name Nellis is French, but in the 16th and 17th century there was a lot of moving around and the Nellis family ended up in the Palatine section of Germany.

Because of war and religious persecution, the Protestant Palatines left their homeland for England. England’s Queen Anne sent many of them to America to produce naval supplies such as ship parts and tar along the Hudson River. The Palatines abandoned that work for farming in the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys.

In 1747, Christian Nellis built the substantial house that still stands along Route 5 just east of St. Johnsville, the 1747 Nellis Tavern. That building today is a historic site operated by the Palatine Settlement Society.

Christian Nellis died in 1771, after deeding much of his land to his son Christian Jr.

The Nellis farmhouse was one of the few wooden buildings in the valley to survive the Revolution. Although Christian Jr. was a revolutionary, other members of the family sided with the crown, which may have been the reason the building was spared during British and Indian raids. There also was a blockhouse on the property called Fort Nellis.

By 1783, Christian Jr. was operating a turnpike inn and tavern. According to longtime Nellis Tavern volunteer Donna Reston of Amsterdam, there was westward migration as war veterans who had been granted land in the western part of the state moved through. In 1801, an adjacent store was built.

The original road on which the structure was located was south of the building. When the railroad was constructed, the road was moved to the north of the Nellis Tavern. The tavern stayed in private hands until the 1960s, when the state condemned the structure in preparation for widening what was then Route 5 and evicted the last occupant, Aleda Nellis Weaver.

The Palatine Settlement Society formed in 1978, purchased the abandoned building in 1985 and began the arduous task of preservation. The purchase was made possible because of a $1,200 gift from St. Johnsville librarian Elizabeth Bilobrowka.

The society chose 1835 as the date to focus on for restoration efforts. Some small grants have been secured but the tavern’s restoration mainly has been paid for through local fundraising events such as an annual antiques show and the dedicated work of local volunteers with an interest in history.

In 2007 a new shingle roof replaced the 120-year-old slate roof. The ceilings on the second floor have been replaced with new plaster-board. Most of the second floor exterior walls have been plaster-boarded. The three yellow sides have been repainted. A new well was drilled and water brought inside the building for the first time.

The tavern contains more than 15 different patterns of early American stenciling. Another unusual feature is the use of wattle and daub construction.

The technique involved a series of horizontal saplings laid between the vertical posts of the structure. The saplings were covered with clay and the clay was scored diagonally, and then covered with plaster.

Reston said the Nellis Tavern was a substantial structure for its day: “The Georgian architecture of the staircase shows that these people had wealth and good taste and made a very substantial building.”

The tavern is open Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. from June through September. Depending on the weather, the Sunday openings may begin in May.

The tavern will hold its annual Rhubarb Festival on Sunday, June 1, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., featuring a popular pie-baking contest.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or bobcudmore@yahoo.com.

 
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