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Chester Inn Museum
The Chester Inn is the oldest commercial building standing in Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town. Located on West Main Street near the edge of the town’s commercial center, the building was originally constructed in the late eighteenth century in the Federal style. During the nineteenth century, it was significantly altered and expanded. Today, the three-story, ten-bay building dominates the streetscape with its beaded weatherboard siding and decorative porches.
In 1792, when entrepreneur and medical doctor William Chester arrived in Jonesborough from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he recognized the need for accommodations for travelers. On May 15, 1797, Chester purchased Lot #26 for $74 and began construction of the town’s first inn (today the western half of the structure), located, like many inns of the period, adjacent to an existing stagecoach route. With chimneys at each end, the multistory building had five rooms across the top level and one room on either side of a central stairway on the middle floor. Dr. Chester’s apothecary was located on the inn’s street level. The enterprise was an instant success and two years later, in 1799, Chester was granted permission to “keep a public house.”
The population in areas west of Jonesborough increased at a rapid pace, which brought more travelers using the stagecoach routes. In the 1830s William Chester’s oldest son, John Chester, enlarged the inn to provide additional rooms for stagecoach passengers traveling through town en route to areas west of Jonesborough, which were being rapidly settled in this period. Now doubled in size, the Chester Inn became one of the largest buildings in town and a popular gathering place for evening activity. Politicians, including Andrew Jackson, regularly took advantage of such gatherings to make speeches to Jonesborough’s citizens. An artisan named George Sprinkle, who came to Jonesborough around 1883, was responsible for creating the inn’s elaborate portico, along with porches on several other buildings in town.
During its first two centuries, even as the Chester Inn changed hands, and names—the Bell Tavern (c. 1820–1860), the Union Hotel (c. 1860–1880), the Planters Hotel (c. 1880–1900), and the Jonesborough Inn (c. 1900–1945)—it was regarded as a first-class lodging house. During the 1880s an advertisement put it this way: “The rooms are large, airy, and furnished with elegance and taste, and the bill of fare embraces every delicacy and substantial obtainable in this fine market, served in a manner calculated to please the most fastidious. Care and scrupulous cleanliness pervades every department, and the servants are attentive and polite.” By then, however, the decline of stagecoach travel (precipitated by the railroad) and the economic hardships of Reconstruction had begun to take their toll and business at the inn steadily declined. Sometime around World War I, two local entrepreneurs converted the building into apartments.
After the war, three Jonesborough men, J. T. Whitlock, Jess G. Smith, and Charles M. Bennett, purchased the building, and by 1950, Bennett had bought out his partners and renovated the now historic inn. In 1979, Bennett’s widow sold the inn to private buyers but in 1987, the State of Tennessee acquired the building in order to preserve it. The inn was restored in 2011 and the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia installed a museum on the ground floor, in space previously occupied by a succession of commercial enterprises. Today, the Chester Inn Museum chronicles the history of Jonesborough from its inception to the present.
“Chester Inn Museum.” Town of Jonesborough, Tennessee. Accessed April 5, 2018. http://www.historicjonesborough.com.
“Chester Inn State Historic Site – Chester Inn Museum.” Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Accessed April 5, 2018. http://www.heritageall.org/.
Patrick, James. Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.
Paull, Tammy, “Jonesborough Historic District (Additional Documentation),” Washington County, Tennessee. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1997. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington D.C.
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