Isaac Hunter's Tavern: A new future for the forgotten history of a place critical to Raleigh's past

ByHeather Leah
Friday, January 25, 2019
(Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina)
Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

When you walk into the lobby of the North Raleigh Hilton, you are walking on the very footprints of our city's founders. Beneath those very floors rests the original foundation of Isaac Hunter's Tavern, a modest wooden cabin with a tin roof built in the 1700s that was so well-loved by North Carolina's most important and influential men that they decided the state capital should be built no more than ten miles away.

Many locals believed the tavern itself was destroyed, either by entropy or construction for new developments. Despite its critical importance to the history of Raleigh -- and really, our entire state -- there are no relics or remains on display at any of our history museums. Even people who remember seeing the tavern, dilapidated and disguised as an old horse stable on Wake Forest Road in the 1970s, mostly reported the tavern to have been destroyed.

However, the foundation and wooden planks belonging to Isaac Hunter's Tavern still stand, hidden by years of misinformation, new developments, and overgrowth. Soon, for the first time in history, the public may finally be able to visit artifacts and pieces of the tavern itself.

After so many years being lost, Isaac Hunter's Tavern has been found once again. This time, thanks to the Wake County Historical Society, the North Raleigh Hilton, and DeWitt Carolinas, the tavern may finally get the historic recognition and remembrance it deserves.

How Isaac Hunter's Tavern was Lost

Some Raleigh residents recall driving past the tavern in the 1970s.

"It was a completely dilapidated little shack," said Robert Leah, who drove past the landmark every day on his way to work. "At the time, it was no longer a tavern, but a horse stable. And before that, it had been a tenant house. You'd really only know it was important if you were a student of North Carolina history."

Old photos from the North Carolina State Archives show the tavern's insides, which at the time had stable walls built over old-timey wallpaper from its previous incarnation.

Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

Many residents drove past it every day, never realizing it was the legendary Isaac Hunter's Tavern.

The tavern is a historic chameleon, changing roles and appearances as necessity dictated. In 1914, when the Hardimont Plantation took ownership and developed the land, Isaac Hunter's Tavern became a tenant house.

A new owner, J.C. Biggs, moved into the Hardimont House in 1922, and a site plan from 1938 reveals he moved the tavern about 100 yards behind his estate. Later, it was transformed into a stable. By the 1970s, it would have easily been unrecognizable, a ghost of its former life. This ever-changing nature is part of why the building so easily slipped past historians' radar -- while the house of Isaac Hunter's contemporary rival Joel Lane was preserved.

Why Preservation Never Happened

In 1969, Isaac Hunter's Tavern was finally recognized, despite being disguised as a horse stable, by the Wake County Historical Society. The Raleigh Times' headline read: It May Be Isaac Hunter's Tavern? Is Shack the Original?

Even then, historians were unsure whether or not they had discovered the actual tavern. After all, centuries of changes had left it with very little obvious evidence. However, an in-depth survey revealed the structure to be authentic; it was simply moved from its original foundation.

Photos show the tavern was on the brink of collapse. The tin roof is still visible, as well as a quaint brick chimney. These historic photos from the State Archives of North Carolina are some of the last remaining photos of the building intact. You can even see the stable walls built inside what clearly used to be a living area, with vintage wallpaper decorating the horses' stables.

Records from Arthur J.P. Edwards, a Survey and Planning Specialist from the State Department of Archives and History, describe the layout of the original Isaac Hunter's Tavern and provide a visual snapshot of its 1700's appearance:

"The original room division seems to have been of the hall-parlor variety with two connecting rooms, each having an entrance door from the front. The line of the partition wall is determined by the mortises in the ceiling beams, which are finished with a heavily beaded soffit. The excepted cornice boards are applied with handmade T-headed nails ... and appear to be original to the building."

His summed up his report, writing Isaac Hunter's Tavern was a "rapidly deteriorating ... relic from the earliest years of the settlement of Wake County."

A North Carolina Historic Sites Survey reveals the Wake County Historical Society had hopes of preserving the tavern as a museum. They wrote in the survey that they hoped to purchase and restore the building. For the first time in many decades, the Isaac Hunter's Tavern had some hope of remaining in the light of day, a protected piece of history for all of Raleigh to enjoy.

They estimated needing $50,000 to restore the tavern, and the cost for purchase is indicated as "no cost." However, in a letter from T.W. Mitchell to John Griffin, there's vague mention of a "very sticky legal situation" in regards to the tavern. For one reason or another, the restoration never happened, and the tavern was lost to history once again.

"One day I drove past, just like I always did," Robert Leah said, "and the land was bulldozed, with yellow construction equipment everywhere. They were building a Hilton. The tavern was gone."

And for decades, many people assumed it was.

A New Generation of Explorers

In August 2017 the newspapers once again rang out with headlines about a freshly-discovered Isaac Hunter's Tavern. This time, local history-lovers Benj Edwards and Mark Turner had been searching for the lost tavern, unwilling to believe it had simply disappeared. By overlaying historic maps, checking documents at the archives, and researching the structure's history, they individually concluded the tavern's location.

It seems many Raleighites had underestimated how far back the tavern was moved by J.C. Biggs. While it's true the North Raleigh Hilton was built over the original location of the tavern, the previous landowners had pulled the crumbling structure off the main road, where its dilapidated appearance wouldn't be so visible.

In an article from 2014, local writer and history-lover Mike Legeros wrote, "The (tavern) might've served as a caretaker's residence, and was later used to house livestock. Though it was spared by the (Hardimont House) fire, it was demolished when bulldozers cleared the land. (Yup, it survived from 1769 to 1981. You can imagine the resulting outcry, notably among preservationists and historians, when the thing was destroyed.)"

His written history from as recently as 2014 shows how thoroughly both citizens and historians alike believed Isaac Hunter's Tavern was truly gone.

With historic research and help from Betsy Hunter Amos, Isaac Hunter's 7th generation kin, the three writers and history-lovers discovered the tavern still stood. Exploration revealed an uneven stone foundation, covered with wooden boards with square-head nails, which dated the structure back to the 1700s.

They also discovered a remaining segment of the wagon trail, once a major stage road cutting across North Carolina. This last surviving segment of carriage trail between Raleigh and Wake Forest was likely the major thoroughfare of the 1700s and 1800s, and the reason Isaac Hunter's Tavern gained such popularity as a regular stopping point for traveling delegates. The wagon road ran parallel to today's Wake Forest Road, indicating the crossroads has always been a main road.

Courtesy of Wake Living Magazine

After discovering the remains of the tavern on their land, DeWitt Carolinas began working with the Wake Historical Society to identify and protect Isaac Hunter's Tavern.

Preserving the Tavern's Remains

What remains of the tavern today is little more than a small foundation of stones, a few sticks of lumber with pre-revolutionary square-head nails - and several modern beer bottles that prove some are still using that land as a personal tavern.

Brenda Holloman, president of the Wake County Historical Society said: "There used to be an old brick fireplace and remnants of the iconic tin roof."

Now, there are a bunch of broken bricks scattered along the forest floor.

Many hardworking history lovers have played a role in trying to keep the tavern's history from fading. In fact, when BRH Associates bought the land to build the Hilton in 1982, Linda Ray (whose husband was a managing partner) and Beth Crabtree worked together to create the most comprehensive collection of tavern history in existence.

If you want to see their exhibit of artifacts from the tavern, hand-written journals from historic families who owned it, photos from the era, and in-depth history, the North Raleigh Hilton on Wake Forest Road has it on display in their lobby. It includes actual relics, like pieces of wood and the pre-revolutionary nails from the 1700s.

"We are excited about the findings on our property and plan to preserve and honor the historic remains of the tavern," said Steven Beattie, Director of Pre-Development at DeWitt Carolinas.

According to Beattie, DeWitt hopes to excavate the tavern's remnants before developing the land. While the property will be built upon, historic artifacts will be saved. Working alongside DeWitt, the Wake County Historical Society has been collecting artifacts, examining the tavern's remains, documenting everything with photographs, and will likely assist in the excavation of the site.

Beattie says they are not certain exactly how they will utilize the artifacts; however, he suggested several possibilities including an exhibit, a memorial garden, or even building a replica of the tavern.

Courtesy of Wake Living Magazine

Isaac Hunter's Tavern is a testament to how quickly and easily even critical pieces of the past can be lost if we forget about them for too long. History lovers have ensured that although we couldn't save the tavern itself, perhaps exhibits from DeWitt and the North Raleigh Hilton can save its memory.

Heather is an ABC11 Influencer. Read more of her work on her blog.