The other day I took a tour of one of the oldest buildings in Shippensburg. And what a fascinating tour it was! What was originally Widow Piper’s Tavern, built in 1735, is now the home of the Shippensburg Civic Club. They have the building restored to what it would have looked like during the Colonial era and have done extensive work to keep the building in good shape, i.e. working on some walls that were bowing and correcting some building settling.
This area was the frontier for people heading west during that time. At one point, Mrs. Piper agreed to have one room of her tavern used to hold court, so the building is also referred to as the Old Courthouse. Later, when Cumberland County became more formed, the county seat was established in Carlisle, since it is more central in the county. But for several years, this building was used for the courts. There is a beautiful old desk in the room that they think was used for the courts.
There was an unusual candle stand in the room that they believe was used for court. The candle holder is on a long spindle that is threaded. You would spin the candle holder up or down that spindle, to spread the light out around the room if it was up high, or if it was down low, put the light more directly on you and your chair, to read for instance. I had never seen anything like that. (These candles were softened by sunshine thru the windows.)
Upstairs in the building we saw several bedrooms. The beds have straw ticking as mattresses, and our tour guide told us that when you paid a small amount of money for a place to sleep, it included supper, breakfast, and a place to board your horse if you had one. But. A place to sleep didn’t mean you got a bed or room to yourself: it might mean sharing the bed with several strangers, or even putting a blanket on the floor downstairs.
In one bedroom was a piece of art, set into a frame with glass. Our guide asked if anybody knew what it was made of. I said it was hair, since I had seen hair used to make things before, when we used to have Civil War reenactments in town. People saved the hair from their brushes and wove and arranged it into various types of ornaments to wear on their clothes, and sometimes into art work. The hair ornaments worn on clothes was often from the hair of a beloved relative who had died. This piece of art took a lot of time, and hair, to make.
Then our guide showed us something that nobody in the group could identify. It’s a foot warmer. People put a few coals that were still hot into this and took it in the buggy or carriage, to put their feet on on a long ride. Women would billow their full skirts out over it to hold the heat in.
To me the most fascinating room in the house was the kitchen, particularly the walk in hearth. This hearth was re-built at some time with very old bricks, and the original was the same local limestone as the outside of the house. (Click the link from the Boro below for a picture of the outside of the house.)
The hearth was the heart of the Colonial house, and a fire was always kept going, so that cooking could always be done easily.
I learned a lot in the kitchen. The round metal container at the top left of the picture served a very important role in the Colonial kitchen. Soap and candles were both made from animal fat. Mice were in the houses, and mice would eat your candles and soap. So you stored them in the metal box, which latched: mouse proof! Several candle molds were hanging from the mantle along with the candle box.
The large metal frame that’s holding a big cook pot swung out. It had holes in the frame so you could move your pot up and down: low to cook the food right near the fire, higher up to let food simmer or just keep warm.
The fire was built right on the floor in the hearth, and there was another good reason for the pot frame to swing out. You could stir food, or remove pots, etc. with it swung out away from the fire itself. Our guide said it was so good for a home to be able to have this swinging frame, since 25% of the women who died in the Colonial period died from catching on fire! Large billowy skirts, open fire, and a heath frame that didn’t swing out to get them away from the hearth fire.
It was a very interesting tour. Our guide gave us a lot of history of the area as we went thru the house, and detailed info about things that were located in the house. It’s fascinating to be able to look back into another time, with physical things in front of you to help you to imagine what it might have been like to live then.
Here is information from our Shippensburg Boro website. http://www.borough.shippensburg.pa.us/about-shippensburg/brief-history/