Long distance travel used to be a grueling and expensive process. Prior to our modern highways and various conveniences people made the trek into the southeast on foot, in carriages, and by boat. Although this seems like an understood fact, the modern reader may not truly grasp the misery of travel through Alabama prior to the advent of pavement.
From the many travelogues written by people passing through the state it is generally understood that few southerners, much less other Americans, found much pleasure in the early infrastructure. Travel proved so difficult that the first recorded bars in Alabama history described conditions along the Federal Road in Baldwin county:
This road is not passable
Not even jackassable.
So when you travel
Take your own gravel.
While the Virginia lawyer James D. Davidson complained of mud, cold, and danger; summarizing his entire 1836 trip through the state with “Home! Sweet home! Alabama! O how I would bless thee, were I once clear of thy domains.”
So imagine for a brief moment that you are one of these people. The entirety of your possessions strapped to a mule or towed behind you in a hogshead barrel that until a month ago stored tobacco. There has been sickness, misery, and corn cooked on the cold, cold ground. Your only company – panthers screaming in the distance.
Yet a light hovers in the distance. Ahead of you is rough food, a bed, and a fire shielded from the whipping wind. Now ask yourself, how much would you pay for these small comforts?
Prices for basic goods soared with the influx of travelers. Anyone with a cabin and a bit of business sense started taking in boarders. Madison county officials saw the potential for disaster, or profit, and in an attempt to control this unregulated market forced anyone operating a tavern or inn to acquire a license.* Many complied with these new laws but some people found it strange that they might own a cabin and provide the necessities and now be forced to pay the county for the privilege of performing their previous jobs.
So they to themselves, “come on, nobody is going to enforce that law,” and it’s true. Nobody enforced that law, until they did.
In June of 1822, the county cracked down on unlicensed inns. Two men eventually stood accused of the crime. Although an inane and harmless act the prosecution pursued it with the language and vigor of larger crimes. Earnest Benoit and Robert French apparently supplied many travelers with “corn fodder meat and bread and other victuals,” which prompted the county to shut down their operations.
It appears that Robert French might have operated a larger and more successful inn than Benoit, because prosecutor Joseph Eastland characterized his actions as occurring “for his own filthy lucre and gain,” whereas Benoit simply “failed to obtain a license.” Had French been selling liquor or running a casino then he would have been tried for those offenses. So we can reasonably say that he was just really good at operating a proto-hotel.
Benoit received a one cent fine while the county demanded a dollar from French. No other prosecution of unlicensed inns occurred during 1823.
*It’s not like there was a regulatory board. They just wanted that sweet, sweet tavern money.
Harvey H. Jackson, Rivers of History: Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995), 46.
Henry deLeon Southerland Jr and Jerry Elijah Brown, The Federal Road through Georgia, the Creek Nation, and Alabama, 1806-1836 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990), 66.
The State of Alabama v. Earnest Benoit, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 212-213 (1823).
The State of Alabama v. Robert French, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 229 (1823).