Your View: Support Alexandria historic preservation at Gadsby’s Tavern ball

Your View: Support Alexandria historic preservation at Gadsby’s Tavern ball

By Nancy Kegan-Smith, Co-chairwoman, Gadsby’s Tavern Best Bib and Tucker Mardi Gras Ball (File photo)

To the editor:
Gadsby’s Tavern is one of Alexandria’s many historic treasures, attracting residents and tourists alike. But in order to keep the landmark well maintained and open to the public, we need your help. This Saturday, we are hosting the second annual Best Bib and Tucker Mardis Gras Ball, a fundraiser to benefit the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum.

If the promise of dancing, food and an auction isn’t enough of a draw, here are a number of interesting facts about Gadsby’s:

The tavern boasts one of the last remaining urban ice wells in the area, and it preserved ice harvested from the river in the winter. The ice well could hold up to 68 tons of ice, which is equivalent to the weight of 14 adult African elephants. The recent renovation of the ice well has won three architectural design awards.

The City Tavern — part of the Gadsby complex we know today — was the five-star hotel of 18th-century Alexandria. The hotel’s amenities included a “large stock of good old liquors,” the services of a washerwoman, and — for only 20 cents in 1801 — clean sheets.

The buildings have seen visits from six U.S. presidents, founding fathers George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, and President Truman; three first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Rosalynn Carter and one Pope — Pope John Paul II.

George Washington partied like it was 1999 — really 1799 (and 1798) — at his Birthnight Ball, held at the City Tavern. He said in his diary, “Went up to Alexandria to the celebration of my birth day. Many manoeuvres were performed by the Uniform Corps and an elegant Ball and Supper at Night.”

Thomas Jefferson celebrated his inauguration as president in the historic ballroom in 1801 and was regaled with 16 toasts throughout the night. A local newspaper said, “… style and elegance with which it was furnished, at so short a notice, reflect the highest credit on the taste and industry of Mr. Gadsby.”

The variety of entertainment options found at the establishment had no bounds. Citizens and guests took in acrobatic displays, danced until the wee hours of the morning, learned about the stars through an eidouranion, viewed a manuscript draft of a map of Virginia, and bought tickets to see a live bison.

The building’s most famous ghost story — the Tale of the Female Stranger — inspired Port City Brewery’s Long Black Veil beer. The tale of the Female Stranger is about a woman who arrived in Alexandria by ship in October 1816. Having become ill, she was taken to the finest tavern in town — Gadsby’s Tavern — and was given a room, a doctor and two nurses to care for her.

Her identity, however, was kept a mystery. Days passed by and her condition worsened. On October 14, 1816, she died at the age of 23. She is buried at St. Paul’s Cemetery and a table-top tomb bears the inscription “In the memory of the Female Stranger…”

Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette was entertained at the City Tavern during his tour of the United States in 1824. He was greeted along his parade route by hundreds of spectators and women waving handkerchiefs from the open windows of neighboring buildings.

The museum runs a unique Junior Docent program, which engages children grades four through six in giving tours and sharing the history of the museum with others. Over the course of seven years, 74 children have come through the program. One of their many fun hands-on activities with the public is to make and serve period-inspired ice cream.

Mr. Gadsby was known for his lavish events, and that tradition continues today. Do not miss your opportunity to attend one of Alexandria’s social events of the year – The Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Society’s Best Bib and Tucker Ball. The society introduced the annual Best Bib and Tucker Ball to raise money for preservation, restoration and educational and cultural programs for Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. The term “Best Bib and Tucker” means one’s best clothes and was first used in 1747.

On Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m., New Orleans comes to Alexandria as this year’s theme is Mardi Gras. Dance or listen to Doc Scantlin and their Imperial Palms Orchestra, who will play in the historic ballroom and the restaurant, eat gumbo, enjoy Alligator Juice, and bid on some one-of-a-kind silent auction items such as a necklace by New Orleans jeweller Mignon Faget.

To add to the fun there will also be a fortune teller/tarot card reader giving free readings of your fortune. Tickets for this wonderful evening are $150 per person and can be purchased at

It is not often that one can partake of a truly historic setting with so much merriment, food and libation, and at the same time support a worthy cause. The Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Society cordially invites you and hopes to see you at our Mardi Gras Ball.