Shields Tavern - Colonial Williamsburg

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We encountered a very different type of living history character on our last trip through Colonial Williamsburg – a Mr. Shields, proprietor of Shields Tavern. His behavior made me think of limericks, seldom funny, mostly rude, and generally mean-spirited, so let’s give it a go:

There once was a man named Shields
His Rapier wit he did yield
They came for the food
Not observe him to brood
His saber sharp tongue did not yield

The Tavern’s website description sounded like a great “living history” family dining experience: “In the early 18th century, Shields Tavern was a popular spot for the colony’s middling sort and lower gentry. Today, the outspoken Mr. Shields invites his guests into a restaurant that faithfully recaptures the experience of dining in the 1750s. The tavern’s warm and rustic interior is historically accurate, the balladeers treat you to a tune and much of the menu is based on authentic recipes.”

Eighty-four feet of my personal bookshelves, lined with British and American history, left me woefully lacking, unprepared for Mr. Shields “outspoken” behavior or the Tavern’s version of “faithfully recaptures the experience”. It was difficult to discern whether he was Mr.-Shields-the-Actor-Playing-A-Tavern-Drunk-Bit-Part or Mr.-Shields-Not-Acting-Goes-Home-To-Kick-The-Grandchildren-and-Family-Dog.

Historically, some taverns could be filled with mischief, gaming tables and cockfights more typical for American 1700’s taverns. For the fact Shields Tavern didn’t take “realism” to that degree, I am thankful. Other historical accounts of early-American taverns positioned them not only as an important to feeding a weary traveler, but also as a communication center, where letters of utmost importance were delivered and transferred between prominent historical players. That “realism” would have been refreshing.

We endured a two-hour wait, albeit seated by a beautiful roaring fireplace, no doubt taking longer because we’d requested “out-of-the-way, low-traffic” for seating, a necessity in our case as our newly-diagnosed Autistic son who needs less stimuli in unfamiliar settings.

Our name announced, we were shown to our table, passing through several other small diningrooms. Ours, unlike the others, contained children at five of the eight tables, always a welcome sight as opposed to dining in company of childless vacationing couples who prefer quiet ambiance for linen and candle dining.

Our order finally placed, waters and milks delivered, bread buttered, linen napkins arranged on laps, we relaxed against our chair backs for what seemed to be the first time that day. According to the brochure, balladeers could be expected.

Our hot dinners arrived, followed within a few short minutes not by balladeers, but by “Mr. Shields, tavern proprietor”, chair-in-tow, parking it and his large frame at the end of our table. He ignored us, thankfully, for the first few minutes, giving us the opportunity of eating a few bites whlie observing him slinging drunken Henny-Youngman-wannabe-monologue of barbs and jests at the other diners.

With some irritation, I noted he didn’t target the adults, some of whom no doubt would delight in sarcastic repartie, but rather, he targeted the least among us, the most vulnerable – the children. Hair, blushes, clothing, postures were pointed out and challenged. Those who blushed were further reduced to head-hanging. Those who received comments on hair, twisted it all the more intensely, while casting their eyes to the floor. Parents reached out, smiling to their children, putting an arm around them in an obvious acceptance of “this is the show, he’s being a drunken jerk, it will soon be over”. In fact, those were the words my husband whispered across the table to me, patting my hand, in reaction to my wide-eyed look.

I don’t know why God doesn’t answer every single one of my prayers, especially those that beg for protection of my children. Pushing my uneaten meal aside, I focused on my son seated across from me, whispering calming words to him, “you’re a good boy! Mommy’s proud of you” as well as bribing him with his all-time favorite – Greek olives from my salad. He was a very good boy, the best in fact, unlike Mr. Shields who it seemed was in need of new material, turning to survey our table. There must have been something in my eyes, because he appeared to twitch, just a bit, when he looked into them. Turning quickly to scan other possible victims at our table, he settled on the one I least wanted him to speak to – my son.

“What’s your name”, bellowed the all-too-convincing drunken Mr. Shields.

“DanielandIreallylikemyMomandolivesand” a nearly impossible string of words, without a single unit of understandable language, rambled from my son’s lips while his eyes darted about the room, his little hands tugging at his hair, something he does when he’s feeling aggitated. Well, I thought, that’s better than his usual response when pigeonholed by strangers which is, “Hi, I’m Whale and I live in the ocean”.

Mr. Shields mimicked him sound-for-sound and move-for-move, darting his rheumy eyes around the room, twisting his head this way and that, a mirror-image, albeit 300 pounds heavier, of my son. Whereas my son had a sincere, sweet, innocent voice, Mr. Shields curled his bulbous nose upward, drawing his lips into a snotty snarl, adding a lisp to every mocking syllable for, no doubt, comedic effect. I wasn’t laughing and neither were those around us.

A woman at the next table must have also felt his behavior inappropriate – that of behaving more like an over-grown bully than tavern entertainer. She tried several times to distract him, throwing comments his direction on which he could bite, but it seemed he was intent on devouring children that day, ignoring distracting adults.

Round Two. Mr. Shields was digging, looking for a crowd-pleaser and since Round One only drew uncomfortable giggles from a very few, he tried again, leaning across the front of my husband, peering through bloodshot eyes at my son. “Can’t you talk right, now tell me your name………”, he bellowed, giving his cane a good slap on the floor for emphasis.

Daniel hung his head, looking down at the floor, mumbling incoherently, shaking his head “no”. Daniel has a well-crafted arsenal of possible responses from which to choose, one of which could have been to violently smash his face on the table, sending all china and silver flying, splattering the linen with blood. To his credit, he didn’t choose that particular method of communicating sensory overload. Instead, he withdrew, a painful process to watch as if a veil is closing over his eyes as he shuts down all systems, drooping into a small, tight ball.

Mr. Shields, no doubt stubborn man that he is, turned towards my daughter, pointing his cane at her slacks. “And where in the world would you buy something like those…those…goodness what a pattern that is…..something like that, wherever would you get it”, he bellowed. “Sweden”, I answered for her, through gritted teeth, pulling her chair closer to mine, placing my arms protectively around her shoulders.

Ignoring me he stared directly at her, asking, “What’s your name”.

“Sarah,” she answered.

Again, the mimicking lisp repeating her name in a bitter tone, “Tharah. Whath are you mithing some teeth, Tharah”, ending with a high-pitched fake girly-giggle. She turned to me wide eyed and said, “I don’t like that man”.

“Neither do I”, I replied, turning my eyes back to lock them with him.

“You feeling better, Mom?”, he asked of me. “Not yet”, I replied, presenting him with a steel-eyed glare, well-practiced from years of handling large macaws, not wanting to incur a bite. Interesting, I thought to myself, he did notice my displeasure, but yet that didn’t give him pause.

No one seemed to be entertained, nor were they eating. If someone had thrown a party, it would have been considered a bust.

After, in the relative safety of the street my daughter took my hand, pulling me down to her level and said, “Why did he have to be so mean to my brother, Mommy? Didn’t he know he was Autistic? Why would he make fun of him?”.

Isn’t there enough time left in their young lives for them to encounter mean-spirited, ill-tempered, unkind acts of others without it being couched as an “outspoken” act? Outspoken is one thing. I’d anticipate someone who is outspoken to at least have an ounce of intellect, a primitive, base source of knowledge in their views. But one who earns laughs, at the expense of the youngest and the weakest among them, poking and jesting at outward physical characteristics or underdevelped speech?

Shame on them. And shame on Colonial Williamsburg for allowing this type of malice into their establishment under the guise of “faithfully recapturing” history. If that were true, then Mr. Shields of 1700’s America would rightly be dragged to the stocks, summarily flogged, and we’d be allowed to fling overly ripe fruit at the wanton, wicked drunk.

I don’t appreciate spending nearly $75 on a meal, only to leave it half-eaten, with a twisting knotted stomach, having to console my daughter for another adult’s silly antics. Congratulations, Shields Tavern, for exposing my daughter to the first drunk of her life, something which is not part of our family “culture”.

This is NOT an establishment to which one should bring children, as long as “Mr. Shields” is the “entertainment”.


  1. It looks like you may have caused Mr. Shields to sing a different tune. Read this description of exciting changes planned for March 2005.
    Carol    Jan 28, 10:44 PM    #
  2. I work for Colonial Williamsburg, and know “Mr.Sheilds” personally. He is a rough personality, but one thing I can say for him is that he loves children. He would be devistated to know that he hurt a child, especially one with special needs. He says everything in jest, and hopes everybody will be light-hearted about his comments. I am sure he ment no ill-will to anyone in your family. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me.
    Sincerely, M.S.
    — M. Shannon    Jul 24, 02:43 PM    #
  3. It would appear that Williamsburg is inept at accurately portarying a living historical theme. Not only did Mr. Shields inappropriately target children (and ONLY children), who would more than likely not have been present in the environment of old, but now he has someone providing excuses for his inappropriate behavior. It’s very 21st century, isn’t it, to attempt to excuse the murderer or rapist for their deed when in fact, his behavior was without excuse. I believe we, in this modern enlightened age would call it co-dependency.

    To think that children, especially those with a speech impediment should somehow be equipped to deal with the quips and barbs of someone many times their weight, many times their strength, and many times their age, in front of a room full of strangers is just plain silly. I opted not to use the word stupid but I’m toying with it…..

    Children are not prepared for public humiliation under the guise of “fun”. Nor should they be.

    Perhaps I didn’t clearly state my position in the original article as to how completely inappropriate Mr. Shield’s behavior was. I’ll not be part of enabling this type of shameless behavior. br />
    I do appreciate you writing, however.
    There have been 30+ “hits” from Williamsburg and you are the first who has bothered to address this issue.

    I doubt anything less than an apology and admittance of wrong-doing, by the powers that be at Williamsburg, will assauage my anger. Looks like it will burn for quite awhile.
    Sharon    Aug 5, 07:02 PM    #
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