Eli McNitt at age 81

44. Eli, Perthena, and The Tavern

Young Eli McNitt was left alone with his ambitions in the Lycoming Valley of northern Pennsylvania in the spring of 1801.  His brother Andrew, youngest of the three sons of the Minute Man Andrew McNitt, had left him there with his prospecting to return to northeastern New York, where he would be near his uncle John and his elder brother Samuel.

Eli found a site overlooking the valley that pleased him, and after hunting up the agent who controlled the land, he deposited his overcoat as a token payment.  The land he had chosen was about thirty-five miles southwest of Towanda.  He wasn't to be alone long, for in 1802 he married Perthena Newell, daughter of John Newell, most of whose family had been killed by Indians in the Wyoming Valley massacre in New York in 1778.

The pledged overcoat must have been redeemed, for Eli completed his land purchase.  He gave a mortgage in 1806 to Messrs. Howell and Smith on fifty-five acres; the purchase price was $138.60.  Eli paid half the amount in cash and gave notes for the balance, to be paid off in yearly installments of $17.33.  By further land purchases in 1818, 1828, 1839, and 1859 he extended his holdings to 640 acres, reaching from the

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ridge of a range of hills, down and across the Lycoming Valley to the tops of the hills on the other side.

Young Eli built a log house on his first tract, which he replaced later with a better one.  Starting with virtually nothing but courage, Eli and Perthena prospered.  Today their descendants may not be as numerous as the leaves in a forest, but they are nearly as many as the leaves of a young oak.  Their children were:

I.. Samuel, b. December 21, 1803; m. 1st Julia Dobbins, 2d Eliza Griffin;  d. March 19, 1899.
II. Andrew, b. September 17, 1805; m. in 1831 Marcella Keyes; d. July 17, 1874.
III. John, b. July 30, 1807; twice married, no issue; d. September 11, 1883.
IV. Roswell, b. December 14, 1809, m. in 1850 Charlotte Pidcoe; d. June 4, 1884.
V. Eli, Jr., b. September 13, 1812; m. Olive Newell; d. in September 1871.
VI. Electa Jane, b. February 24, 1820, a beautiful girl who died unmarried August 12,1842.  When Eli found his only daughter had tuberculosis, he sent her to his brother Samuel McNitt at Sackett's Harbor, hoping the climate would be more favorable.
Eli's land was on a main road between two large towns; Elmira, New York, lay thirty-eight miles to the north, and Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was about forty miles to the south.  It was a logical place for a half-way house to accommodate travelers by stage and to provide changes of horses.  So in 1827 Eli built what has become one of the landmarks of the region; undoubtedly one of the most interesting houses erected by any of the whole clan: the Old Brick Tavern.

Very near it there still may be a stone post marking the corners of Tioga, Bradford, and Lycoming Counties.  The adjacent neighborhood, with houses at intervals along the highway, came to be called Leolyn (pronounced Lee-OH-lin).  The postoffice now is down the road a little way in a village in a forested glen, called Roaring Branch.  The tributary to Lycoming Creek whose rushing waters suggested this name to one of the McNitts, adorns the sylvan scene.  When a railroad came through in time, the nearest station was Penrhyn.

Farming the rugged hillsides may not have been very profitable, so Eli proceeded to bake 63,000 bricks and build his half-way house.  He may not have had an architect; if not, he and Perthena had the taste to follow the good, simple lines of the best design of the period.  All of the woodwork was done by hand: all the window-framing, the interesting front door, and the arched frame that encloses it and the fanlight above it.

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Built into each of the ends of the building are two chimneys, each providing flues for two fireplaces.  All of the eight principal rooms, four on each floor, have fireplaces with good mantels, each with grooved paneling.  A central hall runs from front to back on both floors.  High in the wall at each end of the building is a well-designed window ending at the head in a pointed arch.

On entering, the traveler found at his right the parlor or lounge; at his left the taproom and office.  At the rear of the parlor was the dining room, and back of the taproom was the kitchen.  An old account book kept by Eli shows that he charged fifteen cents for accommodating a horse overnight in the stable.  What the rider paid for bed and meals we do not know, but a glass of whiskey cost three cents.  It is one of the traditions of the place that Perthena disliked the whiskey business (which must have been lively, considering the price) and that she prevailed upon Eli to close the bar.

Another tradition is that the Old Brick Tavern, perhaps owing to Perthena's compassion, had a "straggler's bed" for the free use of any penniless wayfarer in need of lodging for the night.  There was surprisingly little abuse of this kindness.

Eli was a sportsman, and he welcomed likeminded men who enjoyed staying at the tavern while they hunted in the hills or fished the streams.  So great was the hospitality of the house that relations from New York State loved to come in sleighing parties in the winter to dance and have fun, and in some cases to remain for weeks.

All of Eli's family were Universalists, and Eli and Perthena often had a minister come on Sunday, with sons and wives and children gathering for services.

So life went on at the Old Brick Tavern for many years.  One night when Eli had to be away on business, a panther raided the premises and with bloodcurdling growls attacked the poultry.  Unhesitatingly, Perthena took a blazing log from a fireplace, rushed outside, and pitched her firebrand at the prowler.  The panther snarled a goodby and ran away.  Next night, unaware that sure-shot Eli would be back home, the panther returned.  Eli shot him dead.  The animal measured twelve feet from nose to tip of tail.

Perthena was a good neighbor.  Late one evening in the tavern, a friend who had noticed unusual quietness demanded of Eli: "Where's Pertheeny?"  "Oh, Pertheeny," Eli responded, "she went out on her horse early this evening.  A neighbor woman a good piece away is having a baby, and Pertheeny went to help her through."  Eli's friend considered this for a while, and then observing it was very late, pressed

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further:  "Don't you get anxious?  Don't you think somebody ought to go to meet her and come home with her?" To this Eli replied simply: "You don't know Pertheeny!"

Perthena was first to go; perhaps her work was hardest.  Born April 30, 1782, she lived seventy years, until April 21, 1852.  Keeping the tavern must have been a lonely job after she left.  Toward the end of his life, when his sons were going hunting far away in early winter, Eli volunteered to go with them.  It was necessary to sleep in the open at night.  Late in the evening when sifting snow began to fall, the sons looked to see how their father was faring.  He lay wrapped in blankets, fast asleep; the snowflakes touching his face did not disturb him.

When he was eighty, Eli resolved to make maple sugar again.  Without assistance he tapped the trees, gathered and boiled the sap in big kettles in the sugar-house, and produced eighty pounds of sugar.

Two years afterward Eli sat for a photographer, and from the resulting daguerreotype Hilda Taylor has drawn the portrait that heads this chapter.  We may get from it an idea of what Barnard McNitt and his sons and grandsons were like.  Born either at Palmer or Murrayfield, Massachusetts on September 4, 1775, Eli lived to be ninety-five and died on July 11, 1870.

Stories like this are told: while hunting, Eli wounded a panther.  Not sparing him time to reload his rifle, the animal rushed at him.  Eli took flight.  While climbing over a fallen tree the slack in the seat of his homespun breeches was snagged by the end of a broken branch.  He couldn't get away.  So he just waited, and when the panther came up, Eli clubbed him to death with the butt of his rifle.

This story and many others are told by Mrs. Alma Edler McNett, whose husband is six-feet-two Archie (not Archibald) Dudley McNett, great-grandson of Eli.

Eli's sons were Democrats at the time the Civil War began.  When the country was in turmoil over the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, many Republican neighbors demanded immediate action against the South, Mrs. McNett says.  When conservative McNetts advocated waiting a bit before deciding war was necessary, excited folk said they had better begin right away on the rebels at home.  One of Eli's sons said they could begin with him.  He barricaded his door at night thinking they might come for him, but he was not molested.

The reader will have observed that the surname McNett has entered the chapter to replace McNitt, and will wonder.  The change apparently began in Jefferson County, New York, in the families of Samuel and Andrew McNitt, sons of the Minute Man, before or after the War

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Eli McNitt's old brick tavern
Eli McNitt's old brick tavern

Dining room in old brick tavern under Davenport management
Dining room in old brick tavern under Davenport management
Original kitchen in old tavern
Original kitchen in old tavern, where gray lady was seen
by Fanny Davenport

of 1812.  Credit for making the surname change in the Lycoming Valley is given to Harrison McNett (1832-1897), one of Eli' s grandsons and the eldest son of Andrew and Marcella Keyes McNitt.  Harrison was an able citizen, a surveyor who laid out nearly all the lands along the line of Lycoming and Tioga Counties, who is remembered as having ghostwritten a speech for a Pennsylvania Governor.

His wife was Emma Newell.  She may have said in a post-bedtime briefing: "Harrison!  I don't like the name McNitt.  Do like your cousins and call yourself McNett!"  We'll never know what passed between them on the subject.  Harrison and Emma, if dissatisfied, would have done better to restore the earlier and better form McKnight.

The name change is presumed to have been made in the period of 1850.  About that time a part was carved from McIntyre Township and the new town was named McNett, in honor of Eli McNitt.  Everyone liked Eli and called him "Uncle Mac."  Every cousin in the family took the name McNett, and that's the way it is now.  Harrison's younger brother, Eli L., was responsible for the introduction of free textbooks into the schools of McNett Township; a real reform for that time.

When the railroad came through the region the stagecoaches gradually disappeared and likely enough the business at the tavern diminished as the Old Brick and its proprietor grew older.  Next in line to take over the place was Eli's son Roswell (1809-1884), who had married Charlotte Pidcoe in 1850.   We are by no means through with the story of the tavern, but we are due to make some inquiries about the family that had been growing larger.  We cannot follow all the ramifications, but we should note the principal lines.  The oldest son of Eli and Perthena McNitt was Samuel, who lived through nearly all of the nineteenth century (1803-1899).  He married first Julia Dobbins, who bore three daughters and one son; his second marriage to Eliza Griffin was without issue.  The children of Samuel and Julia:

I. Elizabeth Jane, b. Feb. 19, 1837; died at fifteen.
II. Sarah Frances, b. April 2, 1842, d. May 1921; m. Oct. 4, 1865 Seth Griffin.
III. John Morris, b. Dec. 16, 1848, d. Sept. 13, 1896; m. June 8, 1880 Hattie Seymour.  Their son John Seymour, b. Oct. 2, 1881, m. Sept. 1904 Elsie Acton; issue: I. John Samuel, m. Gladys Schmidt; 2. Bertha; 3. Charles William, b. Dec. 28, 1906; 4. Matthew Acton, m. Lavora LaSage; 5. Harold Griffin McNett, b. Aug. 23, 1919.
IV. Mary Estelle, b. Aug. 19, 1859, d. Sept. 19, 1923.
The second son of Eli and Perthena McNitt was Andrew (1805-1874) who married Marcella Keyes.  They had two sons: Henry Harrison, the

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surveyor who changed the surname, and Eli L., who introduced free textbooks into the township schools.  They also had four daughters: Mary, Juliet, Electa, and Frances.  From this point on, nearly all children of Andrew's branch were daughters, for whom we lack space.; they were very numerous.

John, third son of Eli and Perthena, had no children.  The fourth son was Roswell (1809-1884), who married Charlotte Pidcoe and who later came to live at the Old Brick Tavern.  Their children:

I. Samuel Eli, m. 1st Elma Parsons who bore son, Mark; m. 2d Nellie Parsons.  Issue by both marriages:
1. Mark.
2. Archie Dudley, b. July 1, 1896, m. Oct. 24, 1919 Alma Edler, a teacher; issue: (a) Wm. Edler, b. Sept. 12, 1920, d. next day; (b) Stephen Duane, b. Sept. 15, 1921, m. 1944 Huldah Bangs, their son Stephen b. Sept. 28, I 946; (c) Samuel Wm., b. June 9, 1924, m. 1945 Helene Banick; (d) Archie Dudley II, b. Dec. 9, 1929; (e)  Ian Edler, b. June 6, 1934.
3. Wm. Henry, b. Jan. 18, 1902, m. 1st Neva Carpenter, 2d Henrietta Billings.  Issue by first wife, Wm. Henry, Jr. and Shirley May; by second wife, Daniel Eugene.
4. Mary Ruth, b. June 2, 1899.
5. Samuel Eugene, b. May 31,1908.
II. George Edwin.
III. Roswell DeClare.
IV. Alice Jane, b. Aug. 17, 1858, d. Jan. 19, 1941, m. May 16, 1887, Matthew B. DeCourcy.  Issue:  1. Elizabeth, b. April 15, 1884, d. in 1936.  2. Charlotte Lenore, b. Jan. 7, 1886, m. Feb. 15, 1910 Archie Bennett, son Richard b. Nov. 21, 1910.  3. Thomas Robin, b. 1889, died in infancy.  4. Juliet Estelle, b. Dec. 9, 1893, m. July 17, 1923 Robert Robertson Miller.
V. Willard Dudley.
VI. William Andrew, b. 1865, m. 1st in 1888 Isabella Ward, 2d Kate McNeil.
The fifth son of Eli and Perthena was Eli, Jr., (1817-1871), who married Olive Newell.  Their children:
I. Electa, b. 1844, d. 188 3, m. James Gruver.
II. Andrew Milton, b. Aug. 13, 1847, d. April 10, 1910, m. 1880 Ann Eliza Withey.  They had five daughters: Blanche, Myrtle, Jennie, Cora, and Edna, and one son, Chester.
III. Perry Marvin, b. Aug. 28, 1850, d. June 17, 1916, m. 1879 Sylvina Griswold; their issue: 1. Goldie, b. March 21, 1880, m. Leonard Hagar.  2. Mial, b. Sept. 7, 1882, d. April 29, 1923, m. 1904 Nellie Leonard.  3. Morris, b. June 2, 1885, m. 1915 Daisy Gates.  4. Sylvia, b. May 8, 1886, d. 1937, m. 1913 Clive Bohn.  5. Liston, b. March
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1889, m. Libby Rutty.  6. Loren, b. Oct. 12, 1891, m. 1915 Edith Myrick.  7. Bertha, b. May 1895, d. in August.  8. Garland, b. Dec. 1, 1899, m. 1945 Evelyn Day.
IV. Elsie.
A number of the descendants of the Minute Man Andrew McNitt served in the two World Wars.  In the first, Archie Dudley and Roswell Colin were in the Army, and Samuel Andrew was in the Navy.  In the second war, Staff Sgt. Stephen Duane McNett was with the Marine Corps at Guadalcanal; William Henry, Jr., was with the Navy in Japanese waters; and the following were in the Army: Samuel William, MP at Gorizia, Italy; Jack Ward, in Japan; Robert Miller, Samuel Wright, at Panama; Francis, Kenneth, Woods Graham, in Medical Corps; Garth, in Hawaii; Eugene, Jesse, and Robert McNett.

The Old Brick Tavern, that had gradually lost its original function, passed from Roswell McNett to his son, Samuel Eli McNett, who sold it in 1914 to Bert Hopkins, a farmer.  Then in 1923 it was sold again, and rehabilitated for a new career.  Harry Davenport, in the eighth generation of an outstanding family of actors that has now reached the tenth generation with representation on stage or screen, went motoring with his wife in 1923.  They saw the Old Brick, heard its story, and bought it from Bert Hopkins.  They had been living for a long time in a fine old house at Armonk, New York, filled with antique furniture.

The Davenports' idea was to re-open the Old Brick Tavern as a restaurant or tea-room and place it under the management of their daughters Kate and Fanny.  Some of the most interesting of their old pieces were brought from the Armonk house to furnish the tavern, including a chair that had been used by George Washington and a platter that Abraham Lincoln had sold when keeping store in Illinois.

Kate and Fanny Davenport continued the restaurant until the end of the 1937 season except for two long intervals when it was closed to the public: from the end of 1926 to the beginning of 1932, and from the end of the 1932 season to the beginning of 1935.  During the latter shutdown the road was reconstructed, and in the same period the main course of highway traffic from north to south was diverted to another route.  The effect of the change was to cut down travel so greatly that the Old Brick languished for lack of patronage.  After 1937 the Davenports moved their furnishings away and locked up the building.  Since then they have lived in Hollywood, where Harry Davenport was active in the studios, and as chairman of the board of the western branch of the Players Club of New York, until his death in 1949.  The Old Brick Tavern now stands untenanted.

Kate Davenport very kindly lent the photographs of the exterior and

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interior of the building which illustrate this chapter, made while she and her sister Fanny were living and working there.  She tells stories of the place that belong with its traditions.

The sisters were very busy and very successful with the Old Brick Tavern in their first season of 1923, and the work was hard.  One Saturday night in October Kate had finished late, and at 2 a.m. she was washing lettuce for the next day's salads at the sink in the new kitchen that had been added at the rear.  The old kitchen had been converted into a second dining room.

Feeling for several moments that she was not alone, Kate told me, she glanced up and saw the figure of a tall, slender woman in the doorway leading to the central hall; a woman apparently fifty-five or older.  She was wearing an old-fashioned, high-waisted dress of wool, dark gray or taupe in color, with a white apron, and a white neckerchief at her throat.  She looked tired and compassionate, and her expression seemed to say: "You are worn out.  Why don't you go to bed?"

Kate said she was not startled or disturbed in the least; that it all seemed perfectly natural.  After a moment of gazing she let her glance fall to the lettuce; when she looked up again the figure had vanished.  She thought best not to mention her visitor to her sister Fanny, who might be alarmed, but at Christmas time she told the story to her mother.

Mrs. Davenport smiled and said: "Fanny also has seen your visitor.  She was putting the finishing touches on the dining tables in the old kitchen one midnight in the same month of October.  She glanced up, and there standing before the fireplace was the lady in gray exactly as you have described her.  She was dressed in the same way, and wore the same tired and compassionate look as though saying: ‘You have done enough for today.'"

The gray lady didn't appear again to the Davenport sisters.  A McNett family reunion was held in the neighborhood in 1932, and several of the women came to the Old Brick Tavern with a request to see the interior.  Kate said: "Certainly, go through the place, wherever you like."  As the party was leaving, one woman of about fifty lingered to talk a little.  She asked Kate: "Did you ever hear any unusual story about this house?"  Kate merely said: "Please tell me about it."

Her visitor continued: "I belong to the family, and lived here while a girl.  When I was eight, my mother entertained one afternoon the Ladies' Aid Society.  I was playing about the front steps, and remained outside all the time.  I counted the guests as they arrived, and again when they left.  When the party had broken up and the guests had gone I asked my mother: 'Who was the woman who stayed?'  Mother was

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surprised: 'Why, everyone who came has left now.'  Then I told her: 'I counted ten who came.  Only nine left.'  Mother asked me to describe the one who came in but didn't leave with the others.  I said: 'She was a woman in a dark gray dress, with white apron and neckerchief, and she wore no hat.  She must still be in the house!'"

These stories of the gray lady must not be subjected to any cold, quibbling analysis.  Of course we do not believe in ghosts in the ordinary sense.  A haunted house supposedly is one disturbed by clanking chains and shrieking spectres, and the Old Brick Tavern is a quiet, mellow place that never had any distressful manifestations like that.

We love most those persons and places that have called forth our most devoted efforts.  Along with Eli and the children, the Old Brick Tavern was Perthena's life.  She was proud of it; she always wished it to be fine, and hospitable, and kindly in its welcomes.  She worked hard in it, and she was ready to defend it with firebrands.  Because she put so much of herself into it, she became a part of it and it became a part of her.  Her indestructible spirit has never left it.

Perhaps no one ever again will experience the sense of seeing the gray lady, but who would not like to?  For Perthena was one of the many women who in marriage have brought to us so much that was splendid in faith and courage.

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