Inn the Beginning
Guests at the Fanthorp Inn in the 1800s were used to inconveniences such as sharing beds with strangers.
By Elaine Robbins
In the mid-19th century, when travel in Texas was rough — and considered too dangerous for women to undertake — Englishman Henry Fanthorp and his wife, Rachel, put up weary travelers in their inn on a popular east-west highway in Anderson. Today when you visit Fanthorp Inn State Historic Site, a two-story white clapboard inn about 30 miles southeast of Bryan/College Station, you’ll get a fascinating look at the rigors of early travel in Texas.
Park manager Cathy Nolte starts the tour in the original two-pen dogtrot log cabin, which Henry built for Rachel in 1834. “The building had been lived in almost continuously, so it has maintained its integrity,” she says. After Henry and Rachel died of yellow fever in 1867, the inn continued to operate for a year and then closed. Family members lived in the house until 1976, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department purchased the property.
Built in the pre-Republic era, it survived a tumultuous period in Texas history, from the Republic through statehood and the Confederacy. Notable figures stayed at the inn, among them Sam Houston, Anson Jones, Zachary Taylor and Robert E. Lee. After Henry was appointed postmaster for the Provisional Texas Government in 1835, guests began arriving by stagecoach along with the mail. “Henry’s postmaster job almost forced them into innkeeping,” says Nolte. “They put pallets on the floor and provided food and drink. Eventually they began to charge.” The inn was such a popular spot that in the late 1850s, Fanthorp added another 12 to 16 rooms (torn down in 1870). He also added the clapboard that gave the inn its current board-and-batten look.
While Fanthorp Inn seems rustic by today’s standards, to 19th-century travelers it offered a civilized respite from the hardships of rough roads and sporadic lodgings. In the 1860s, when European travelers enjoyed the luxury of sleeper cars, Texas travelers endured the discomforts of adventures by horseback, stagecoach or oxcart. Although steamships offered a more civilized option, few rivers were navigable, and even in sections that were, snags and sandbars made navigation difficult. Rivers were prone to flooding, which made ferry crossings dangerous.
If transportation was rough, lodgings were downright primitive. Travelers were often forced to camp or to ask a settler if they could spend the night. “Travelers who stayed overnight in the Texas countryside complained of holes in the cabin walls that let in moonlight and cold wind,” writes T. R. Fehrenbach in Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. “Rutherford Hayes, passing through Texas, wrote that he slept in one dog-run through whose sides a cat could be hurled ‘at random.’”
Guests arrived at Fanthorp Inn exhausted after a long day of lurching over muddy, potholed roads. They had usually been traveling the entire day, since stagecoach inns were typically located a day’s travel apart, a distance of 15 to 20 miles. When the stagecoach got stuck in a rut, passengers had to climb out, and second-class passengers had to push. For $1.50 a day, they received meals and a bed for the night. After dinner, male guests would clamber upstairs, where they’d sleep three or four to a bed. (Women and children got a private room.) Since most of their bedfellows wouldn’t have bathed, they’d also share the bed with assorted fleas, lice and bedbugs.
Upstairs in the guest rooms, I try to picture four grown men tucked into a bed smaller than a double, but the image just won’t gel. Nolte shows me a wash area in the hallway where guests could use a bucket of water and a communal comb, towel and drinking cup. In a few private rooms, long-term boarders stayed for $10 a month, excluding meals.
Back downstairs, we enter the dining room, where the table is set and ready for guests. Supper usually consisted of beef or pork with mashed potatoes or grits, peas or beans in season, cornbread to sop up the gravy, and sweet potato or apple pie. “Supposedly the food was pretty nice here compared to a lot of other places,” says Nolte. “Henry raised cattle, sheep, hogs and chickens, and grew corn and other seasonal produce.” Indeed, the meals were an improvement over the usual settlers’ diet, which was restricted to three food groups: pork, corn, and molasses. (Southerners sometimes added sweet potatoes to this trinity.) So tedious was the Texas fare that at the end of a grueling pack trip through the state in 1854, Frederick Law Olmsted remarked enviously that his brother, with whom he’d been traveling, would be “steaming to New Orleans, where, 24 hours later, a six months’ flavor of bacon and corn was washed out in the cheer of the St. Charles.”
Back in the original log cabin section of the inn, we visit the Fanthorps’ bedroom and Henry’s office. The modest bedroom still has the original wood floors, wardrobes and window glass. “Ropes supported the mattress, and they used a bed key to keep the ropes tight, which is where we get the expression ‘sleep tight,’” Nolte says. In Henry’s office, a ledger sits on his desk ready for his next entry.
Across the breezeway is a sitting room filled with tables. “Men from town waiting for the mail would sit in here and visit with travelers or read newspapers,” says Nolte. “The men drank, smoked, gambled and spit. The ladies entertained on porches or in the guest rooms.”
Although the inn’s rooms are now silent, if you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of horses’ hooves as the stagecoach arrives, then the quick flurry of activity as the horses and drivers change out in a quick six-minute stop. That fantasy becomes more real on the second Saturday of each month, when horses pull visitors in a cherry-red reproduction 1850 Concord stagecoach from the inn to the historic Grimes County courthouse. Lurched in a rocking rhythm, your knees squeezed against those of other passengers, you’ll get a small taste of travel in the early days of Texas. When you climb down and pull away from the inn in your vehicle, you may never complain about a road trip again.
Fanthorp Inn State Historic Site is in Anderson, about 30 miles southeast of Bryan/College Station. The inn is open for tours only, Friday - Sunday 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Stagecoach rides are offered the second Saturday of each month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. During a special holiday event on November 26, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., visitors ride the stagecoach and see the inn lit with lanterns and luminaries and decorated for the holidays. For more information, call the historic site at (936) 873-2633.
Journal Entries from Fanthorp
New settlers to the Anderson area, A. S. Beardsley and his wife, Jane, boarded at Fanthorp Inn while they waited for their home to be finished. Here are excerpts from their letters (including their misspellings) to family back in Connecticut:
“It took us two days to come from Houston to Anderson & the worse ride I ever had in my life. The first day it was so dry & dusty that we were nearly chocked with dirt. The second we had a thunder shower for two or three hours & I never saw it rain faster in my life. Abel & myself were completely wet through, we made out to keep the children nearly dry. It was quite cold two of the first days we were here & I was so lame from the effects of getting wet that I could scarcely sit down. They kept great fires & all the doors open & the wind blowing through the house strong enough to blow us away. I though I should have froze to death. …We are boarding for the present at Mr. Fanthrops Hotel, have an excellent boarding place, as good probably as the South affords. I long to get to housekeeping, but that is impossible just yet….We have a very pleasant Landlady & a house full of servants, anything we want we can have brought to us in our room by calling for it, if nothing more than a glass of water, but I would not have you think I am as dependant as that yet, I hope I may never be.…” — from Jane A. Beardsley to her sister, October 17, 1851
“The living is entirely different from what I have been use to we have in the Morning Coffee strong enough to bear up an Iron wedge and Fresh Port Fresh Beef Roasted & Broiled & for Dinner we have the same & for Supper the Same sometimes we have in addition a little Chicken, Turkey &C we have had a few times a hard looking kind of Apple Pie, & Sweet Potatoe Pie I wish I could describe them to you but it is impossible for Bread we have warm biscuits and Corn Bread we have had a few times light Bread it is a great luxury Butter we have had none on the table for the last week but that is of no consequence for when we did have it it was so poor I could not eat it. I wish you would see Jane often so I can hear from you all….”
—from A. S. Beardley to his parents, December 15, 1850