Where history comes alive, the Nellis Tavern offers a peek back

Palatine Settlement Society The historic 1747 Nellis Tavern on Route 5 near St. Johnsville after its restoration by the Palatine Settlement Society. (Photo courtesy of the Palatine Settlement Society)

ST. JOHNSVILLE — When Sandy Lane gives tours of the historic 1747 Nellis Tavern, it offers life to the expression “it’s a small world.”

Lane is a ninth-generation descendant of the Nellises that fled the war-torn Palatinate in Germany and eventually settled in this area of the Mohawk Valley in 1734.

Among the people who tour the tavern are distant relatives who live in America or Canada.

“I’m very interested in meeting people who say they are related”— descendants of William, Christian or Katharine Nellis, she said. “That’s exciting.”

The Canadian relatives call themselves “Nelles” and were British loyalists who headed for Canada after the American Revolution. “The revolution was kind of like a civil war–it split families,” she said. Some of them may be found in “two huge genealogy books” maintained by the Palatine Settlement Society, she added.

The dilapidated state of the historic 1747 Nellis Tavern in September 1983, before its restoration. (Photo courtesy of the Palatine Settlement Society)

Lane’s ninth-generation great-grandfather, Christian, and his sister, Katharine, both married Klocks, making a connection to another St. Johnsville historic site, Fort Klock. Christian settled on the land on which the tavern stands in 1725 and is buried in Klock Cemetery. A house standing on the tavern site was present as early as 1747.

The Nellis Tavern holds Sunday tours from 1 to 4 p.m. from June 1 through Sept. 30 and other times by appointment with Mary Davis at (315) 866-2619.

Besides relatives, the tavern is visited by people interested in history and old buildings, Lane said. “The Mohawk Valley is history, and the tavern is an important part of it,” she said.

The Nellis house/tavern was abandoned in the 1950s and fell into a dilapidated state until the Palatine Settlement Society bought it and eight acres in the mid-1980s and began restoring it.

Through donations and fundraising, the society restored it to its nearly original state with three yellow sides and a red side. Its main entrance on the south side faced the King’s Highway, which later became Mohawk Turnpike and then Route 5.

A limestone fireplace in what was most likely a dining room in the historic 1747 Nellis Tavern. (Photo courtesy of the Palatine Settlement Society)

Nellis Tavern, a handsome building in its region for its time, has the distinction of being “one of the few wooden structures that survived the revolution,” when rebel buildings were sometimes burned down by the British, Lane said.

Before the Civil War, wallpaper was expensive so traveling artists would do hand-stenciling on walls in exchange for room and board, she said. The settlement society has paneled over some of the stenciled walls to preserve them, restenciled some walls, and kept some of the old stenciling exposed but protected by plexiglass, Lane said.

Visitors are often “amazed to see the old beams that are huge and rough hewn,” she said.

Lane said visitors also can view a section of the walls that were built by the wattle-and-daub method in which tree limbs are chiseled in between beams; covered with paste of clay or manure, straw, and water; and then plastered over.

Fireplaces and furniture are also preserved although some of the original furniture was pilfered after the building became uninhabited, she said.

Although Fort Nellis is mentioned in some literature about the area around the tavern, “we don’t really know where Fort Nellis was,” she noted.

In a hat-tip to modernity, the site has two wooden 4-by-4 replicas of Nellis cloth quilts to make it part of the Fulton-Montgomery Barn Quilt Trail.