Bell’s Tavern & Tavern History

As we left Diamond Caverns on our last day trip, we were headed for the interstate, when I saw the historic sign for Bell’s Tavern. I had seen information about this tavern on one of my many searches, but I hadn’t remembered its location in Park City. With just a few turns, we arrived at the remains of Bell’s Tavern.

After returning home, I began to research additional information on Bell’s Tavern. While researching, I started wondering about where taverns began. So, let’s step a little further back in history to understand the origins of the Kentucky Tavern.

Colonial Times

Let’s step back to 1634. On March 4th of that year, Samuel Cole opened the very first tavern (aka “ordinary” or “inn”) in Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Sketch of Early Colonial Tavern / Photo Credit: Hallie Alexander

There was an overwhelming need for taverns throughout the colonies. So much so, that in 1656, Massachusetts General Assembly made it a law that every town must have an ordinary or they would face fines. The tavern, or ordinary, served many purposes. It was a place where alcohol could be regulated by the government, but more importantly, it was a place for weary travelers to rest, grab a bite to eat, stay the night, and catch up on the events and news of the day. Taverns were also often used as the community gathering place for information, news, and political discussions.

The tavern served a multitude of purposes in colonial towns and countrysides.
They were means of direction for travelers, as well as settings where they could eat,
drink, be entertained, and spend the night. As historian Carl Bridenbaugh states, “The
tavern was conceived as a public institution which should provide all needed services,
and which should be carefully regulated by law to prevent all usual sorts of abuses.”3
Obviously the term “abuses” refers to the use of alcohol and the behaviors caused by its over-consumption. The tavern was the means by which the town assemblies controlled the distribution of alcohol. Along with alcoholic beverages, colonists could play games, enjoy entertainment, participate in discussion, and receive the latest news and debate of the time.

Along with being popular locations of social congress, taverns were significant
for their function in town culture and society. Taverns were utilized as meeting places
for assemblies and courts, destinations for refreshment and entertainment, and, most
importantly, democratic venues of debate and discussion.

The Taverns in colonial America: The Gettysburg Historical Journal

While anyone in a town could run a tavern, a license was required. Early taverns were usually attached to the personal home of the tavern keeper, as colonists were encouraged to open taverns for the good of the community. “Inducements such as land grants, pastures for cattle, or exemption from school and church taxes were offered to citizens to keep a tavern.” (The Gettysburg Historical Journal, Vol. 1, 2002)

First Tavern in Kentucky

As I have covered before, Kentucky was originally a county in Colonial Virginia. Taverns would have been a necessity in Colonial Virginia, and therefore in Kentucky County too. The first tavern to be opened in Kentucky was Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, Kentucky. It was opened in 1779, 13 years before Kentucky was granted statehood.

I have found that in Kentucky, most taverns were built or established along stagecoach lines. A few of the taverns we have visited have been: Sandford Duncan Inn, Duncan Tavern, and Morgan Row.

Bell’s Tavern

What we now know today as Park City, had a few other names throughout time; Three Forks, Bell’s Station and Glasgow Junction.

The community developed around the L&N Railroad, the L&N Turnpike, Mammoth Cave stagecoach road and the Mammoth Cave Railway. For many years the town served as a local transportation hub.

Bell’s Tavern was built in the 1820s by Colonel William Bell, a Revolutionary War officer from Virginia. He moved to Kentucky and purchased 3,500 acres in what is now Barren County. He and his son, Robert Slaughter Bell, and daughter-in-law Maria Gorin Bell, ran the tavern together growing it from a small stop to a large tourist attraction on the way to Mammoth Cave.

“The first structure, a rambling wooden affair, built in the 1820s and added to from time to time as patronage grew, was noted for the hospitality dispensed by its owner…. The service was lavish and the fare testified to the epicurean taste of the owner. Colonel Bell himself prepared his favorite appetizer, peach brandy and honey, a beverage of exhilarating potency, and he was generous in dispensing it.

Kentucky: a guide to the bluegrass state (1939)

As was the purpose of a tavern, Bell’s Tavern was the place to be in the 1820s. Many prominent politicians found this to be their favorite meeting place, including by not limited to Henry Clay, the Marshalls, the Humphreys, Judge Rowan, and Aaron Harding.

As quoted above, visitors to the tavern always found the greatest hospitality, a comfortable place to stay, and a breakfast like none other “upon the length of the continent” (Nathaniel Silsbee).

Unfortunate Events

Colonel William Bell passed away in 1833, followed 20 years later by his son Robert Bell in 1853. After Robert’s death, his widow Maria, married local farmer George M. Proctor. George and Maria successfully continued to run Bell’s Tavern with plans for expansion. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad Line (L&N) was under construction at this time and would run right by the tavern bringing many more travelers.

Plans did not work out that way, however. In 1858, Bell’s Tavern caught fire and burned to the ground. This was a significant loss to the Proctors.

A New Plan

A new tavern would be built. This time of stone so that fire could never destroy it again. Maria Bell Proctor’s plans were for it to be magnificent! The building was to be 105 feet in length and 60 feet wide. It would have “proportions and appointments… worthy of the tavern’s reputation.”

In 1860, slaves began reconstructing the tavern, but they didn’t get very far. The Civil War broke out in 1861 stopping construction, and in 1865 Maria Bell Proctor passed away.

All that Remains

The block walls had reached a height of approximately 15 feet before construction stopped, but after the war, George Proctor did not complete the project. So, today all that remains of Bell Tavern are 15 foot stone walls with arched windows covered in vines and moss. Even though it was never completed, its massiveness and rough beauty lives as a testament to William Bell and his tavern’s reputation.

Bell’s Tavern Historical Marker / Personal Photo

Our Visit

This is a trip that doesn’t take long. There is a fence that runs all the way around the tavern. Typically, I would say the gate is locked, but on this day, it wasn’t. The gate was propped open a bit, so I took advantage of the situation and stepped inside the gate to get better pictures. I did not step into the “building” at all. I’m not one to break rules or laws, so I kept my distance from the building and used my zoom feature instead. If someone else where to visit while the gate where open, I wouldn’t recommend getting any closer anyway. The walls have been overtaken by nature, and I can only imagine what would be found on the “floor” of the structure. The tavern structure is absolutely beautiful, just the same, and I took a few minutes trying to imagine what it might have looked like had it been finished.

While Bell’s Tavern really isn’t worthy of a trip of its own, if you are out and about in Cave Country, it is worth a stop. I truly think it is a beauty and worthy of seeing it in person!

Bell’s Tavern is on the National Register of Historic Sites. It can be found at 130-318 Old Dixie Hwy, Park City, KY 42160.

Until next time, Happy Travels!

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