York Colonial Complex
Back in 1740, York Pennsylvania was the frontier and Market Street, its main thoroughfare, a busy and muddy wagon trail. The following year, an entrepreneurial soul began construction of his home. Within eight years, he had a home, an Inn, a tavern and a respected place in society.
Today, all three, along with an additional dwelling and the courthouse, form a part of the York Colonial Complex and strive to remind us of both its humble beginnings as a town and the resilience of its first citizens.
As you walk through the house and Inn, life in 1700’s Pennsylvania unfolds before the visitor.
Life in Colonial York, PA
Our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide had us walk through the buildings and learn pieces of colonial history in a fun and entertaining manner.
The oyster shells found on site tell archeologists and historians that trade with coastal towns was readily available.
The scales remind us of a time in history when the barter system, the practice of exchanging one item or service for another, was more common than other payment options.
As we walk into the main kitchen of the original house, the interesting facts just keep coming. This may look like a kitchen fireplace, but it served many more purposes as well. Yes, the fire was kindled for cooking dinner. But this is also the original central heating system. In the back, you can see a square hole. Heat from the kitchen fire would pass through the hole and help to heat the other rooms in the house. If you’ve ever been camping and in charge of keeping the fire lit, you know that it is no small task. Being able to use one fire to heat two rooms would have been a definite advantage during this time period.
The spinning wheel is not present as decoration. In a time when department stores did not exist, and in a frontier town like York, every home with the means would have had a spinning wheel. Wool and cotton, the best materials for clothing, were very expensive at this time and the typical person would have been using flax instead. Why? Because the British were limiting sheep in the colonies and wool would have to be sent to England before it was returned to the colonies to sell. This, obviously, would add greatly to its price.
The Golden Plough Tavern
As you walk through the house, visitors enter the Golden Plough Tavern. A one-room entertainment hall, the Golden Plough Tavern would have been the center of social life in York. This is where men would gather to eat, talk with one another, get a drink, play games (like chess), hold meetings, trade, and catch up on events and political musings from the surrounding areas. It was the hub of society.
Game of chess anyone?
Along with dinner and conversation, individuals would catch up on the news by reading the local newspaper: The York Gazette. Want to know something interesting about this paper? It was written entirely in German. The reason for this is simple: this is Pennsylvania and in the 1700’s the great majority of people around here speak German.
There are no electric light bulbs in 1700’s York but the merriment in the Golden Plough Tavern continues well into the evening.
Off of the tavern is the Presidential suite- or its equivalent at the time. This was the best room at the Inn and reserved for very important guests. A firm bed and private table are a luxury at this time.
Notice the square, small-window like area on the right? It opens up to the outside, but it is not a window. This exists for the sole purpose of letting the spirit out of a room- should someone die in said room. It was believed by many that if an individual died, his or her soul needed to exit the premises immediately- or the soul would be trapped there forever.
Continuing with our tour, we walked up to the second floor. Added approximately 7 years after the first, we can now see behind and in between the walls. The construction is typical of the time period and fascinating to see.
The first room on the second floor is the main Inn. No, nothing is missing. This is it. When you booked a room at the Inn, you were not expecting a furnished room to yourself (unless you were very important and booking that Presidential suite we saw earlier).
Typically, a room at the Inn got you just that: a room. In York, it got you this room. Four walls, a roof over your head, and warmth (hence the chimney on the left). As travelers stopped by for the night, they would unfold their own sheets and bedding and sleep on the floor. All of them, in this one room. Hence you might have the room to yourself or with ten of your new friends. You never knew and that is why women were not allowed to stay. Protecting their chastity and reputation, women who traveled had to secure a room in a relative or friends house; they were not allowed at the Inn.
Gen. Horatio Gates House
Around the corner from the Inn sleeping room, you can find the owners space. Here we see the children’s bedroom. The original family had several children living at home with them and this space would have been shared by all but the youngest (when the youngest was still in a crib).
“Sleep tight”. Ever hear that? This is where it comes from. Beds looked very different back in the 1700’s. The ropes under the hay or straw mattress would need to be tightened every few nights for a comfortable sleep.
“Don’t let the bed bugs bite”. Ever hear that one? Even in this, the master bedroom, the bed was made with the ropes and the mattress was made out of hay or straw. Bugs of all sorts are clearly drawn to the warmth of indoor straw or hay and would be inadvertently present in any bed during this time period. Every night or every few nights, someone in the household would try to get rid of as many as possible. But truth be told, they all knew some were always present. I would not have done well living in this time period. At All.
Candle making is a household chore and this little contraption made life easier in every home that had one.
History of the York Colonial House
As time went by, the original family moved out of the corner house and sold the property. The new owners were a well to do family and decided to add on to the original structure and build their own home next to the Inn and Golden Plough Tavern. You can move seamlessly from the original building to the addition by walking through a door- but the feel of the homes is definitely different.
The new owners, with more money, built a home with hallways, several chimneys, and all the trimmings of a well-to-do home.
A fascinating part of the new home is this flexible space: A wall, separated into two parts, that can be raised (individually or together) to convert two small rooms into one larger room! As a demonstration of the family’s wealth, there are chimneys in both of the rooms.
Why is a chimney a sign of wealth? Well, because if you have several chimneys in a home you need servants to keep the multiple fires going.
As we toured the newer home we came to the master bedroom. With the most impressive bed thus far, someone on the tour asked why the bed was so small (lengthwise). “Were people shorter back then?”. Our guide was happy to answer: no. People were not shorter during this time period, but they were practical. Beds, especially of this kind, were expensive and definitely a luxury. The bigger the bed frames the bigger the price tag. The bed was short because it cost less that way. Additionally, people believed that you should sleep a bit upright for optimal health. Hence, the shorter bed would not have been as big of an issue.
Also in the master bedroom were a chimney and a toilet/ chamber pot. The servants would stoke the fire and keep it going, but guess who was in charge of the chamber pot! The youngest child, as soon as he/she could walk and carry something without spilling, was in charge of walking around the house every morning and emptying the chamber pots! I have never been happier to be the oldest. The other thing to note is that emptying the chamber pot could mean carrying its contents into the back woods or throwing them out of the nearest window! Just think about that for a minute.
Another display of wealth, a China setting, ordered and brought from the actual country of China, is displayed in the family’s sitting room.
Ever wonder how the lady of the house, dressed in her Sunday best, would get around town? Remember: the town is Colonial York, PA, and the main street is a high traffic dirt (or mud) road with hogs and horses walking around (and doing their business).
The answer is this chair-like ‘vehicle’ called a litter. House servants would use the side pillars, which would be placed through the holes on the side of the chair, and carry the lady, dressed in her finest, anywhere she needed to go. This is not vanity, this is survival of the silk shoes and cotton dress.
The family had to eat but, unlike the original family, they had servants to prepare their food. Not wanting to have a house smelling like food (or wax or animal oils) the kitchen was built in a separate outside room. This outdoor kitchen is big and would allow for butchering or cooking of any meal.
Games and Family Life in Colonial York, PA
The children of the household had their time for play and learning too. Games could be as simple as wooden puppets or as educational as Shut The Box- a math game that rivals any current methods for learning math facts (Seriously. I wish I had this when my kid was learning to add. We have since bought our own at the shops in Colonial Williamsburg).
This simple game, played with only a wooden wheel and a stick, was meant for boys (yes, there were boy games and girl games and some mixed-gender games). I’m sure it kept everyone entertained because my kiddo could have played it for hours!
One of the reasons why the Gen. Horatio Gates House, Inn, and the Golden Plough Tavern are in such great shape is the fact that they were continuously inhabited and used as a place of business until the 1960’s.
The York Colonial Courthouse
Unfortunately, this courthouse is not the original building. It was later reconstructed using primary sources, descriptions, paintings and the like as a guide.
The original courthouse was, for a time, the meeting place of the Second Continental Congress.
Of course, not every day could be historic at the courthouse. Sometimes it served the function of just a courthouse and thus had to have the pillory in front to deter unlawful acts and promote law-abiding citizenry.
Visiting the York Colonial Complex with Kids
We spent close to three hours touring the York Colonial Complex and were entertained, fascinated, and educated throughout the entire time. Our guide was phenomenal and knew incredibly fun facts about colonial York and every artifact in the complex. It’s important to note that while my child is older (10) there were also smaller kids in our tour group and all were engaged and interested the entire time.
I highly recommend a visit to the York Colonial Complex the next time you are in Central Pennsylvania!
If this sounds like a child-friendly adventure and an amazing educational experience it’s because it is!
Luckily, the York Colonial Complex is hosting York Colonial Day on July 30, 2016, from 10am to 4pm. You know some of the history, you know it will be fascinating and family friendly, and you know of a date when the whole complex will be available for a tour and alive with colonial living history… pack your bags and we will see you there!
Looking for more fun things to do in York, PA? Check out these related and helpful articles to plan your next trip or just your next weekend with fun things to do in York, PA:
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