The oldest operating inn in the United States lies about 20 miles west of Boston, in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Longfellow’s Wayside Inn has been welcoming guests since 1716. If you come to the Boston area and are interested in colonial history and historical sites, a trip out to Sudbury would be well worth the time.
The establishment did not start off as Longfellow’s Wayside Inn. When David Howe expanded his home and opened it to the public almost three hundred years ago, it was known as Howe’s Tavern.
Business was good for Howe. His tavern was on the Old Boston Post Road, one of the first mail routes in Colonial America, and a busy coach route between Boston, Worcester, and New York.
Howe died in 1759, but by that time his son Ezekiel-who during the Revolutionary War led the contingent of Minutemen from Sudbury-had taken over running the tavern. A total of four generations of Howes operated Howe’s Tavern in fact, each one expanding the main building.
The last of the Howe owners-Lyman Howe-died in 1861 and Howe’s Tavern was taken over by relatives, who stopped renting out rooms for the night and made it into more of a boarding house for extended stays, while renting out the main hall for dances and other events.
So what’s the connection with Longfellow?
In 1862, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spent time at Howe’s Tavern, soaking in the atmosphere, listening to the stories of the long time patrons about the Howes and the history of the establishment. Inspired, he wrote a series of poems loosely based on what he’d heard.
These were published in 1863 as Tales of a Wayside Inn, which sold out its first printing on the very first day.
The poem that came to be the best known of the collection is entitled The Landlord’s Tale, though it is more popularly known as The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.
Soon, people in the area took to calling Howe’s Tavern “Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.” Local shops sold souvenirs with the inn’s likeness.
In 1892 the property was purchased by wealthy merchant Edward Rivers Lemon, who announced he would treat the inn as a “mecca for literary pilgrims.” In 1897 he formally changed the name to “Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.”
When Henry Ford visited the inn, he was fascinated by it, and in 1923 purchased it from the Lemon family. Much like with his Greenfield Village in Michigan, he wanted to turn it into a living history museum. He restored and furnished the inn in 18th century style, bought land to expand the property to 3,000 acres, and brought in such items as a one-room schoolhouse, a chapel, and a functioning grist mill.
Ford was the last private owner of the inn. After him, the inn was run by a board of trustees from the Ford family, then the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and since 1960 a group of Boston-based trustees who continue to run it as a nonprofit.
Today you can still get a room at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, still eat in one of its multiple dining rooms, and still have a drink at the bar and shoot the breeze like Longfellow did in 1862.
Susan Spano, “Near Boston, Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.” Los Angeles Times.
“Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.” Wayside.org.