SUDBURY — Howe’s Tavern on Boston Post Road was already about 150 years old when poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stopped for a visit in 1862.
Its congenial ambience inspired his series of poems, “Tales from a Wayside Inn,” and innkeeper Lyman Howe served as the model for one of Longfellow’s best-known works, “The Landlord’s Tale,” more widely known as “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”
Credit the wool merchant who purchased the inn in 1892 with capitalizing on its most famous patron and renaming it “Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.”
“At the time, that would have been akin to calling it Disney’s Wayside Inn,” observed Gary Christelis, now president of the 10-member volunteer board of trustees overseeing the property. “Everyone would have wanted to go check it out.”
In the 21st century, renaming often goes by the more strategically accurate term rebranding, and the historic property where Longfellow’s Wayside Inn stands is going through a similar iteration. Its new name, the trustees announced last month, will be The Wayside Inn Foundation.
“People know us for our wonderful hospitality and our fantastic restaurant, a place to walk the grounds or hold a wedding, but we’re so much more than that,” said innkeeper and general manager Steve Pickford. “And over time that’s gotten a little lost.”
Pickford pointed out that the Wayside property includes not just the restaurant (and 10 rooms for overnight guests) but the Grist Mill — “the same one depicted on the Pepperidge Farm logo, because for years this is where they got their flour from” — the Martha-Mary Chapel, the Redstone Schoolhouse, and over 100 acres of fields and forests. The inn was designated a Massachusetts Landmark in 1970, and the property was first listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Over time, the property has become increasingly unsustainable. “Our problem is our identity,” said Christelis. Fund-raising is hampered by patrons’ confusion over why a restaurant needs to raise money, not realizing how much more broad the scope is than that.
Even visitors who are aware of the grounds beyond the dining room and tavern don’t always appreciate its historical context, said Pickford. “The Grist Mill is a highly visited location, particularly on weekends for wedding photos and bus tours. But somehow there’s a sense that it’s town or state property.”
Litter, vandalism, and misuse of the grounds — Christelis once drove by to see a group constructing their own ad hoc wedding pavilion on the lawn — are an ongoing problem, and the trustees believe that achieving better recognition as a private entity would help mitigate those problems.
Bisected by the Boston Post Road — which dating all the way back to the 1600s saw a busy flow of coach traffic traveling between New York, Worcester, and Boston — the Wayside property originated with the building that still houses the restaurant. It’s believed to be the oldest operating inn in the United States.
The merchant who so astutely tacked Longfellow’s name onto the inn owned it from 1892 to 1923, when industrialist Henry Ford bought it. Over the next two decades, Ford added more buildings, including the one-room schoolhouse, the chapel still popular for weddings, and the grist mill.
He even converted part of the property into a boarding school for indigent boys who could be groomed for employment in his automobile factories. Since Ford’s death, the inn has been in a series of private trusts.
With grant money from the Sudbury Foundation, a private foundation with a mission to bolster nonprofits and philanthropy in and near Sudbury, the Wayside Inn’s board of trustees made a commitment in 2018 to develop some strategic planning initiatives.
“The ideas that bubbled up all concerned broadening our educational scope,” said Christelis. Rebranding as the Wayside Inn Foundation will help to make that transition, he said.
“We have 300 years of history to mine,” Christelis said. “We want to look to our archives as a resource for designing more cultural events and programming around American humanities and Colonial traditions. We’re envisioning hosting lectures, poetry readings, concerts. But we could make better use of our grounds as well and broaden our appeal to a younger demographic, maybe with outdoor cinema and old-fashioned baseball in addition to the Colonial reenactments and fox hunts — which have all the pageantry but no actual guns or foxes, of course – that we already host here.”
Hartley Johnson, president of the Sudbury Historical Society, has followed the evolution of ideas at the Wayside Inn with interest and sees the trustees’ new approach as potentially leading the way for other historical organizations.
“It’s hard to attract new faces, new volunteers, or new donors, when you keep doing things the same way over and over,” Johnson said. “We all have to adapt and change. Wayside has a fascinating history which a lot of people in town don’t know about — not just the Longfellow part but what went on there under Henry Ford in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s. It’s a really cool place and I’m in favor of whatever they need to do to help people realize that.”
“It’s amazing what a special place this is for so many people,” said Christelis. “We hear from people who got married here and are coming back to celebrate their 50th anniversary. And we have other people who eat at the restaurant every week. We need to celebrate that history by asking people to step up. We are a nonprofit and need people’s support.
“The Wayside Inn is like our Parthenon. We have to preserve and protect it so that one thousand or more years from now, people are still visiting it to understand the past.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.