Listed on The National Register of Historic Places, “The Heathsville Historic District” includes most of the present day town with over one hundred contributing historic resources found in and around the village. It would take several pages to list all of the properties, monuments, cemeteries, sites, objects and buildings that make up this Historic District. All of these things combined have enabled Heathsville to retain its centuries old appeal as a residential and courthouse community.
Some of the better known properties, easily seen while driving through town include Springfield, Sunnyside, St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern, the Courthouse, old Jail, various monuments and more. Established as Northumberland Courthouse in 1681 and officially recognized as Heathsville in 1797, this village has remained an important crossroads for over three hundred years, serving visitors and natives alike.
As a student of history, it is my firm belief that each person, each town, each place has its own unique story to tell and Heathsville is certainly no exception. She is the sum of her early founders and current residents, each with their own unique story and place in time and she is equally the sum of her intended purpose that continues to this very day.
Although Captain John Smith had already explored and mapped this area of the Chesapeake Bay by the time Northumberland’s first English settler arrived, the endless forests, towering trees, clear waters, indigenous people, abundant fish and wildlife found here must have seemed almost too much to take in, upon first glance.
Sometime between 1635 and 1640 John Mottrom arrived in Northumberland by way of the Maryland side of the Potomac river. He was to become the first known English settler here. It is said that he enjoyed a friendly association with Marshywap, the “king” of the Chicacoan Indians. This was a good thing indeed for Mottrom, who was surrounded by wilderness and indigenous people.
Northumberland was formed from lands that had formerly been known as “Chickacoan,” meaning “land lying between the “River of Swans” (Potomac) and “The Rise and Fall of Waters” (Rappahannock). John Mottrom of Coan Hall had represented “the Plantation of Northumberland” before the House of Burgesses, in Jamestown sometime between 1645 and 1648. Now officially recognized, the county seat of Northumerland was established, for the meantime, at Coan Hall. Court business was often held in the homes of prominent citizens for lack of a better place until 1663, when the first courthouse was constructed at Hull’s Neck.
Court Days and the enterprising John Hughlett
During these early days in Northumberland, transportation by road was difficult at best. There were few roads to speak of and although growing, the county was still sparsely populated. In light of this logistical difficulty for many, it was decided (in 1679) that the courthouse would need to be moved to a more accessible location.
In 1663 an enterprising gentleman known as John Hughlett had obtained a land grant of 900 acres and operated a tavern along the old road between Wicomico and Chicacoan. Mr. Hughlett was obviously a visionary and a firm believer that “if you build it, they will come.” John Hughlett’s tavern was an important stopping point for travelers on their way to and from court business or other travels.
In 1680 the Northumberland County Court looked to John Hughlett as the source for a new courthouse and entered into an agreement with him to build a new courthouse and jail on four acres of his own land known as the “old field by Chicacone path.”
By late 1681 the 35’ long x 22’ wide courthouse was completed, as was the jail and stocks. He was paid “twenty-thousand pounds of tobacco” for constructing the buildings along with additional consideration being paid for his field of four acres and “the use of his tobacco house.” The present day courthouse square, tavern and surrounding structures all sit on land that was once part of John Hughlett’s original land grant.
In December of 1703, just two decades after John Hughlett built the first courthouse here, the court outgrew its facilities and ordered up a new and larger brick courthouse to be built near the existing one. Although plagued by delays, the new courthouse was eventually completed sometime in May of 1706. The courthouse in use today was built by John Donohoo in 1851, with extensive renovations and additions being made between 1900-1901.
The Establishment of Heathsville
In 1796 there was a movement afoot to promote the growth of Northumberland Courthouse by having it designated as an official town. Leading the charge was John Heath who truly was a leading figure much of his life. Born in Wicomico Parish, in 1758, he attended William and Mary College and was one of the original “charter members” to organize Phi Beta Kappa. He served as the first President of the society, fought in the Revolutionary War and became a lawyer, practicing law in Northumberland. He would go on to serve as the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Northumberland, from 1781–1793. In 1791 he purchased a retail store and built his permanent home in what would become Heathsville. Heath was elected to Congress, serving two terms from 1793–1797. He declined the nomination for any additional term and returned to Northumberland Courthouse.
In December of 1797 a petition was presented to the Virginia General Assembly asking for the establishment of a town at Northumberland Courthouse. With sixty-five signatures from among the town’s leading citizens, the petition stated that “the establishment of a town would provide better accommodations for those attending court and would encourage immigration of the most useful kind, such as mechanics and manufacturers.” The signed petition was successful and the Virginia General Assembly declared Heathsville an official Virginia town.
Today’s Heathsville has truly retained the hallmark of ages past while looking for ways to re-invent itself as a destination. Natives and come here’s alike have sought to celebrate what binds them together in a way that benefits the entire community at large through the mission and work of the Northumberland County Historical Society, The Rice’s Hotel Hughlett’s Tavern Foundation, the Heathsville Farmers Market, the Tavern Restaurant, various churches and festivals, civic organizations and more. Although we often pass by Heathsville, on our way to somewhere else, there is much more to this quaint little town than you might possibly imagine—it is truly a destination in its own right!
Here is a sampling of what Heathsville has to offer us today.
Heathsville Farmer’s Market — Held the third Saturday of each month, behind the Courthouse on the Tavern Green, April thru October. Time: 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church — Built in 1881, this lovely church is one of the best surviving examples of Carpenter Gothic style in Virginia. St. Stephen’s annual Strawberry Festival is held each year, on Memorial Day Saturday. A highlight is their own strawberry shortcake and of course strawberries for sale. As autumn approaches, St Stephen’s holds its annual Christmas Countdown Festival on Labor Day Saturday. Both festivals feature over 100 high-quality arts and crafts exhibits, a giant bake sale, food concessions and music. People come from far and wide to enjoy these enormously popular festivals. You won’t want to miss either festival so mark your calendars today.
Rice’s Hotel / Hughlett’s Tavern —
The current building we know as Rice’s Hotel and Hughlett’s Tavern has been an integral part of the courthouse square, serving the community at large since 1790. The original Tavern, built in the seventeenth century was much smaller but equally as important to those attending court and conducting business nearby.
This historic hotel and tavern bears the name of the two families that have left their mark on this easily recognizable and iconic structure in the hub of Heathsville. Although there were other owners, these two families created a life for their families and an enduring legacy for this charming little town. Additions in the 1830’s, 1880’s and 1920’s gradually enlarged the Hotel / Tavern to its present size.
In 1990, Rice’s Hotel was deeded to the Northumberland County Historical Society by Mrs. Cecelia Fallin Rice, who had inherited the Hotel from her late husband. With such an amazing gift and a legacy to preserve, the Historical Society set up a separate foundation to manage this treasured historic icon. The foundation set out and accomplished a painstaking restoration of the old hotel and tavern, which continues as one of the oldest continually operating taverns in Virginia.
In 2009 a fire broke out in the center section of the tavern, which forced the closure of the tavern restaurant and tavern gift shop. The fire had seriously damaged the center portion of the grand old tavern but quick responses by volunteers and fire departments made all the difference. As a result, the structure was spared catastrophic damage which enabled a complete renovation and restoration. The old hotel and tavern is now in better condition than ever and will be re-opening to the public at the end of April 2010.
RHHT has become a center for living history and a place to explore all sorts of traditional arts and crafts from yesteryear. A hub for community events, the tavern green includes a Blacksmith’s Forge, Community Center and a Carriage Building, which contains a collection of horse drawn buggies and carriages relevant to the history of Heathsville. Local groups that meet at the community center regularly, include the following:
- Quilters Guild
- Teen Quilters Guild
- Blacksmith Guild
- Weavers and Spinners Guild
- Scrapbooking Club
- Line Dancing
- Woodworkers Guild
- Northumberland County 4-H Club
For more information on the RHHT Tavern Foundation contact the foundation office at 804-580-3377 or visit them online www.rhhtfoundation.org.
The Tavern Restaurant
The Tavern Restaurant will be re-opening at the end of April under the direction of Chef Pam Gurley. Together with (sister) Chris McGee and (daughter) Macon Gurley, they will be offering classic Virginia Fare in a “homespun period atmosphere.”
The restaurant is a family affair with Pam overseeing taste, presentation and food preparation. Chris will be watching the bottom line and Macon has considered every detail in the restaurant’s décor, from the color scheme to the textiles, lighting and the placement of furnishings. The restaurant blends the best that all three have to offer in an elegantly casual period atmosphere. For those who love fine dining and the idea of classic Virginia fare served up in a traditional southern way—the Tavern Restaurant will become a favorite destination, bar none. The menu items offered will include classic southern comfort foods and a host of Virginia style epicurean delights that will please your palette and have you coming back for more.
“We plan to take entertaining with food to a whole new level, so that our patrons, who dine here for special events or for Sunday Lunch will have the kind of experience that they will want to share with others, again and again,” said
Northumberland County Historical Society — located at 86 Back Street in Heathsville, Virginia, behind the old jail. The Historical Society has a fine collection of Native American artifacts that is well worth seeing. Children will be amazed by the sheer number of arrowheads. The museum includes a research section and several lovely rooms that are available for receptions or meetings.
Dan’s Forge & Blacksmith’s Shop
The blacksmith’s shop situated directly behind Rice’s Hotel on the tavern green is named for Dan Purvis, who envisioned a working blacksmith shop as part of the living history exhibits at the Tavern. The blacksmith shop was modeled after forge’s that would have been in operation from about 1790–1840. The Blacksmith Guild operates Dan’s Forge and makes items for sale in the Tavern Gift Shop. They also provide living history demonstrations in period costume. More information on the blacksmith shop and hours of operation can be found online at www.rhhtfoundation.org/blacksmith_shop.
For such a charming little town there is still much that could be written about Historic Heathsville. Special thanks to the ladies at the Northumberland County Historical Society, Ellen Hollows Director of Operations for the Rice’s Hotel / Hughlett’s Tavern Foundation and The Tavern Restaurant (Pam Gurley, Chris McGee and Macon Gurley).
The next time you are headed somewhere that passes by Heathsville, take time to visit and experience what she has to offer. Heathsville indeed has her own unique story to tell and with a little help from friends and volunteers, her story is being preserved for future generations.
—Text and Photos by Karin Andrews