By James W. D’Acosta
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Spring 2022
On the moonlit evening of November 15, 2012, Freemasons met at Sun Tavern for the first time in more than 200 years, thanks to Fairfield Museum’s preservation efforts. The meeting was part of the museum’s effort to awaken the historic tavern’s role in the town’s daily life. But how did saving a landmark end up also nurturing an ancient society?
Friendship is at the heart of this Masonic adventure. Passion for Fairfield’s history drew Chris S. J. Jennings and Walter Matis into each other’s circle of acquaintances. Jennings was leader or “Worshipful Master” of St. John’s Lodge No. 3, the first Masonic lodge in Fairfield County. Established in 1762, its charter bears the date 5762 (Freemasonry adds four thousand years to the Common Era to symbolically allude to the creation of the world). Jennings knew of early meetings held at the tavern and aspired to orchestrate a return. Matis, Fairfield Museum’s program and volunteer coordinator, was involved in raising funds for vital lead paint abatement and encapsulation at the tavern.
Sun Tavern’s claims to the museum’s scarce resources are manifest. Though owned by the town since the late 1970s, since 2002 the museum has been contracted to create exhibits and make the building accessible to the public. Built in 1780, the tavern stands on its original foundations. Situated along Old Post Road in the southern corner of the town green and adjacent to town hall, it is a witness to American history since the nation’s independence. Travel along the New York City-to-Boston corridor still flows within sight of its windows.
That George Washington slept at Sun Tavern on the night of October 16, 1789 is the conclusion of Thomas J. Farnham in Fairfield: The Biography of a Community, 1639-1989. In his unpublished “Notes on Taverns in Fairfield and Nearby Towns, 2021,” Matis references letters that future President John Adams wrote on October 14, 1789 of being “in good health and Spirits” while staying there. Correspondence, June 2, 1800, finds Abigail Adams attesting to the same “upon a visit at Fairfield.”
According to Matis, a tavern called “Penfield’s” and sometimes listed as “S. Penfield’s” in early documents preceded Sun Tavern on the site. Penfield’s fell victim to “Tryon’s Raid” on July 7, 1779. During this cataclysmic event, British troops also burned the court house, church, and most of the homes near the town green. Samuel Penfield built Sun Tavern from these ashes the following year.
Jonathan Bulkeley’s competing tavern was known to have been General William Tryon’s headquarters during the raid. Masonic lodges often met at taverns, and lodge records reveal that Bulkeley’s tavern (no longer extant) was also often the lodge’s meeting place during Bulkeley’s unusually long tenure as Worshipful Master from 1771 to 1788. According to Matis’s unpublished essay “Concise History of FSJ3, 2021,” when William Heron became Worshipful Master in 1789, the lodge resumed meeting at various public houses and other establishments in Stratford and what is now Bridgeport, and twice at Sun Tavern in 1809. The lodge established permanent residence in Fairfield in the mid-20th century.
The first references to the name “Sun Tavern” appear in the late 19th century and may have been initiated by Robert Manuel Smith, who lived in the structure from 1885 until the early 20th century. Seeking funds to preserve the tavern, Matis conducted a presentation at the lodge that led to a major donation from The Connecticut Freemasons Foundation. Masons were thrilled to help preserve a meeting place of the lodge.
In gratitude, Fairfield Museum gave permission for the 2012 meeting. To augment the rich physical setting, members wore period clothing, from Continental Army uniforms, Scottish kilts, and the cotton waistcoats and silk stockings of country gentlemen to the humble go-to-church-and-weddings linen and wool of farmers and tradesmen.
Ascending the narrow steps to the second floor, Masons entered the room George Washington, their eminent Brother, likely was given for his overnight stay. With candlelight playing upon the room’s 12-inch-wide planks and open hearth, members performed the Master Mason Degree initiation ceremony with centuries-old precision.
Stewards of artifacts safeguard their preservation, but the Sun Tavern experience demonstrates that allowing their original use, even briefly, can nourish the surviving spiritual and intellectual culture of historic groups. In this case, Freemasons were invigorated and gave Fairfield Museum access to the fraternity’s private records to provide an understanding of its activities.
When Masons gather, they strive to create an ideal community in which religious, political, racial, and class differences yield to their common humanity. Efforts to live according to these Enlightenment principles, embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution by Brother Benjamin Franklin and many others, play out imperfectly across the arc of our national history. Fairfield Museum now understands what this looks like at the local level.
James W. D’Acosta is a high school history teacher in Fairfield, a third generation Freemason, and past master of St. John’s Lodge No. 3.
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