One part of a family’s legacy continues on 13 acres of rolling meadow tucked between hilly terrain and river at the end of the winding Wilderness Road in Pulaski County. It was once the location of a lucrative business.
William and Mary Draper Ingles made around $1,000 a month while operating their ferry and tavern business alongside the New River in the second half of the 18th century. They purchased land on either side of the river in 1762, seven years after she had escaped Shawnee captivity to travel several hundred miles to get back home.
“This was an 18th Century travel center,” explains Mike Barbour, an attorney, school board member, history buff – and husband of Mary Ingles, the fifth great-granddaughter of Mary Draper Ingles.
As a child, Mary Ingles Barbour remembers spending a lot of time at the large Victorian house built not far from the tavern. She loved spending time there with her grandparents and three great-aunts. While admitting the family was proud of Mary Draper Ingles, she says, “We didn’t talk a lot about her or what happened when I was growing up.”
But she remembers her aunts attending several performances of “The Long Way Home,” which opened for 28 summers between 1971 and 1999. She says they even held a special day each year in honor of Mary Draper Ingles.
In 2009, the 13-acre site of the tavern, ferry and abutment for a covered bridge destroyed during the Civil War was placed into a historic preservation easement. The adjoining 300-acre farm, on which rests the Victorian house, was placed into a conservation easement.
Since that time, the Barbours have spent many hours at the historic easement. Scrub trees were removed. A new roof was put on the tavern. An historic carpenter is currently replacing the lower roof trusses in one of the rooms. Beams salvaged from an old tobacco warehouse have been installed.
Mike explains that all work on the tavern has to be completed using the same or in-kind materials.
But that historic easement requirement is necessary to pay homage to what many regard as one of the most historic sites in the state, and the place Mary Draper Ingles eventually moved to after returning to the New River Valley. For a short time, the family lived in Dunkard’s Bottom and later in Bedford County.
Ingles Ferry was established in 1762. The earliest portion of the tavern was constructed in 1772 using logs from an abandoned fort. Mike says another section was added to the tavern 15 to 20 years later, and another section in the 1820s. One of the additions eventually burned but it’s not noticeable when looking at the structure today.
Ingles Ferry ran until a covered bridge was built in 1840. The bridge was burned in 1864 by retreating Confederates following the battle of Cloyd’s Mountain. The ferry was re-established and ran until 1948.
Many of those using the ferry and tavern were early settlers headed to settle Kentucky and Tennessee.
The tavern includes four fireplaces, a sleeping room and a common room where food might be served and conversation held. It was connected to the outdoor cook house via a ramp. “Like most 18th century structures, you didn’t cook in the same building where you slept,” Mike points out.
Fire later destroyed the cook house. The Barbours aren’t sure if Mary Draper Ingles prepared the food since there’s no historical record of who cooked for the tavern.
“The log portion of the tavern is the oldest building in Pulaski County, and probably the oldest in western Virginia that’s still standing. And this is the oldest farm that’s in continuous family ownership,” Mike says.
Additionally, Mike reports that the long meadow adjacent to the stately Victorian house was the site of archaeological digs where researchers found evidence of tribal encampments dating back to 8,000 B.C.
The family eventually moved into the tavern, living there until a house was built in 1880 by the Ingles’ great grandson, Capt. Billy Ingles. He built many bridges after the war ended and then switched to building houses. The farm, which belongs to Mary and her two brothers, continues today as an active cattle operation.
Mike and Mary are mostly focused on the two-story tavern, making sure to preserve its historical integrity and that everything inside it is original. Just like the property and building, the items inside are living bits of history.
There’s a period farm table, ballot boxes, a photograph of the tavern taken in 1880, a piece of the last ferry cable, the last pulley from the ferry, original hand-cut cedar shakes from the roof, an ink well, horseshoes, imported and local pottery, a communal clay smoking pipe, well-aged saw, hay rake, chairs and more.
And their work goes on. The stacked rock foundation has to be moved back in place every two or three years in what can be a daunting task for Mike. Another critical component of the historic site’s preservation is making sure no herbicides are used in lawn care.
A caretaker is often on site. A gate restricts access and video cameras keep a record of all comings and goings.
Mary says squirrels chewing through some parts of the tavern’s heart pine siding have created “the biggest problem,” but they’re working on that, too. Of course, an ultimate goal of their work would be to make the tavern more accessible, possibly opening three or four times a year.
They currently give tours to small groups as requested. But about 260 people showed up when the Barbours opened the site to the public for the first time last fall, on the same day as the dedication of the Mary Draper Ingles statute in Radford. Mike gave the tours.
“It was crazy. Next time we’ll have more people to help,” Mary says.