Historic Herr Tavern and Publick House (4/17)

BY ALLIE HAUGHT and MICHELLE LILLER / April 2017

The Herr Tavern & Publick House was built in 1815 by Thomas Sweeney. Sweeney built his tavern to capitalize on the route that led west. This is now U.S. Route 30. Under Sweeney’s ownership in the early 1800s, famous bank robber Davey Lewis used the tavern to hide out.

There are accounts of “Lewis the Robber” using the tavern as a base of operations for counterfeiting. Bank robbers aside, Mr. Sweeney’s prosperity would not last long.

In 1827, he was forced to declare bankruptcy and sell his tavern. In 1828, Frederick Herr purchased the tavern that still bears his name. Frederick Herr turned the tavern into a fixture in the area. In fact, the ridge where it sits is called Herr Ridge.

By all accounts, Herr ran the tavern well. He provided food, drink, and lodging for travelers and locals alike. It seems that he had some less-than-legitimate business ventures, as well. He allowed a friend to use the basement of Herr Tavern for a counterfeiting operation – similar to early accounts of Lewis’ use of the tavern. Herr would then launder this money through the tavern, passing it along to travelers heading west.

The summer of 1863 would forever change the history of Herr Tavern. On the night of June 30, an advanced guard of Union General John Buford’s Cavalry camped on Herr Ridge. Early the following morning, July 1, a few musket shots were heard. These shots soon became a torrent of fire.

The Confederates of General Henry Heth pushed Buford’s troops to the outskirts of Gettysburg. What started as a minor skirmish was quickly developing into the most costly battle of the war. Herr Tavern was overrun by the Confederates. It remained behind Confederate lines for the length of the three day battle.

It is during this time that the Herr Tavern had its saddest and most traumatic use. Herr Tavern was the nearest building to the battle, so, naturally, it was the first Confederate hospital.

Several of the tavern’s suites were used as operating rooms. It is said that amputated limbs were thrown out of windows into awaiting wagons for burial. Wounded men were everywhere, there were little or no painkillers available, and the concept of sterilizing instruments was not yet known.

The conditions at Herr Tavern during and after the battle were horrendous. Additionally, the summer of 1863 was an unusually hot one. The first three days of July were no exception, with temperatures in the upper 80s and humidity just as high. There is no record of how many men spent their last hours in the charnel house that the Herr Tavern had become, but it must be a truly frightening number.

Frederick Herr owned the tavern until his death in 1868. After his death, the tavern was sold to the Reading family. The building was subsequently bought and sold numerous times over the years, eventually seeing use as a dairy in the early 1900s. The current owner, Steven Wolf, purchased the building in 1977.

He has spent the last quarter of a century transforming it into the marvel that it is today. The tavern shows the care and effort that Steve has put into its restoration; it is a testament to Steve’s dedication.

Allie Haught and Michelle Liller are staff members at Herr Tavern.