Monday, April 21, 2008

Today we drove to just outside Charlottesville, here in Virginia, to visit Mitchie Tavern, built sometime in the 1730s to serve people coming down from Philadelphia, through the Carolinas, and moving out along the Appalachian Valley to the frontiers in the West and the South. We were entranced by so many details of colonial life covered in this hour-long tour. Like other colonial enacters, all guides were in period costumes, but the quality of the information and the warm Southern charm made for a lovely day, despite the heavy rains.

Mr. Mitchie began his life in the colonies as an indentured servant; there’s a hint that his family back in Scotland sent money so he could buy his freedom. He quickly purchased land and established a tavern, mill and general store. At the tavern, customers could expect food, drink, and a bed (all for a price), as well as the chance to catch up on gossip, a more reliable source than rare newspapers.

Travelers could refresh themselves by drinking hard cider or beer on the front porch from an outside bar, or they could step inside, into the gentlemen’s parlor. In reality, Mr. Mitchie would lock a slave into a box-shaped room, where that person would be responsible for serving drinks until the tavern closed. Perhaps locking the person into this small workroom/bar was a way of protecting the inventory, but to 21st Century ears, it sounds another reason to dislike slavery.

If travelers preferred punch, they could sip from a large common bowl, passed hand to hand, much like a pipe would be shared.
Bread, meat, and cheese were commonly served on plates that were ceramic on one side and tin on the other, made something like a flask so that hot water could be poured inside the “plate”, keeping the bread and meat warm. Women retired to a parlor specifically for them, though they could join those in the common rooms if they wished, to warm their tired feet by the fire.

Where did they sleep? Most slept on the floor, wrapped in their own bedding, propped up on a side bed (and sharing the space with two or three others), or in an upstairs room where beds were commonly shared with strangers. I’m thinking not much privacy here. If people were traveling in a larger party, they would simply camp out in the woods, perhaps only taking a meal. A fine room (the owner’s room) was maintained upstairs, and could be rented out for a price to the wealthy.

The tavern was a center for religious, political and social gatherings, with dances and music a highlight. We danced a Virginia reel. I curtsied and Allen bowed. Apparently the ladies were quite taken by a man’s calf as the men wore pantaloons, so here’s where “put your best foot forward” came from, as the men “made a leg” at the beginning of the dance.

We heard harpsichord music and played a number game popular with sailors of the time called “Shut the Box” (Allen won), which consisted of rolling dice and matching numbered tiles until they were all used up. Our lunch was delicious: Just a little fried chicken, barbeque, chilled beets, coleslaw, stewed tomatoes Southern style, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes and gravy, and hot biscuits with honey. No room for peach cobbler!

The tea intrigued me. Apparently Chinese tea became moldy in the long journey to the Americas. To solve this problem, the tea was pressed until all moisture was removed (see the picture above). To make tea, you simply scraped off some tea from this cake. The pressed cake above had about 40 sections; each section could make over 80 cups of tea. In fact, at the famous Boston Tea Party, these were the cakes of tea tossed over the side, left to slowly disintegrate in Boston Harbor.

We ended the day at the Kluge-Ruhe Museum of Aboriginal Art at the University of Virginia. No photography was allowed of the artwork. These paintings by Australian aborigines near Alice Station in the 1970s, were complex “dream” paintings of beliefs and stories, so very different from Western or Native American art. Similar to African culture, these aboriginal people had male and female secret societies, each with their own stories and symbols. Beautiful stuff and the topic of today's poem.

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