Near Boston, Longfellow's Wayside Inn

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Almost every little town in New England seems to have an olde inne where Paul Revere changed horses or Abigail Adams left her spectacles. But Longfellow's Wayside Inn near Sudbury, Mass., a leafy village about 20 miles west of Boston, is the genuine article. It's said to be America's oldest op...


By Susan Spano // 07.14.09
 

Almost every little town in New England seems to have an olde inne where Paul Revere changed horses or Abigail Adams left her spectacles. But Longfellow's Wayside Inn near Sudbury, Mass., a leafy village about 20 miles west of Boston, is the genuine article.

It's said to be America's oldest operating inn, but "operating" is the key word. Aside from a 36-year hiatus at the end of the 19th century, the Wayside has offered "food and lodging for man and beast" since 1716, when David and Hebzibah Howe opened their two-room house to weary travelers on the old Boston Post Road.

The inn, just off what is now Massachusetts Highway 20, occupies a stately red-frame building by a rush-fringed pond, brook and meadow full of purple clover. The ground floor has a taproom, shop and warren of dining rooms with low wood-beamed ceilings, spindle-back chairs, glass-globed candles and pictures of George Washington (ubiquitous in homes and places of business after his death in 1799). Ten handsomely decorated guest rooms line an upstairs hall.

Back in the States from my Rome base of operations, I stayed at the Wayside on Memorial Day and won't soon forget it. It took only one night at the inn to make me realize that I must come home sooner or later because I don't want to die in Europe. I want to expire in the nation of Washington, Adams and Jefferson.

No one claims that Washington slept at the Wayside Inn, though he and the Marquis de Lafayette passed by during the Revolutionary War. The old Boston Post Road was a main Colonial-era thoroughfare and mail route, surveyed by Deputy Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin.

Innkeeper David Howe died in 1759, and his son Ezekiel had taken over several years earlier. Ezekiel Howe enlarged the hostelry, then known as Howe's Tavern. He led a company of militiamen to neighboring Concord on April 19, 1775, the day the shot heard 'round the world was fired, to paraphrase "The Concord Hymn" by Ralph Waldo Emerson. On the way there, Howe supposedly said, "If any blood has been shed, not one of those rascals shall escape."

Four generations of the family ran the inn until Lyman Howe died in 1861, and it became a sort of boarding house. It received a famous visitor the next year: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in mourning for his wife, Frances, who had died in a fire. The old place captured his imagination, inspiring his 1863 book, "Tales of a Wayside Inn," which includes "The Landlord's Tale." Its opening lines are etched in American memory:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

After that, Howe's Tavernbecame Longfellow's Wayside Inn.

In 1923, when a later innkeeper was forced to sell, Henry Ford toured the property and fell in love with it. "I'll take it all," he said, according to "As Ancient Is This Hostelry: The Story of the Wayside Inn," by Curtis F. Garfield and Alison R. Ridley.

Ford restored the Wayside and scoured the area for Colonial-era furnishings. He also bought about 3,000 acres around the inn where he built a grist mill and chapel. Later he opened a school for indigent boys on the property and rerouted busy Highway 20 to preserve the setting. When he died in 1947 a board of trustees took over the inn, which operates as a nonprofit living museum and retreat for wayfarers.

Together with neighboring towns such as Concord and Lexington, Sudbury remains, by and large, a pastoral place with farm stands, frame Colonials, white-steeple churches, stone walls and a minuteman statue. Town fathers have fended off development, and large tracts of land surrounding the old village have been turned into nature preserves by the Sudbury Valley Trustees, a nonprofit conservation organization. The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary is in nearby Lincoln; Framingham to the south has the New England Wild Flower Society's Garden in the Woods; and it takes only about 25 minutes to drive from the inn to Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau retreated in 1845. Now a 411-acre state park, Walden, with a swimming beach, hiking trails and secluded coves for fishing, is one of my favorite places.

There's plenty to see and do in the Sudbury area, then dinner awaits at the Wayside Inn. The menu is a page out of a Colonial cookbook, featuring lobster pie, Boston scrod, Wellfleet oysters and Indian pudding. I had the kind of big, traditional American meal I sometimes dream about in Rome: a salad with cranberries, pecans, blue cheese and field greens, followed by prime rib and a glass of Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir -- all delicious.

Sated, I climbed the stairs to my room with hardwood floors and a canopy bed, but no TV or mini-bar. Once I settled into bed, I looked up at the wood slats that supported the canopy. Tucked underneath one of them I saw a folded envelope, which I dislodged and opened. Inside, I found a gold Andrew Jackson presidential $1 coin and handwritten instructions that said, "Please leave for someone else to find."

Delighted, I tossed it back and forth between my hands, dreaming up a new tale from the Wayside Inn. Then I wrapped it in the envelope and put it back under the slat.