Sully’s Irish Pub at the Witherspoon: A Middletown Time CapsuleAug 12, 2022 02:58PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
When an Irish immigrant wanted to help those people going through Delaware, he came up with a good idea: build a place which could be a convenient resting stop for weary travelers. In 1761, David Witherspoon constructed the Witherspoon Tavern. It soon became a popular layover point for those venturing throughout the region. Two future Presidents found it a good place to visit. Thomas Jefferson lodged there on June 20, 1775 on his way up to a meeting of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The following year, Jefferson would liberate our nation- and change the world- with his immortal Declaration of Independence. After he helped the colonies win the Revolutionary War, George Washington dined at the Witherspoon on April 30 and May 19, 1784, purportedly on his way to a meeting of the Order of the Cincinnati, of which he was President. Although the building was later remodeled and made into a Victorian-style inn, the structure has endured for more than two centuries and is now considered the oldest tavern in the state.
The land upon which the Tavern sat had roots deep in Delaware history. The Delaware Public Archives has a blue and gold historical marker out front which mentions that in the 1690s, Adam Peterson purchased several tracts of land in the area. One of them was officially surveyed in 1733 and given the name Middletown, believed to relate to its location at the midpoint of a road that led from the headwaters of the Bohemia River to the edge of Appoquinimink Creek. Intersecting this road was the highly traveled King's Highway; the crossroads became a desired stopping point. The tavern which operated here was an early “anchor tenant” and soon a small village developed around it. Middletown grew rapidly after the railroad arrived in 1855. Located in close proximity to some of Delaware’s most productive farmlands, it became an important nexus for shipping a variety of agricultural products.
The Witherspoon has seen a few changes over the years. Robert Cochran saw a business opportunity and in 1844, purchased the Tavern, subsequently refurbishing the building, creating the Middletown Hotel. The Hotel served guests traveling through to various points, including Philadelphia and towns in the lower portion of the state. Sadly, part of the Hotel was destroyed by fire on Valentine’s Day in 1946. It was later turned into Witherspoon Bar and Package.
After running Sully’s Irish Pub in Warren, Ohio for a decade, Charles Robert “Sully” Sullivan, Jr. returned to his roots in New Jersey, ready for a new business to pursue. Visiting sites in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, he came to the Witherspoon in 2008. At the time, he was not impressed, but upon a second look, he found it quite intriguing. He purchased the bar that same year and got to work refurbishing the building. The brick walls date from the original structure in 1761. You can see them as you stroll around the tavern, which is beautifully decorated with numerous historic artifacts, Americana, military and other memorabilia. Stressing its place in history, Sully has framed the ledger descriptions of Thomas Jefferson’s stay and George Washington’s visit, both hanging on the wall below 18th century portraits of the two patriots. Sully is a genuine history buff- and he has done his homework. To make sure the descriptions were authentic, he contacted Jefferson’s home at Monticello and the Middletown Historical Society, which gathered information from Washington’s Mount Vernon. These establishments provided certified documentation confirming that Jefferson and Washington had indeed dined there. Remembering its former life as a place of lodging, Sully has an oversized mirror from the old Middletown Hotel inside the bar, now engraved with “1761- 250 Years- 2011.” The mirror hung inside the hotel roughly 150 years ago.
Rejuvenating a 250-year old tavern is not easy; this one was in poor shape. Sullivan put in a new floor- made from boards previously used at the 19th century Jim Beam Distillery in Kentucky, appropriate for a drinking establishment. He removed the low eight-foot ceiling, raising it to give the place a more spacious look. Sully put in a beautiful new wooden, wrap-around bar and did much of the construction himself to conserve funds needed to operate the establishment. His love of history is evident everywhere around the tavern. He has a tribute to his grandfather, who fought in World War I, as well as one honoring firefighters. An original Everett Theater sign hangs on the wall. The Everett Theater across the street dates back to 1922; it is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The Everett was also part of film history: scenes from the movie “Dead Poet’s Society” (1989) were filmed there. W.D. Hutton fought in World War II in the Pacific Theater and came home to Delaware where he opened “W.D. Hutton Watch, Clock and Jewelry Repair” across the street, running it for 70 years from 1948- 2018, when he passed away. A W.D. Hutton sign in the bar area is Sully’s tribute to his old friend.
A visit to Sully’s Irish Pub at the Witherspoon as it is known today was a treat for this historian. It is more than just a tavern; it is a Middletown Time Capsule. Sully provided a private tour, with descriptions and explanations of all the artifacts and memorabilia, which remind guests that the building- and the area- are steeped in history. Lunch there was quite good; the Reuben sandwich was superb. My wife said “This is the best burger I’ve had in a long time.” As we dined, Sully was pleased to continue his narrative, along with a humble, yet important statement for all visitors. “I’m not the owner. I’m just the present-day caretaker. The tavern belongs to the town of Middletown.” Being Irish himself, Sullivan mentions that it is appropriate that he has rejuvenated a tavern which was started 260 years ago by… another Irishman. Taking his own place in local history, Sully states that it is up to all of us to preserve our heritage. Looking around inside his fine establishment, it is clear he has done a great job.
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His ten books focus on the history of the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. His latest book is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” His books are available through his website at www.GenePisasale.com and on www.Amazon.com. Gene can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].