Boston - A Town That Washington Wanted To See
( Originally Published 1916 )
The ancient Wayside Inn, at Sudbury dates from the latter years of the 1600's; it is believed that at least a good part of it was built in 1688; and it was swell-known stopping place for generations before Longfellow put it into delightful verse. It stands on one of the main roads leading from the west to Boston, and Washington went past here, and probably halted for a little, and Knox and his Ticonderoga cannon went by these doors. It is distant from any town; it has always been notable among inns for its isolation; and, when railroads came, the nearest one, as if respecting decades of seclusion, remained a mile or more away, and thus the ancient inn is as isolated as ever it was, and has kept on adding to its aspect of mellow romance. And it is really so very romantic! It is stately fronted and very large; I feel sure that I have never seen an old gambrel-roofed house as large as this; it is peaceful, it is full of atmosphere, and its ancient rooms, its taproom and sitting-rooms and huge dining-room, are furnished with things of antique time.
"As ancient is this hostelry as any in the land may be; built in the old Colonial day, when men lived in a grander way, with ampler hospitality": Longfellow wrote of it with glowing appreciation, in those "Tales of a Wayside Inn" in which he fancied one after an-other of a group of friends telling stories there. But, although the plan of the many poems was fanciful, the friends to whom he imaginatively ascribed them were really friends of his. The poet was Parsons, the musician was Ole Bull, the Sicilian was Luigi Monti, the theologian, Professor Treadwell, the student, Henry Wales, the merchant, Israel Edrehi—an interesting group of friends, for a Cambridge poet!—and the landlord was Howe, one of a line of Howes who for many years were landlords in succession.
Longfellow, well as he knew the surroundings of Boston, knew nothing of the famous inn until told of it by that good angel of the Boston authors, James T. Fields l And yet, it is barely thirty miles from Boston. The old 'inn instantly appealed to Longfellow's fancy, and without ever seeing it he began his tales, giving them the inn setting. Some time after that, on a day in 1862, Fields drove Longfellow out to the inn; had it not been for that, Longfellow would have been like most Bostonians, of his own day and of the present time, in never seeing the fine old place at all. It would not have checked Lon-fellow's Wayside poems, however, not to have seen the Wayside! For it was an idiosyncrasy of his, frequently indulged, not to see places about which he wrote. It was in 1839 that he wrote of the "Reef of Norman's Woe," yet as long after as 1878 he wrote to Elizabeth Stuart Phelps that he had "never seen those fatal rocks," though they are right at Boston's door! Longfellow was a great traveler, too; it was not that he was a stay-at-home. Yet I have seen it stated that he never saw Acadia, to which so many thousands pilgrimage to do him honor! One does not quite like to inquire whether or not he ever saw the definite localities of Miles Standish and John Alden.
It is not alone the houses and places definitely connected with great events of the past, or with great authors, that are of interest. The spirit of the past is often finely represented by old houses which are with-out great associations, but are fascinatingly mellowed by the salt and savor of time. The ancient 'Wayside Inn, rich in its associations with Longfellow's admirably told tales, would have had great fascination even without them.
New England still possesses a number of very old houses, delightful in their general presentation of the past, without needing much of definitely great associations. There is the Royall house at Medford, one of the oldest houses still standing in this old country of ours, built, the greater part of it, in the early 1700's, but with part of it probably dating back into the previous century. Nothing is more difficult, in most cases, than to fix upon the precise building date of an old house, and the difficulty is greater if the house has passed through the hands of various families, and in addition has been altered or enlarged. In most cases, when a house, now old, was built, no one was thinking of far-distant future interest in the precise date of construction. Sometimes, when a house was built, the date was set up in a corner of the gable; sometimes the date seen in a gable represents the date of an addition or is a modern guess at the date of the original building. Most often there was no marking whatever, and ancient deeds of real-estate seldom throw light on the subject, because they mention the land alone or may refer to an earlier house.
The Royall house is one of the most interesting in appearance of old New England houses. Although it is a village house, not a house on an isolated estate, it is more retired and exclusive in its situation than was the case with New England village or town houses in general, which were mostly set near a main street or road. A great open space is still retained about this Royall house, with great old trees, with shrubs, with part of an ancient lilac hedge with white and purple flowers, with the marks of ancient paths and drive-ways, with even the ghost of a garden still retained within the fragmentary boundary of an ancient wall of brick.
Near the old house there is a little ancient building which it is well to look at, for it represents a feature of early New England life; for this little building, believed to be the only one of its kind still standing in Massachusetts, was the quarters of the slaves!—of whom, so records tell, twenty-seven were owned by the master of this Royall house, in 1732.
The Royall house is a house with two fronts: either back or front may almost be termed the front; and it is a big house, with fine doorways and windows. And that there is record of twenty-one weddings known to have been solemnized within this ancient home is quite as important as if it had been a rendezvous for soldiers or had sheltered some flecing patriot or Royalist. As a matter of fact, the owner, when the Revolution came, was a Royalist who fled to Halifax and England; he yearned deeply to return to the stately house, set in its stately environment of trees and garden and grass, but he died an exile, before the war came to an end.
The, house is maintained by one of the patriotic societies and is furnished throughout with the furniture of the past: and in a corner stands a chest, of greenish Chinese lacquer, an odd-looking, unexpected thing to be there: and you learn that it is reputed to be one of the very chests thrown into the harbor at the Boston Tea Party, and picked up, afterwards, floating in the water.
There is a staircase of delightfulness, with newel-post and balusters exquisitely fine; there are notably beautiful interior pilasters in the upper hall; there are paneling and window seats and fireplaces and cornicing and a secret stair: there is abundance of rambling roominess and everywhere are the belongings and the very atmosphere of the past. For such houses are in tbemselves the very past.
It is near the Mystic: a quiet stream, sedate and solemn, slowly winding its way in sweeping bends through marshy levels to the sea. In this house General Stark early made his headquarters; and his wife, pleasantly remembered as "Molly Stark," watched from the roof the topmasts of the British ships, in the distance, as they moved out of the harbor at the evacuation of Boston.
Also on the Mystic, and not more than two miles or so from this house of the Royalls, is a house still older, the Cradock house. On the way to this house one passes an ancient-looking little shipyard, whose little ships poke their bowsprits out over the very sidewalk.
From the foreground of the Cradock house and of several oldish houses that neighbor it, the salt marshes of the Mystic stretch away into the distance, and far off, above them, rises the city of Boston, on its hill. A mist was gently falling, as I looked, and it dimmed the stream and the marshes with mystery—all was becoming literally Mystic !—and the mist came sweeping softly toward the ancient Cradock house, and wrapped it as in the mist that comes with the centuries.
The house is of red brick, and stands on a low knoll, and is admirable in shape, with its gambrel-end of felicitousness, and its many-paned windows, and the little oval windows at the side. Vines clamber thickly upon it, and although it is somewhat spoiled by inferior immediate surroundings, it is itself fine and sweet, it is itself a notable survival, standing so happily on its knoll and looking off toward Boston.
This Cradock house, in Medford—easily reachable by trolley—is remindful of another and still more fascinating house, of about the same date; a house which, indeed, looks the older of the two, and probably is: the Fairbanks house at Dedham : and this also may be readily reached by trolley. And I mention this because train service is often inconvenient, to many a point, and because not every tourist goes about with a motor car.
The Fairbanks house is of three periods, all of them, so it is believed, in the 1600's! The middle and oldest portion of the building dates back to before 1650, and it very likely deserves the honor of being the oldest house in New England, although, as has been mentioned, the precise dating of ancient homes is a doubtful matter.
The first impression is of an entrancing medley of roof lines: literally of roofs; there seems to be nothing but roofs!—for the roofs of the center and the wings come, alike, almost to the very ground. The general aspect of the house is positively fascinating: it is so rambling, so long, so romantic, so fetching, as it stands on its slight rise of land, shaded and sheltered by giant hoary trees. There is no other house in New England which more satisfactorily represents very early America. It is not the grandest of early houses, but it is thoroughly homelike, thoroughly at-tractive, a Puritan homestead. It stands at the junction of two highways, and its approach, from Boston, is through an avenue of giant willows that archingly intermingle their branches above the road. And the house is forever protected, by having been purchased by the Fairbanks Family of the United States, incorporated for the purpose.
The ancient town of Marblehead possesses the house, the Lee mansion, the home of Colonel Jeremiah Lee, which in costliness of interior finish of a home stands first among the pre-Revolutionary mansions of New England. It was built less than ten years before the beginning of the Revolution, and is said to have cost the sum, at that time deemed enormous for a house, of ten thousand pounds. That Washington was received here as an honored guest, that subsequently Lafayette was received here, that at a still later date Andrew Jackson was a guest, are but casual claims to fame; the chief claim is the house itself, in its stately beauty and dignity.
But in the first place one notices that it stands near the sidewalk, with distinctionless houses close on either hand, and that ordinary houses face it from across the narrow way. Costly as was this mansion, the home of a merchant who owned a hundred ships and was of high social standing, there was never the slightest attempt at aristocratic exclusiveness, or to have it one of a number of houses in joint aristocratic environment, as with the superb houses of Chestnut Street in nearby Salem. A few other rich houses are in the neighborhood, but they, like the Lee mansion, are closely surrounded by the homes of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.
It should be remembered that the wealthy colonel, the owner of this house, gave his life for his country. He was searched for by the British, at the very be-ginning of the Revolutionary struggle, as he was one of an active committee of safety. The British, on their night march to Lexington, passed near a house where the committeemen were gathered, and Lee, with one or two others, lay in a field, in hiding, for some hours, and he shortly afterwards died from that exposure. Well, he gave his life for his country. But what an opportunity- he missed ! He was a colonel, a man of affairs, a leader; he could have won immortal renown had he headed the farmers against the British, instead of fleeing and getting his death from the chill of a night in carly spring; and he let the farmers win immortality without any leader of prominence. Like John Hancock and Samuel Adams, Colonel Lee, after getting other men to fight, fled from the actual conflict; even though, also as with Adams and Hancock, on that night before Lexington and Concord, the British soldiers were so close upon him that it was with difficulty he got away. Had he accepted the opportunity that Fate was trying to force upon him he might not only have won splendid fame, but might have lived after the war, for ycars, in his splendid home.
The mansion, now maintained by the Marblehead Historical Society, is entered through a superb portico and a superb ten-paneled door. The hall is noble in proportions and size, being forty-two feet long and sixteen feet in width. The stairway is of the noble width of six feet and eleven inches, and rises in stately ease, with beautifully twirled banisters of mahogany. The stair turns, at a landing, where there is a wonderful beehive window and a felicitous windowseat, with a pair of beautiful pilasters at either side. I do not remember any staircase and landing to equal the beauty, the serenity, the nobility of this, in any, even of the grandest, of other Colonial houses, South or North. The house is rich in paneling, and one of the finest rooms is paneled in solid mahogany. And a strikingly distinguished feature is the wallpaper of the hall; huge pictured paper, still in perfect preservation, showing great classical landscapes, in black on cream-colored ground, with temples and arches and streams. This magnificent paper antedates the Revolution and is supposed to have been made by an Italian in London.
Within sight of the Lee mansion is that of Lee's brother-in-law, "King" Hooper, as he was called from his wealth and magnificence; he was another merchant prince, and the house is especially notable from the fine banquet hall, still preserved, in the upper story of the big building. And not far away is another Lee mansion, the home of a brotlier of Colonel Lee.
Marblehead is a town of old houses, although most of them are of a far more modest kind than these great mansions. And it is an interesting town in its general aspect of the olden-time. "The strange, old-fashioned, silent town—the wooden houses, quaint and brown"; and indeed it is a study in browns l And in its older portion, beside the shore, it is still little more than a maze of paths and byways, of narrow streets incredibly twisting. Houses are set down at all sorts of angles, shouldering one another into or away from the roadways. Many of these houses are ancient, and there is still in use a fascinating, ancient-looking shipyard, with high-perched ships under construction, directly on the line of one of the streets, as with the one at Medford; it is a yard full of ships and chips. And there are black rocks, with black pools among them, and a rocky shore; and there is a broad stretch of harbor, thick-dotted with fishing boats. The people who live in this most old-fashioned portion of the town are still full of old-fashioned ways and beliefs, and many of them have actually heard the shrieking woman: the ghost of a woman who was put to death by Spanish pirates at what is now called Oakum Bay, and who shrilly shrieks on the yearly night of her murder, just as she shrieked in actuality, dismally rousing the town from its slumber, so long ago.
George Washington was especially desirous of seeing Marblehead, on the journey that he made to Massachusetts in 1789; I say "especially," not that he gave any reason, but because in his diary he singled the place out for mention as one to which he wished to go; and it was an extremely unusual thing for him thus to write of any place. Going to Salem, he de-toured to Marblehead, "which is four miles out of the way, but I wanted to see it." It is rather tantalizing that, after so writing, he kept his impressions of the place to himself!
Perhaps he went to Marblehead because it was the home town of the gallant General Glover, who did so much at Long Island and the Delaware. And the home of Glover is still preserved. It is up one of the crookedest and narrowest of the lanes, a stone's throw from the water's edge, in the heart of an ancient nautical neighborhood; it is a white house, with fine door-way and gambrel roof, and has a fine aspect of dignity.
Here in Marblehead still stands the house in which lived Captain Blackler, one of General Glover's men, who was intrusted by Glover with the command of the very boat in which Washington crossed the Delaware ! And compared with such a memory, how little does it matter that this house of Blackler's was also the birthplace of Elbridge Gerry l
Marblehead is mainly known, to many people, from the stirring lines depicting Skipper Ireson, Whittier having lived in the town for a time and having be-come saturated with the legends and spirit of the place. But Marblehead does not relish the lines, picturing, as they do, the supposed cowardice of one of its captains, and has striven hard to throw off the odium by claiming that it was not Skipper Ireson's wish to desert the ship that asked for aid, but that he followed the united demand of his crew; an amusing defense of the honor of the town, to put the blame on many rather than on one! It has seemed to me that the endeavor to reject the story has really been more on account of the desire to throw aside the odium of Marblehead's women engaging in the pastime of tarring and feathering, a sport supposed to have been left to men. But New England women did early do tarring and feathering on occasion, as in a case mentioned by Baroness Riedesel, in her memoirs, as having occurred in Boston, a case in which a party of Boston women seized the wife and daughter of a self-exiled loyalist and tarred and feathered them and led them through the city. I am afraid that a good many things that were not very pretty took place in the good old days.
So far as bravery is concerned, Marblehead needs no defender; Ireson was an exception—or his men were exceptions, if the town prefers to put it that way. Marblehead is said to have given more men to the Devolutionary army, in proportion to the population, than any other town in America; and it was not only quantity of men but quality; Marblehead men were famed for bravery. It was to a Marblehead man, in his armed schooner, that, in 1775, the first British flag was struck. And some Marblehead men sailed into the St. Lawrence, also before 1775 was over, and not only captured English boats, but actually landed on Prince Edward's Island and made the governor a prisoner. But the list of the Marblehead brave is too long to name.
The old Town House of Marblehead still stands, full of years and memories. And there still stands the home of a certain Moses Pickett who, reputed a miser and dying in 1853, left his house and his entire little fortune for the poor widows of the town, thus with his thirteen thousand dollars doing far more good in the world than many a wealthy man has done by blindly throwing away millions. And here is still standing the home of that Captain Creesy who, with the Flying Cloud, won the reputation of being the best skipper, with the fleetest sailing ship, in the world. And here is the house in which the famous jurist, Judge Story, was born.
A church is still standing, St. Michael's, which is over two hundred years old, but it has been consider-ably altered from its original appearance. And there is a delightful association connected with it. For an early rector of this church left it to take, instead, a church in Virginia, and while in Virginia he was called upon to marry two people who came to be a very prominent couple in the eyes of the world—for they were George Washington and the Widow Custis!