Change comes slowly — if at all — to Yellow Springs' watering hole
Ye Olde Trail Tavern has undergone some obvious changes since it first opened as Mills Tavern in 1827.
Through the years, hitching posts have given way to parking spaces, and gas lanterns have been replaced with electric lights. (It's also possible to make the trek to Yellow Springs in under an hour now, rather than over the course of an entire day by stagecoach.)
More recently, the longtime watering hole, which was purchased in January by Christine Monroe-Beard and her husband, Don, who also own Peach's Grill just down the road, has undergone a more substantial overhaul after a planned “refreshing” revealed that the building needed more intensive structural work.
“We had to sister a lot of the beams up in the original part [of the building] and replace some trusses,” Monroe-Beard said in an early April interview at the tavern, which is currently closed for renovation and is slated to reopen in the coming weeks. During a tour of the bar's second floor, which formerly housed the bathrooms and will now operate primarily as storage space, one could still see evidence of places where the floor bowed as much as four or five inches in spots.
But rather than bringing Ye Olde Trail Tavern up to the modern era, much of the work being put into the building is designed to take it back decades, to the way the space likely appeared when Frank Hafner built on to the original structure after purchasing the property in 1847, constructing a second floor and the larger front room that now serves as the main bar area. To that end, layers of gray paint have been stripped from the ceiling and wood beams in the back bar, allowing the beams to regain their original, dark finish.
“We refinished things to match the history of how they would have done it,” said Monroe-Beard, a Yellow Springs native who traces her interest in history through her bloodlines. “My grandmother was a history teacher and growing up in an older home I always wanted to know who lived there and all the bits about it. Then in high school I got involved in the [18th-century living history festival] Fair at New Boston and did that for about 15 years, and … that's how I learned so much about the area.”
Since purchasing Ye Olde Trail Tavern in January, Beard-Monroe, who worked as a server in the bar in the 1990s, has immersed herself more fully in its history, combing through old newspapers, deeds and court records to trace its lineage back to the Revolutionary War era (the tavern is constructed on land first controlled by George Rogers Clark, who fought under General George Washington). Frank Hafner later bought the land from the Mills family, establishing it as a bakery sometime after 1947.
And if Hafner had his way, the building would have remained a bakery, or at least operated as anything but a bar, even writing into his will that the property was not to be used for or sold to anyone who intended to run it as a tavern.
“Poor guy,” Monroe-Beard said, and laughed. “It's been a restaurant and tavern pretty much the entire time since he passed.”
Ye Olde Trail Tavern's most recent former owner, Cathy Christian, who owned and operated the bar beginning in 1980, placed no such restriction on the property when she sold it in January, though she did want to make sure the new owners kept up the tavern's tradition as a neighborhood watering hole rather than radically reshaping it or introducing some new, modern concept into the space.
“It's like your Cheers kind of place. We have those people where at a certain time you know darn well they're coming in,” said Monroe-Beard, pointing to a series of plaques on a weathered wooden beam — placards denoting regulars who have died. These regulars sipped beers alongside the occasional celebrity (Rod Serling once worked a guest bartending shift) as well as the ghost of a woman with long, brown hair who used to greet Monroe-Beard at the start of every serving shift she worked in the '90s.
“Yellow Springs doesn't welcome change regularly … so things don't change much in here unless they have to. And, really, there's no need to change this place. It needs to stay the same because changing it would ruin the character,” she continued. “When we bought it, we didn't have our sights on changing anything. And really all we're doing is giving it a good spick and span and updating the plumbing and electric. By the time we're done with this place, it'll stand another 200 years.”