Elise Amendola  /  AP
Pumpkins decorate the front yard of Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass., Wednesday, Oct. 11th. Situated halfway between Boston and Worcester, the Wayside Inn claims to be America's oldest operating inn and is a National Historic Site.
updated 11/16/2006 3:10:03 PM ET 2006-11-16T20:10:03

Here's a secret about Longfellow's Wayside Inn: The poet himself never stayed overnight.

"Longfellow only visited for that one day in October 1862," said Guy LeBlanc, manager of museum services at Wayside, which bills itself as America's oldest operating inn. "He never returned."

Though short in duration, the visit proved inspirational. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, said to be suffering from writer's block after the death of his first wife, published "Tales of a Wayside Inn" a year later. It sparked intense interest in the hotel, so much so that the name "Longfellow" was added to the inn's title, in order to capitalize on the publicity.

Generations of visitors continue to be inspired by the National Historic Site, located on 120 acres in a valley off Boston Post Road halfway between Boston and Worcester. Car manufacturer Henry Ford, of all people, liked the property so much he bought it.

The Wayside is popular today as a special occasion destination: Thanksgiving dinner reservations are booked within an hour each year, and lovebirds who become engaged on the scenic grounds or by the candlelight of the Colonial-era dining room or tavern often return on anniversaries.

The grounds of the 10-room inn also house a chapel, a one-room school house and a grist mill. Period displays are featured in museum rooms on two floors of the building. The public can see it all on a free, self-guided walking tour.

"You're free to roam," LeBlanc said. "You don't have to come here and eat dinner and tour. People walk all over the grounds and never go inside the buildings."

The inn dates to 1716, when David How obtained an entertainment license from the Massachusetts Legislature.

The old bar room, one of the two original rooms, is on the right as you walk in the front door. The small room features a low ceiling with exposed beams, a fireplace and a small bar in the corner. It was here where Lt. Col. Ezekial How hosted fellow revolutionaries to drink ale and prepare to battle the British. How led a contingent to Concord on April 19, 1775, when the Revolutionary War began.

"It went from being one of many taverns along Boston Post Road... to being a power center in terms of attracting interesting people," said Lee Swanson, curator at the Sudbury Historical Society.

George Washington "rode by," he said, but the Marquis de Lafayette, who fought alongside Washington and secured the aid of his native France during the Revolutionary War, visited twice, he said.

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Through the entrance to the left is the parlor where Longfellow's characters — based on his friends — gathered round the fireplace.

Henry Ford entered the picture in 1923, when Wayside trustees sought investors to stave off developers. The car maker had visited Sudbury and Concord a few years earlier.

"He found it a remarkable opportunity," Swanson said. "He was in a collecting mode."

Ford built the grist mill in 1929 and it remains in use today. The water-powered structure produces flour and corn meal that are used by the inn's bakers. Demonstrations are held on weekends, weather permitting, through the end of October and sometimes into November.

"You can go and watch the miller make flour and corn meal the way they did in the old days... by water power alone, using a giant water wheel and two sets of turning stones," LeBlanc said.

The chapel also was built by Ford. It's called the Martha-Mary Chapel in honor of Ford's mother and mother-in-law, and is often rented for weddings. And Ford had the Redstone School moved from Sterling to Sudbury in 1926. The school, built in 1798, is said to be the one mentioned in the childrens' rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb," according to Wayside.

Ford was the last private owner, and paid for much of the inn's 1956 reconstruction after a devastating fire. It's now operated by a nonprofit trust, and also earns revenue from its restaurant.

There's another secret to the Wayside: The so-called Secret Drawer Society. A former innkeeper from the 1950s would entertain children by showing them secret compartments in antique desks in the many of the inn's 10 guest rooms.

"That tradition of entertaining children grew into people leaving little notes for each other in these rooms," he said. "It somehow got the named Secret Drawer Society. Virtually all the rooms have the notes. It's gone way beyond the desks."

In the ceiling beam of one chamber was a note that encouraged whoever reads it to experience "reflection and relaxation." It went on to say, "Our country is filled with wonderful opportunities and it is all possible because of its beginnings here."

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