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Rice's Hotel Hughlett's Tavern


When a fire broke out in Heathsville’s Rice’s Hotel-Hughlett’s Tavern on April 3, 2009, the Northern Neck came within minutes of losing a treasured 18th century landmark. Again.

For this building, which dates to at least 1795, and probably much earlier, has had a couple of close brushes with death over its more than two centuries of history.

Two decades before the fire, the building was nearly condemned in the early 1990s before a group of determined volunteers – the Rice’s Hotel-Hughlett’s Tavern Foundation – took it over and restored it. Now, the damage from the recent fire has been repaired and the building is once again serving as a focal point in the community.

“If the fire department hadn’t arrived when it did, we would certainly have lost the building,” said Ellen Hollows, Executive Director of the RHHT Foundation. (Below, center of building rebuilt after fire)

She also notes the care and skill with which the firefighters extinguished the blaze, saving original doors and windows with only minimal loss. The central portion of the building, where the fire started, has been completely rebuilt, but in total keeping with its previous appearance.

RHHT is Northumberland County’s oldest landmark, located behind the old courthouse in Heathsville. The building, constructed as lodging for those attending court days, is mentioned in a will, probated in 1795, which means the building is probably much older.

In the early 1990s the Northumberland County Historical Society created a foundation to own and care for the property, after it was bequeathed to the historical society by the estate of Mrs. Cecelia Fallin Rice. The RHHT Foundation, made up of talented and energetic volunteers, has not only saved the property, but returned it to its role of vital community center.

“When the historical society received the property, the writing was on the wall. The building needed urgent rehabilitation or it wasn't going to last much longer,” said former foundation president Peggy Fleming.

But volunteers quickly rallied to save the building, raising money and donating their talent and expertise to preserve the long, two-story structure. Dan Purvis, a retired construction supervisor from Alexandria, Virginia, led the effort, organizing a group of men who did the work. One of the volunteers, Bob Robinson, a retired writer from Texas, nicknamed the group the “Tavern Rangers,” and the name stuck. The Rangers continue to provide the muscle and grit required for such a large volunteer project.

Through the efforts of the Rangers and the other foundation volunteers, RHHT maintains its vital link to the Northern Neck's past while offering a valuable contribution to modern life. Part of the property is used for a restaurant, which benefits from the colonial décor and ambiance. Another part of the building houses the Tavern Store, offering tasteful gift items. A third function of the property is education and community support.

The third function is also the one that is quickly expanding. There is an active quilting guild operating at the property, as well as special events. The Rangers constructed a working blacksmith shop, where demonstrations are held on a regular basis. That was followed by construction of an Education/Transportation building, which serves as a venue for meetings and exhibitions. Finally, RHHT constructed a livery stable next to the blacksmith shop, completing the “village square” behind the Tavern.

“Even with the fire, this organization never stopped for a minute,” Hollows said. “We opened the farmers’ market on time last year and carried out all the foundation’s activities.”

And the foundation continues to grow, and take on new and interesting activities. As of 2010, there are about 450 members who find their futures are much more rewarding by helping to preserve the past. For information about the foundation and its activities, call (804) 580-3377 or visit their Website.