"The Gris" Is Great!

What do British sailors from the War of 1812,  the late-1960's ABC Gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows", the AMC Series "Mad Men", and myself all have in common? If you said we've all been to The Griswold Inn located in the beautifully historic town of Essex, Connecticut you'd be right! If you're still sitting there scratching your head and trying to figure it out - read on!

The Griswold Inn in Essex, Connecticut; the United States' oldest continuously operating inn.

Laying claim to the title of “The Oldest Continuously Operating Inn in America” (the Curtis House Inn in Woodbury, Connecticut is actually the oldest inn by 22 years but had to close for a brief time shortly before World War II due to a lease dispute), the Griswold Inn - or "The Gris" as it's loving called - first opened its doors for business in 1776 and hasn't stopped serving the public since then in spite of a British invasion, Prohibition, the Great Depression, National Recessions, or anything else.  I'd say that warrants a little bit of bragging!

House plaque for the Griswold InnNow that's not to say that the Griswold Inn has stood in the same place on Main Street looking just like it does now for all of those years as that's definitely not the case but they can most definitely trace their history back to the same time that Essex became a thriving shipbuilding community.

Essex (then known as Potapaug) really came into its own in January of 1776 when the then-Colony of Connecticut authorized the building of the Oliver Cromwell by Essex shipbuilder Uriah Hayden. Hayden in turn hired on men to assist in building the colony's first warship (a feat that was accomplished in just under six months) and in addition played host to politicians, suppliers, and others who came to the small town of Essex during the ship's construction.

Enter in the Griswold House which was built by Sala Griswold in 1776 and which now makes up the main building of the Griswold Inn. Originally the building stood down the road from its current location closer to the shipyard while it provided a place nearby all of the activity for visitors and workers alike to eat, drink, be merry, and sleep it off.

Like other buildings in Essex though, the Griswold House would eventually be on the move and that's exactly what happened in 1801 when it was relocated to its current spot on Main Street.  In 1733 the land there originally belonged to John Pratt, Jr. (another leading family of the village) but it changed hands twice more - as land often does - before being bought in 1801 by Richard Hayden, Essex shipbuilder and citizen extraordinaire.  At that time the Griswold House was moved from its spot close to the shipyard and adjoined to another house that had been built by Hayden as the first three-story building in the lower Connecticut River Valley.  It's believed that the third floor of the house was used as a sleeping area for shipyard workers while visitors to Essex slept on the other floors continuing the tradition of the building serving as an inn. Around the same time, Richard's two brothers, John G. and Amasa Hayden, built homes on either side which would also eventually became part of of the Griswold Inn (Amasa's house now serves as the annex of the inn).

In 1806 Richard sold his three-story house to Ethan Bushnell, an innkeeper, after building himself a very fine Federal-style brick house that was more in keeping with his status as the head of the Hayden Shipyard.  The very first brick house in town and unarguably the finest in the village, Richard Hayden lived there with his wife and children until he died at the age of 44 two years after the raid on Essex by the British in 1814. The house stayed in the Hayden family until 1894 when it and the furniture inside were donated to the St. John's Episcopal Parish for use as the church's rectory - a purpose it serves to this day.

Meanwhile, back at the Griswold/Hayden House ... the intrepid Ethan attached a former 1738 schoolhouse that was located on the property to the building for use as a kitchen (it now serves as the inn's Taproom) and opened the Bushnell Tavern continuing the Eat, Drink, Be Merry, and Sleep It Off tradition that had been started closer to the shipyard.  It was to the Bushnell Tavern that the British marched on the fateful morning of April 8th, 1814 and, according to the April 19th, 1814 edition of the Hartford Courant, seized approximately $100,000 worth of rum that had been acquired from the trade of beef and wood to the East Indies.  This obviously put a major crimp in the "Drink & Be Merry" parts of the tradition but the Bushnell Tavern persevered and soldiered on in spite of their now dwindled spirits (pun intended).

The Griswold Inn Sign

Following the Temperance Movement of the 1840's when the Bushnell Tavern became the site of several protests by well-meaning, banner-carrying, teetotaling ladies, Ethan Bushnell's children inherited the tavern in 1849. From there the tavern passed through a variety of owners over the years, probably acquiring the name of Griswold House during the period it was owned by Emory Morse of Wallingford in the 1870s and 1880s.

Having survived the Temperance protests without having to lock the door even once, the Griswold House faced its next hurdle - Prohibition.  Instituted with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 16, 1919, the law prohibited the "...manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States..."  What?  No intoxicating liquor sales?! What's a self-respecting tavern supposed to do?  Perhaps it could bend the law just a little bit while Federal authorities had their hands full trying to stop the flow of liquor up the Connecticut River by "rum runners" - men who had grown up in the area and knew the ins and outs of the river better than they knew the backs of their hands. The Griswold House was often raided and sometimes fined but was never put out of business continuing to successfully maintain its tradition of Eat, Drink, Be Merry, and Sleep It Off unabated in the lower Connecticut River Valley while the Feds were outsmarted by Yankee ingenuity!

While government authorities had their hands full trying to keep people sober, enter in the Great Depression that began with the Wall Street Stock Market Crash in October of 1929.  At that time Prohibition became increasingly even more unpopular as heck, if anyone ever needed a good reason to drink, the Depression provided it while the country went through one of its darkest financial times. Finally, the Repeal of Prohibition in the United States was accomplished with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution on December 5, 1933 and the Gris was able to "resume" serving up drinks in broad daylight so that folks could be merry - all the while still providing them with a place to sleep it off!

Along with the country's economic recovery came Essex's new-found popularity as a spot for recreational yachtsmen during which time the Griswold House was lovingly tended to by the Ladd/Lovell family. During the time the Lovell family owned the Griswold Inn, they expanded the property by attaching additional buildings (including a former New Hampshire covered bridge) in order to expand their dining rooms as well as provide additional lodging in several adjacent historic properties.

Speaking of history (and I do a lot of that in these posts!), one of the more interesting things to happen at the Gris during the course of its history (well, at least to me!) was when it was transformed into the Collinsport Inn via the magic of television and the ABC soap opera "Dark Shadows".  The show, which ran from June 1966 to April 1971, was set in the fictional town of Collinsport, Maine and would have been right up my daughter Amanda's alley as it featured vampires, werewolves, zombies, man-made monsters, witches, warlocks, time travel, and a parallel universe. In addition to using the Griswold Inn, other locales in Essex were used as the Collinsport Wharf, Main Street and the Evans Cottage as well as the Post Office being used for the fictional town's Police Station.  Pretty cool, huh?

In 1972, the Griswold Inn came into the possession of William and Victoria Winterer who continued the inn's expansion when they acquired several properties across the street which are now part of Griswold Square.  Ownership changed again in 1995 when the Paul Brothers of Essex - Geoffrey, Douglas, and Gregory - became the new propreitors of the Griswold Inn as well as six other properties.  From the Hayden Brothers of Essex to the Paul Brothers of Essex it almost seems as if the Griswold Inn has come full circle from the time the original Sala Griswold house was relocated to Main Street.

Wine Bar sign at In keeping with the time-honored tradition of adding on to the original structure, the Brothers Paul have added on the Griswold Inn Wine Room (2005) and the Griswold Inn Store (2010) located across the street from the main inn. I believe I overheard a staff member telling a visitor that in all there are eight buildings that make up the Griswold Inn with thirty-three individually unique rooms available for overnight guests as well as three different dining options including the Wine Bar, the Taproom, and their Historic Dining Rooms. I've got to wonder how long that may be the case though as it seems like the inn is ever-expanding!

Oh, and while we're speaking of expanding, the reputation of the Griswold Inn expanded even more when it was mentioned in an episode of AMC's very popular series "Mad Men". In the Season 4 Premiere that aired on Sunday, July 25th, 2010, the story line included a trip to the Griswold Inn by Betty, one of the show's leading characters, and her new husband as they set out for a romantic weekend getaway in November of 1964.  The story line was pretty much spot on as it wasn't at all unusual for people looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city to make the drive up U.S. Route 1 from New York to Essex in the mid-60's.  With the Griswold Inn being the polar opposite of plush New York City hotels, it became a popular destination for city folk looking for "country comfort and charm". Obviously the folks at "Mad Men" knew that when they worked the Griswold Inn into their story line so perhaps one of them had made the trip themselves at some point? Anything's possible!

Now that I've got you caught up on The Gris' interesting history which includes invading British, supernatural beings, and New York City ad executives, I can finally share my own experience at the inn with you - humble though it may be! After walking around part of Essex Village on a beautiful Thursday afternoon, I decided to take the time to treat myself to lunch at the inn as I'd heard some pretty good things about the place and wanted to check it out for myself. With a combination of two of my favorite things - history and food - how could it be anything but great?

There was outdoor seating available but I was more interested in checking out some of the history inside the building so after telling the hostess that yep, it was going to be "lunch for just one" I was led to a nice little table just inside the door of the Taproom which is that former one-room 1738 schoolhouse that I mentioned earlier in the post. Once my eyes adjusted to the dimness inside the room after the brightness of the day outside it looked to me like I had been mistakenly led to a table inside a museum rather than a bar! The walls were lined - and I do mean lined! - with all sorts of paintings and pictures of various maritime scenes and ships as well as lots of other goodies nestled in here and there. Over my head hung an oar bearing the inscription "from the Charles W. Morgan", an 1841 whaling ship that is berthed in Mystic Seaport, while an old-time popcorn machine across the room glowed orange in the dimness looking as if it had been there performing its magic with popcorn kernels for a very long time.

Ship pictures on the walls of the Tap Room at the Griswold Inn

In the middle of the room was a pot-bellied stove upon which was perched a Christmas tree. Uhm, it was the middle of June, right? I asked my very affable waiter Frank what the story was with the tree and he told me that it's there year-round and the decorations change along with the seasons and the holidays. He said that the current patriotic theme was in place from Memorial Day to Labor Day and that there were also Valentine's Day trees, Easter trees, Thanksgiving trees, Halloween trees, Autumn trees, Groundhog Day trees, Mother's Day trees, Winter trees, and even Christmas trees! The pot-bellied stove that the tree stands upon was once part of the 1876 Goodspeed Opera House which is located just a bit up the Connecticut River in nearby East Haddam.

The Banjo Bar at the Griswold Inn

Even though a cocktail sounded nice, I opted for a nice cold glass of iced tea and then perused the lunch menu trying to make a decision as to what to have. Everything sounded so good ... salads, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, seafood, cannelloni ... what to choose? Finally making up my mind I placed my order with the affable Frank who had filled me in on the Christmas tree and then while waiting for my lunch to arrive shot the above pictures whilst trying not to look too much like a tourist!

Lunch menu

It wasn't long before my first course was brought to the table -
The Griswold Inn's Signature Clam Chowder

The Gris'

Now I'm no food critic but with a Yankee heritage that stretches back long before Connecticut was ever a state, I've eaten plenty of clam chowder over the years and pride myself on knowing what a good bowl of chowder tastes like. This, my friends, just happened to be an excellent bowl of chowder! I'd tell you just how good it was if I had the word skills of a food critic but other than being able to say that it was chock full of tender clams and potatoes with just enough seasoning to keep the salt and pepper in its place unused on the table, I can only tell you that it was delicious. My compliments to Executive Chef Jim Gallagher - this old Yankee gives you two enthusiastic thumbs up!

Country Ham and Gruyere Cheese Quiche with gathered greens and a vinaigrette dressing

Before I had the chance to embarrass myself by picking up the chowder bowl and licking it clean, Frank appeared with my entrée - Country Ham and Gruyère Cheese Quiche served with Mixed Gathered Greens and Sparkling Wine Vinaigrette Dressing. It had been a really long time since I'd had quiche as it's not something I normally order when going out but it had sounded pretty tasty on the menu and I thought "why not?"  Knowing that I was going to be walking around shooting more pictures in the afternoon, I wanted something "light" and thought that perhaps quiche and greens would fit the bill - filling yet not too filling. After just the first bite I thought I'd died and gone to quiche heaven - it was just that good! Even though the serving size was quite generous, there was no way I was going to leave even a smidgen of it on my plate so by the time I finished the last morsel I had totally forgotten that I was going for "light". Oops. Again, my compliments to Chef Jim - maybe "real men don't eat quiche" but I'd be willing to bet they'd eat this quiche with no fear of losing their "Man Card"!

I'd love to post a picture and tell you how good dessert was but unfortunately I was so full from my chowder and quiche that I couldn't even think about looking at a menu, never mind actually order something! After settling the check and chatting with Frank a bit more I took my leave of the Taproom and looked around the registration area a little bit where I took the picture of this grandfather clock and overheard the conversation between one of the staff members and a patron about the number of buildings and rooms available at "The Oldest Continuously Operating Inn in America".

The Second Floor Hallway

Hmm, speaking of the rooms maybe I shouldn't tell you this but I guess sometimes its better to ask for forgiveness than permission, right? As I rather figured I might never get the opportunity to actually spend a night at The Gris even though I definitely plan on getting back down to Essex as there's so much more there to see and do, before I left the inn I took a quick turn left and up the stairs just to take a short look around. Hopefully by doing that I wasn't breaking any rules and honest - it really was just a quick look around the hallway while I shot a couple of pictures and then retreated back down the stairs - I didn't try a single doorknob on the off-chance that it might be unlocked and I could snap a couple pictures of a room - Scout's Honor!

1859 Map of Middlesex County

Fortunately, should you be considering a stay at the Griswold Inn yourself, they have an absolutely wonderful website that offers a Gallery of Lodging Photos where you can get a pretty good idea of just what the different room types look like - with no sneaking around required! Rooms range from Standard Rooms to Superior Suites to even a Family Cottage complete with a wood-burning fireplace that is located across the street from the main building in Griswold Square.

Also across the street from the main building is where you'll find the Griswold Inn Store which is located in the Timothy Starkey House. An 1800 Federal-style home with a large Palladian window above the door, the house was built after Starkey's marriage to Mary Anne Hayden and is included in the Historic American Architectural Building Survey which is the nation's first federal preservation program that was begun in 1933 to document America's architectural heritage.

The Griswold Inn Store

Timothy was a prominent merchant in Essex along with his brother Felix who married Mary Anne's sister, Esther Hayden, and lived in the house that is now home to the Essex Coffee and Tea Company located just a few yards down the road towards Steamboat Dock.

It seems only logical that the building that was once the home of a major Essex merchant is now the home of the Griswold Inn Store where one can find all sorts of "Goods & Curiosities".

According to their website, the store offers "creatively-branded 'Gris' merchandise; hand-crafted and Connecticut-made products; limited edition prints of The Griswold Inn's renowned art collection; home goods, select books, unique toys, artisan jewelry, specialty foods..." a continuously changing collection of interesting goods.  Even though they don't currently have an on-line store, they're working on that so pretty soon you won't have to actually visit Essex in order to visit the Griswold Inn Store - though that would really be a shame as an in-person visit would also give you the chance to pop across the street to the Griswold Inn and perhaps sample a glass of wine in their Wine Bar or a mug of their Revolutionary Ale in the Taproom while enjoying some of the nightly entertainment also on tap.

The Griswold Inn Store

I mean, really now, wouldn't you rather walk through the door above than mouse through a webpage so that you can then walk through the doors of the building below? Of course you do!

The Gris is included in Patricia Schultz' best-selling travel book "One Thousand Places to See Before You Die" so how could you possibly not want to make a trip to the Griswold Inn? After all, it's been the ideal place to Eat, Drink, Be Merry, and Sleep It Off since 1776 as “The Oldest Continuously Operating Inn in America” and Chef Jim definitely makes a darned fine bowl of chowder!


  1. Nice to read the history along with the review. What an interesting place!

  2. Ok, so I need to head back east... You're finding some gems in New England... Loving the history... now you have me craving chowdah...

  3. Fantastic post, Duchess Linda of NUT. I want to meet you there some fine summer day!

    After reading this I really want to go and enjoy a bowl of chowder and more..I'm half Connecticut Yankee so I'd feel at home. The shop sounds like a fun place to browse.

    What a pretty place!

  4. Wow, after everything that building went through, it's amazing that it's even still standing!! Such a fascinating history behind the "Gris" and it definitely is the type of place I'd love to visit for myself one day. Everything just looks so beautiful and I had to giggle when you mentioned sneaking up the stairs to see the second floor...I've done things like that too! lol I've never had clam chowder so I need to go over there to have my first bowl, right??? hehe It still amazes me how widespread the War of 1812 was!! In Niagara Falls there's the Drummond Hill Cemetery and apparently that area was where the bloodiest battle of the war took place. Also where Laura Secord is buried:-) xoxo

  5. While I am not such a nut about history, I do love the charm and the New England-y-ness! That is SO a word!

    BTW, I love Patti's nickname for you... Duchess Linda of NUT (Norwich Upon Thames, I assume?).

  6. Yes, Barb, you assume correctly ... good thing I like Patti though when she and get together at the Wine Bar at The Gris, we're going to have to have us a talk about that nickname! ;-)

    And also, I agree - New England-y-ness can most definitely be a word!

  7. Great post, Linda from NUT - I realized today that I spent my 1952 wedding night here, on our way to Weekapaug for the honeymoon. It was kind of dusty then (bathroom down the hall), so you've inspired me to give it another try. Thanks for the history too. fellow travel writer, Gail from GUT (end of the Thames).

  8. My grandfather was born in 1883 just down the street from the Gris. He moved to NYC when he was a boy, but visited Essex often and retired to Westbrook. We often came to the Griswold when I was growing up. Very nostalgic for me - reading this. - Pat


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