I have many fond memories of the Colonial Inn in Hillsborough. Most of these memories date to the 1950s, when my family would drive to Hillsborough (or “Hillsboro,” as they spelled it back then) to have lunch at the Inn. We would go there after attending Sunday School and church services at Carrboro Baptist. That church was located where the Century Center is now.
By the time we got there, the Hillsboro folks were already ahead of us. They didn’t need to drive as far. We would check in with the hostess and have our name put on a waiting list. If it was cold or rainy, we would sit in the parlor on some quality furniture that may have seen its better days and wait to be called to a table. If the weather was nice, we might adjourn to the rock-front porch and sit in a rocker or on a bench or lean on a porch post until it was our turn to eat. All the ladies waiting with us had their gloves and purses hanging on their arms. After all, it was Sunday. That was a more genteel time.
There was only one small dining room the first times I remember going there to eat. Later, they added a dining room onto the back of the inn. It was just not the same as the original. It was too new and spiffy.
When a table was available, we would be summoned. We would be ushered to the table by a hostess and given a small menu of the day’s offerings. I remember that the tables were not always on the level. This was because the floor was made from old boards, maybe even original, and they were uneven. There were always cloth tablecloths, a fact that meant good dining to my family. I usually did not bother to read the menu because I would most always order the Southern skillet-fried chicken and real mashed potatoes with gravy. It is still one of my favorite meals. I suppose I loved that chicken because it tasted like it came out of my Mother’s kitchen! I remember it always being juicy and steamy, but not greasy, when I cut it open. My Mother would likely insist that I order another vegetable.
After the meal, homemade pies and cakes, many made with seasonal fruits, were usually available. These scrumptious desserts were prepared in the same hot kitchen as that fried chicken by the same local cooks, usually unseen black ladies. After all, this was the 1950s and we were in the South.
When we got up to leave, the table was cleared by a bus boy who might likely have been a relative of one of the ladies who cooked the meal. Small towns in the South still do tend to keep things as local as possible. My Dad would take our lunch ticket to a lady sitting in the parlor at a table. The table had a drawer with a money tray in it. There was nothing so crass as a noisy cash register. Cash or checks would quietly change hands because this was before the days of plastic money.
In addition to being a great restaurant, The Inn also rented rooms at that time. Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of giving that a try.
Alas, those days are gone, and soon the Inn may be gone too. The current owner has allowed the Inn to fall further into disrepair and has now asked the Town of Hillsborough for permission to tear it down. The original Inn was reportedly built in 1759. No respect has been given to this grand old building that dates to 1838. It has passed through many hands since then. It has provided a place to rest and a meal to many weary travelers in its life. There is no intent to preserve its stately upper and lower porches that grace the entire front of the building. Cornwallis did not stay there, but it is a good story. Much to my sorrow, there is no plan to save the lovely old dining room where I enjoyed that wonderful fried chicken and those homemade pies.