by Chris Clemens
The Nellis Tavern on Route 5 in St. Johnsville, New York, Montgomery County has undergone a mind-blowing number of alterations since it was first constructed in 1747. Some of those changes have been natural to the aging process, and some intentional amidst the ongoing restorations the Palatine Settlement Society has been overseeing since it formed in 1978. Today, the tavern serves as home to the historical society in addition to hosting visitors wanting a glimpse in to part of the region’s past. I’m honored that they opened up when the museum was normally closed and allowed me a view in to one of the oldest wooden structures in the Mohawk Valley.
When he first built the home in 1747, Christian Nellis created a one-and-a-half story house to be situated with his front door facing the mighty Mohawk River. As visitors increased and the region gained popularity, new transportation methods replaced boating and a major roadway was built on the backside of the home, effectively changing where the front door should be. That roadway would later become known as State Route 5, which is the road you’d take to visit and enter the front door….which….once was the back.
In 1790 when the doors were switched, a full-height second floor was added. But, this was done by Nellis’ son who had purchased the property from his father in 1767. Then in 1820, a five room addition turned the modest family home in to the place to stay (and, drink). The Georgian, two-room home had effectively been renovated to become a Federal-style tavern with room to house a lot of guests.
Today, while exploring the surrounding area to the tavern, you’ll find the Nellis name all over. The Town of Nelliston, Nellis Road in Evan Mills, New York, and even the Nellis Field Airport in nearby Fort Plains are all indications that the family’s settlement was an important one. Now, if you know your history, you already know that the time frame discussed above would’ve included two large wars, both of which saw some action in the Mohawk Valley region. It stands to reason then, that the Nellis men would’ve engaged in quite a bit of battle on the lands surrounding the tavern. A few reports from the Revolutionary War Battle of Stone Arabia (just a few miles away from the tavern) even refer to “Fort Nellis”, which was later determined to be none other than our beloved tavern. Somehow, the legacy of the Nellis name protected the structure from harm, while nearly the entire surrounding area fell victim to somewhat of a scorched earth campaign. It’s believed that the tavern was identified as being ‘off limits’ for battle, effectively ensuring that I’d still be able to visit as late as 2016.
While the entire structure itself has an interesting history. While you’re visiting, be sure to pay close to attention to much of the small detail that is unique to the tavern. It is entirely made of wood, and the Palatine Settlement Society has even maintained a display of of the original interior of the wall featuring a unique “wattle and daub” method. The fact that the structure has withstood over 250 years in some of the most brutal winters the Mohawk Valley has seen in itself is noteworthy!
Some of the interior walls have suffered some damage due to precisely that inclement weather the region is known for. Lost among that damage is the luster and charm of the handcrafted stenciling throughout both floors. The recent restorations have focused on bringing back the appearance of that stenciling and the tavern has gained national attention for that effort. You’ll notice that some of the stenciling currently is more vibrant, as it has been recreated carefully by hand. The goal is to continue that painstaking (and costly) work throughout the remainder of the interior.
Getting a quick glimpse in to one of the few remaining wooden structures to survive over two and a half centuries and learning the history of the region really was a fascinating experience. If you’re heading down Route 5 in St. Johnsville, New York, I highly recommend making a stop and popping in!
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens