Fairfield has a point of pride that they hold onto with both hands: George Washington stayed here. Every now and again, to celebrate our country’s founding or around President’s Day, the tale of his visit is brought out, especially in newspaper articles but also creatively, such as, in 1932, Washington in Fairfield, a play by the faculty and students of Roger Ludlowe High School, which presented Washington visiting the Burr Mansion at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. But when he visited Fairfield as our nation’s first president, George Washington likely stayed at Samuel Penfield’s tavern, known as Sun Tavern—the white building behind the museum.
Washington traveled to Fairfield in 1789, his first year as the country’s first president. It was part of a four-week tour, by stagecoach, throughout New England, visiting northern states that had ratified the U.S. Constitution. While traveling through Connecticut, he stayed in Fairfield on October 16. “We know this from his writings,” says Elizabeth Rose, library director at the Fairfield Museum. She adds that he was surrounded by crowds at each stop, and most likely entered the town on horseback to the delight of those who came out to see him.
The tour was, in part, to help reinforce the union of the states under a federal government, and, as such, he would want to connect not just with the elite, but with many people. “Everything he did set a precedent, because we had not had a president before. On this trip he made a point of staying at public taverns, rather than in the homes of local dignitaries,” says Elizabeth. Samuel Penfield’s Sun Tavern, newly built after having been burned in the British attack during the war, provided food, drink and lodging and served as a meeting place for lawyers and judges attending court next door. Local farmers and sea captains, mill and shop owners would have enjoyed beer or cider and a plate of oysters here as well.
On tour, he also surveyed the damage of the Revolutionary War and took stock of the new country’s resources. He notes as much in his journal, including the homes the British burned in the raid on Fairfield in 1779. He noted: “The destructive evidences of British cruelty are yet visible both in Norwalk and Fairfield, as there are chimneys of many burnt houses standing in them yet.”
He also referenced agriculture, commerce and the “very rough” roads: “From hence to Fairfield where we dined and lodged, is 12 Miles; and part of it very rough Road, but not equal to that thro’ horse Neck. The superb Landscape, however, which is to be seen from the meeting house of the latter is a rich regalia.”
The Sun Tavern closed its doors by 1818, and over the next 160 years became a private residence to pastors of First Congregational Church, New York City businessmen and a stage actor. By the 1970s, the structure had fallen into disrepair. The town purchased it in 1978 and, with the Fairfield Museum, restored it to the delight of Fairfielders, history buffs and anyone who wants to claim that President Washington did, indeed, sleep here.