History's Headlines: King George Inn refuge for travelers, local folks since 1756
Cliff McDermott, owner of the historic King George Inn in South Whitehall Twp., Lehigh Co., near Allentown, since a Friday the 13th in 1970, is not a guy who necessarily takes ghosts seriously.But he would not be totally surprised if he ran into one at his over 250-year-old inn. “When you have been around as long as we have, you hear all kinds of stories and hear all kinds of tales,” he said.
Perhaps the best known of those stories is called the Crying Baby Well. As McDermott was told it was around the time of World War II when an inn employee went down to the basement to dry some linen near the furnace. The basement also contained an old well that dated to the inn’s earliest years. Suddenly the lights went out. Several hours later the woman was discovered and emerged totally disoriented and mumbling about a crying baby.
A former owner told McDermott that during the French and Indian War when the region was on the frontier and raids by Native Americans were common that the Indians would kill the settlers’ babies, dropping them down the well. Although McDermott has converted the area to a dining space, the still visible deep stone lined well appears as if it could easily evoke such tales.
“I never heard any crying babies. I am not saying it’s true but this is the story. I have also been told that where our parking lot is, was an orchard of apple trees where the local militia drilled during the Revolution,” McDermott said.
The founders of the inn were granted a license by King George II, not that other King George, in 1756. That is why McDermott named the inn after the last English monarch to personally lead troops in battle. He fell in love with the place when he stopped in at what was then the Dorneyville Hotel in the 1960s following family on trips to Dorney Park.
The inn reminded McDermott of those described by historical novelist Kenneth Roberts in his books about the French and Indian War era. And that image was coupled with tales of the inn he heard from the owners about times there during the Prohibition era of the 1920s. “Our 19th century back bar was taken from a hotel in Slatington and installed the night of Prohibition’s repeal,” he says.
In 1976 McDermott had the inn placed on the National Register of Historic Places. He notes it was often known as the White Horse Tavern after a sign that bore the image of a white horse. Three of them disappeared, he was told, the last one as a fraternity prank by Muhlenberg students in 1968.
The Reading Road, now in part Route 222 that runs past the inn, opened in 1755. It was rugged even by the standards of 18th century colonial highways. Not only was the surface rutted and the topography hilly but highway maintenance, assigned by the government to the property owner on whose land the road passed, was a sometime thing.
There are enough accounts of half cut tree stumps, three day trips between Allentown and Easton and the fording of many icy bridgeless creeks and rivers, as founding father John Adams knew from personal experience, to give credence to stories of the highway's poor condition.
Adams came to Allentown at least twice. The first mention is in his diary when he along with the rest of Congress fled first to Lancaster and then York to escape the invading British Army that was occupying Philadelphia in September of 1777. He notes that he rode through “Allan’s Town,” as he spelled it, going west to York.
Adams’s return trip was in the second week of November, 1777. He was traveling to Boston to see his family and left York with his cousin Sam Adams. He stopped at “Angelica,” the estate of a friend, Continental Army Quartermaster Thomas Mifflin just west of Reading. Cousin Sam apparently went on ahead to another tavern perhaps as far as what is now Kutztown.
Sources differ as to exactly what happened next. Adams travel diary for his stop between Reading and Bethlehem says simply “Reached Schechter’s.” The record shows that there was an innkeeper by that name in Allentown in the 1760s but there is no record of where he was in the 1770s. McDermott does not claim positively that Adams stopped at the King George, but he is open to the possibility. “This was prominent inn on a major road and he would have been going past it as his diary says at the height of a snowstorm and anything is possible.”
Today’s King George, if Adams did stop in, would be a welcome surprise. It is a wonderful cozy place that has a wine cellar but is not at all pretentious. And the food is good American fare. I will put our steak up against anybody’s,” says McDermott.
There is a full bar and upstairs and downstairs porches. Much of the work was done over the years by McDermott and his late wife, Nancy. His son, Kevin, works at the inn today.
Even if a founding father hasn’t stopped by in a while, the King George has hosted its share of celebrities from actor Jack Palance, singer Carole King and comic Alan King. In short, a roster of fame all its own that is not bad for 250 years old, with or without the Crying Babies.
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