Creating the Eagle Tavern Dining Experience
April 1, 1982, was a momentous day in Greenfield Village! That was the day that Eagle Tavern opened to the public. It was our first historic dining experience—the result of months of research, recipe selection and testing, and interpretive planning. How did all this come about?
Historical presenters and food service staff pose in front of Eagle Tavern to celebrate the new dining experience, 1982. / THF237355
The Food Committee
It started when we took a chance on a young museum leader named Harold Skramstad, who became our president in 1981. Faced with a severe financial crisis at the time, Skramstad built a case around our “world-class” status and “unique historical resources.” This led to the creation of our first mission statement, which focused upon the process of change in America from a rural agricultural society to an urban industrial nation. Following that, Skramstad created several task forces and committees, each charged with developing plans to carry out our mission through a variety of public programs. This included the mysteriously named Food Committee. It turned out that this committee—comprised of curators, food service staff, and interpretation specialists—was charged with exploring ways to bring our food offerings in line with our overall interpretive framework.
Food vendor in Greenfield Village. / THF133689
Soon, new food experiences began to appear. Through the Food Committee’s collaborative efforts, vendors hawked fruit and penny candy from rolling carts like those that had been seen on urban street corners a century ago. At the Covered Bridge Lunch Stand (now Mrs. Fisher’s), visitors could partake of turn-of-the-century picnic lunches. With the help of diner expert Richard Gutman—who informed us that we possessed the last remaining lunch wagon in existence—the Owl Night Lunch Wagon was overhauled to look more like a late-19th-century lunch wagon, featuring a more historic menu. But Eagle Tavern became our “crown jewel,” as we proposed turning this historic inn into a sit-down full-service restaurant with period food and drink.
What had the building been like before this?
Ella Smith, the final owner, in front of the inn on its original site in Clinton, Michigan, circa 1905. / THF110475
In 1927—searching for a stagecoach tavern for his Village Green—Henry Ford found and purchased this imposing 1830s-era inn. From Clinton, Michigan, it was situated along what once had been the main stagecoach road between Detroit and Chicago. Over the years, the inn had gone through several proprietors and name changes, from Parks Tavern to Eagle Tavern to the Union Hotel to Smith’s Hotel. When Henry Ford had the building reconstructed in Greenfield Village, he gave it the generic name Clinton Inn.
Carriages waiting for passengers at Clinton Inn. / THF120768
From 1929 into the 1950s, the building served as a cafeteria for students attending the Edison Institute schools. Ford enlarged the back of the structure for that purpose. When Greenfield Village officially opened to the public in 1933, Clinton Inn became the starting point for public carriage tours.
1950 calendar for Greenfield Village, featuring Clinton Inn. / THF8882
In the 1950s, the building transitioned from a student lunchroom to a public cafeteria. That was still its use when I first started working at The Henry Ford (then called Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village) in 1977. Also when I started, Clinton Inn’s so-called “colonial kitchen” was used for fireplace cooking classes as part of the institution’s Adult Education Program.
Why Eagle Tavern?
Why did we choose the Eagle Tavern era to interpret? To establish a date for the historic dining experience, we looked to primary sources, as we do when we research all of our historic structures. These sources, which help us uncover the esoteric details of the past, included probate records, property deeds, tax and census records, and local newspapers. Through this research, we found that a farmer named Calvin Wood ran this tavern from 1849 to 1854, with his wife Harriet, Harriet’s daughter Irene, and additional hired help from town or the neighboring countryside. In keeping with the patriotic spirit of the time, Wood named the place Eagle Tavern.
We decided that we liked this early 1850s date. Not only did we have decent documentation on Calvin Wood, but it was also an interesting era for changes in cooking ingredients and cookbooks (both more available than before) as well as public dining practices and customs (toward more choices for individual diners, better table etiquette, more formalized meals and menus, and more specialized table settings).
The 1850s date also dovetailed with our new mission statement—about change over time—in larger ways that were transforming the entire nation at the time. These included social movements like temperance, abolition, and women’s rights; advancements in transportation, from horse-drawn vehicles to speedy railroads; and improved communication networks, as the telegraph swiftly brought the latest news to the public. Significant national events like the California Gold Rush and the Mexican War were also impacting many people’s lives.
A variety of horse-drawn vehicles passing in front of a Middletown, Connecticut, tavern, 1842–47. / THF204148
Michigan Central Railroad car, 1848. / THF147798
Researching the Food
My primary task in creating the Eagle Tavern dining experience was to find out what and how people ate during this era. I delved deeply into period sources looking for clues to these questions, including travelers’ accounts, etiquette books, merchants’ account books, newspaper ads, and historical reminiscences.
Within these sources, I found several quite eye-opening entries, like that of Isabella Bird, a British traveler who described this meal placed in front of her at a Chicago hotel in 1856: “…eight boiled legs of mutton, nearly raw; six antiquated fowls, whose legs were of the consistency of guitar-strings; baked pork with “onion fixings,” the meat swimming in grease; and for vegetables, yams, corn-cobs, and squash. A cup of stewed tea, sweetened by molasses, was at each plate…The second course consisted exclusively of pumpkin-pies.”
It’s probably good that we didn’t take these accounts completely literally when we developed the Eagle Tavern dining experience!
From these research sources, I learned that tavern fare would have come from a combination of local farms (especially, in this case, Calvin Wood’s own farm), from the fields and woods of the surrounding area, and using ingredients that would have been purchased from local merchants.
A cold plate featuring chicken salad, pictured in the 1988 Eagle Tavern Cookbook. / THF121002
The primary components of a tavern meal would have consisted of meat, vegetables and fruits (in various forms), and breadstuffs. Meat was the predominant component of the tavern meal, served in much greater quantity than today. Often, two or more meats were served at one meal. Pork, the staple food of many midwestern settlers, was the most popular meat, served in a variety of forms—including roasted, salted, baked, and as bacon, smoked ham, sausage, or spareribs. Chickens, easy to raise on farms, lent themselves to many dishes. They also could supply eggs. In fact, Lansing Swan, traveling through Sturgis, Michigan, in 1841, wrote: “We had an excellent dinner, warm cakes, tea, etc. bacon and eggs. I have eaten them until I am ashamed to see a hen and can hardly look a respectable porker in the face.”
Beef contributed to a portion of the tavern meals, as did wild game and fish from local lakes and rivers. Oysters were also popular at the time, packed on ice and transported in barrels from the East coast.
An array of vegetables for Eagle Tavern dishes, pictured in the 1988 Eagle Tavern Cookbook. / THF121001
As for vegetables, root crops lasted throughout the year and they stored easily. Potatoes were especially popular, as described in this southern Michigan meal by Charles Hoffman in 1833: “…hot rolls, tea, large pieces of pork swimming in its gravy, and a plate of potatoes that pulverized when you touched them.” Cabbage, onions, turnips, and carrots were other root crops frequently found in the research. Less hardy vegetables, like tomatoes and cucumbers, were served in season or preserved as catsups, sauces, or pickles. Pumpkins, squash, and corn were usually served in season or preserved for later use.
Fruits were served fresh in season, dried, or made into preserves, sauces, or pickles. Of these, apples were most frequently used as they were incredibly versatile—preserved, cooked, or baked into numerous dishes. Peaches, pears, apricots, grapes, and berries of all sorts were also found in the accounts. Wild strawberries were specifically called out several times by traveler Lansing Swan, in 1841. In Ypsilanti, Swan “got an excellent supper for 25 cents and many large delicious strawberries with rich cream.” Farther west, in Jackson, he happily remarked that he was, “Just in time for tea with strawberries and cream.” In Niles, he and his companion “came in time for another strawberry repast and a rich one it was. We had a new dish, ‘Strawberry Short Cake,’ very fine indeed.” And before leaving Niles the next morning, he partook of one last “strawberry breakfast.” Raisins, dried figs, prunes, currants, and citron were listed in grocery store ads and could be purchased.
A variety of muffins and rolls served at Eagle Tavern, 2007. Photograph by Michelle Andonian. / THF54331
Breadstuffs contributed substantially to tavern meals, mentioned often in travel accounts as a meal accompaniment—but not always with approval! For example, Cyrus Bradley, dining in a tavern between Detroit and Pontiac in 1835, remarked: “The milk was sweet, but the bread was dry and stale and as it began to saturate, the little red bugs rose, kicking most lustily, to the surface, where they were immediately skimmed off and most barbarously committed to the flames.”
Wheat flour and cornmeal were processed at local mills and could be used for baking breads, rolls, biscuits. Charles Hoffman, in 1833, remarked that Michigan had the “best wheat bread in the world.”
Creating the Menus
From all of these accounts, I created a master list of dishes and ingredients. Then I perused every historic cookbook I could find. Fortunately, the number of printed cookbooks was on the rise by the mid-19th century, although measurements, cooking times, and temperatures were not precise—which is why so much recipe testing had to be done. Within the pages of these cookbooks, I searched for recipes that were specifically referenced in historic accounts, those that seemed regional, and those that included ingredients on my researched ingredients list.
The Good Housekeeper, from 1841, was one of several cookbooks perused for possible recipes. / THF120853
I organized my collected recipes by type—for instance, entrees, pastries, soups, vegetables—and then spent innumerable hours with the food service managers at Eagle Tavern debating and selecting the final recipes. The managers brought up constraints that I would never have considered as a curator—including modern cost and availability of ingredients as well as the durability of certain dishes on the steam table that was still being used from the old cafeteria setup. Probably our most animated conversations related to how adventurous we thought modern visitors would be in trying things that were different and unusual—like mock turtle soup and beef tongue! Once determined, the agreed-upon recipes were tested by food service cooks (this predated having chefs on staff) who, after weeks of testing, invited us to a grand two-day food tasting.
Elaborate Bill of Fare for Thanksgiving Day, 1847, at the Adams House in Boston, Massachusetts. / THF147797
At the same time, I searched for examples of historic menus from the era to see what constituted a tavern meal. As it turned out, most tavern meals started with soup and ended with a dessert course of dried fruit and nuts. (The phrase “from soup to nuts” must have originated at this time!) The Eagle Tavern menu, or “Bill of Fare,” was laid out much like the historic menus of the time but included a simpler selection of dishes that were regionally and seasonally appropriate. Today, the Eagle Tavern Bills of Fare still follow these guidelines.
Eagle Tavern’s first Bill of Fare, Spring 1982. / THF123845
The Dining Experience
According to travel narratives of the era, tavern dining was fast and furious. For example, one traveler in Chicago in 1836 wrote: “…every man for himself, and none for his neighbor; hurrying, snatching, gulping, like famished wildcats; victuals disappearing as if by magic.” Partly, this was because there were often more patrons than space at the one “common table” in an inn. To resolve this, diners often took turns eating, as James Logan described in a hotel in Detroit in 1838: “Very little conversation took place, each individual seemed to hurry on as fast as possible, and the moment one finished he rose and went away. There was not change of plates, knives, or forks, every thing being eaten off the same plate, excepting pudding, which was taken in saucers.”
For the Eagle Tavern dining experience, we knew we were not about to recreate James Logan’s experience! But how, we wondered, could we simulate the concept of the “common table” for modern visitors? Fortunately, because of the spacious cafeteria area that Henry Ford had added to the building back in the 1920s, we found that we could furnish the space with not one but several tables that simulated communal dining. It also gave us the option of seating people at separate tables if additional privacy were desired.
The Eagle Tavern table setting was also the result of historical research, found in Catherine Beecher’s 1850 Domestic Receipt Book. / THF147807
Today’s dining experience at Eagle Tavern is much like it was back when we first created this experience almost 40 years ago. To me, Eagle Tavern was—and still is—one of the best historic dining experiences around!
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
19th century, 1850s, Dearborn, 20th century, 1980s, restaurants, research, Michigan, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, food, Eagle Tavern, by Donna R. Braden, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford