The Palmyra Center Hotel was once a luxurious stopover for stagecoach travelers and illustrious 19th century heroes, from Abraham Lincoln to Buffalo Bill. Today, it’s the crumbling structure that haunts the intersection of Tallmadge Road and state Route 225.
Now, a small group of Palmyra residents is working to restore the 1832 building, also known as the Old Stagecoach Inn, to its former glory.
In the 190 years since Francis Lewis built it, the Inn has been home to a variety of businesses, including a tavern, a meat market, a saloon and a boot shop. It has also been visited by some notable historical figures, including Lincoln, abolitionist John Brown, and the western showman William F. Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill.”
The property went through the hands of several owners before Douglas Rice, 65, took over in 1994. Rice, a resident of Palmyra, says although there have always been plans for the old building, only recently has he taken tangible action to get the job done.
“I was absent for 10 years out of the area here; I had to go chase my job,” he said. “When I got back, I was kind of resting, figuring out what to do. I had thought maybe this would be too big of a job for me to handle, and maybe the best thing to do is pass the baton to somebody else.”
Palmyra residents Della Evans, 65; Lori Brawley, 55; and Chuck Massrock, 65, got involved with the project in 2020. The three of them and Rice effectively make up the committee called “Friends of the Stagecoach Inn,” which officially formed on April 6. Evans is the president, and Massrock serves as vice president and head foreman for the restoration.
Restoration planning begins
Aside from one floor on the third level being refinished within the past three years, no work has been done to the property in several decades. Two of the original windows from 1832, featuring 24 panes, are still intact, as well as much of the foundation.
“The building’s in remarkable shape for how old it is,” Evans said.
Massrock says the repairs needed include a roof replacement, updating the stairs and handrails to meet safety standards, and reconstructing the back first floor.
About 20 volunteers have already approached the group offering their help, ranging from physical work, to documentation and reporting. A website will be created soon. For now, people can get involved through the Palmyra and Paris Ohio History group on Facebook. The group is still accepting volunteers.
“I was a union bricklayer and a foreman for 44 years,” Massrock said. “I did some restoration, but nothing of this magnitude.”
Inside the Stagecoach Inn
Upon entering, visitors will notice the deformed front step on the tavern side of the building, which Rice says is the result of thousands of people coming in and out of the Inn to stay, share stories, or enjoy the tavern throughout the 1800s. The arrival of heavy industry and the turmoil of the 1960s eventually pulled these workers out of rural areas and into cities.
Ohio canals did not run through agricultural areas like Palmyra, so stagecoach lines served as the most common transportation of the mid-1800s, until the arrival of railroads by the 1860s. Stagecoach drivers, teamsters, farmers and other travelers could rent a room with a fireplace, a washbowl and a dresser for 50 cents a night in the 1830s. Rooms without fireplaces went for 10 cents a night. These rooms had to rely on heat from the building for warmth.
“They were a rugged bunch of people and didn’t make much money at all,” Rice said. “For the most part, they slept in the bar or right on the floor to save a little money. The average teamster didn’t live past 40.”
In the mid-1800s, the Inn grew in popularity and significance. Then-candidate Abraham Lincoln gave a handful of speeches at the front of the building during his 1860 presidential campaign.
The underground railroad
Fervent abolitionist John Brown also passed through the town and reportedly frequented the Inn as he gathered supporters for his growing army of northerners. One of those members, Edwin Coppock, was born in Winona, Ohio, in Columbiana County.
“I worked down in Winona. I worked at the post office there,” Evans said. “A descendant of Edwin Coppock was my customer, and he said ‘don’t you recognize my name?’”
The man showed Evans two letters that Coppock wrote to his mother just before his execution. Coppock was hanged for his participation in Brown’s attempted slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. The letters mention activity in Palmyra, Ohio, where the Inn was part of the Underground Railroad.
“They didn’t really want to hang him, they just wanted him to say he was sorry, and he wasn’t,” Evans said. “It was really almost heartbreaking.”
Former owner Betty Stone documented the Inn’s history with the underground railroad. On the Inn’s west wing second floor, Rice discovered a hidden room above the old freight station, believed to hide runaway slaves at the time. The room could only be found by entering the closet and going through a small door through the ceiling, leading into the loft area.
Shortly after, the Inn became a base for the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization, to hold regular meetings. The wide third floor served as a meeting room for the organization, with a small stage on the west end and enough space to seat a large group of people.
Over the next several months, the restoration committee plans to have three cleanups, where they will also clear the nearby brush for parking.
Ultimately, Rice says the goal is to bring the building up to museum-quality. They plan to feature artifacts and other historical findings on display. They are seeking donations from residents who may have documents or other artifacts that show off the rich history of Palmyra.
“We want to get into a very big discovery of how this building and Palmyra are integrated together. That’s going to take a lot of documentation,” Rice said.
“I really want to be able to finish and see the building restored to something that’s historical, yet useful for modern times for the community. The building should really be something for the community, instead of, I hate to say it, but an eye sore.”
This article originally appeared in The Portager in April 2022.