Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 7)

Published February 16, 2001 | Informational - Historic Articles | Automatically Archived on 6/3/2001

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Chapter Seven

Mr. Ford Comes to Sudbury

L. Loring Brooks was beginning to feel a bit like someone who has a bull by the tail and doesn’t quite dare to let go. Despite the support of some of Boston’s leading citizens and even Governor Cox, his labor of love was rapidly turning from a dream into a nightmare.

Brooks, a Boston stockbroker who lived on Sunset Ridge Farm not far from the Wayside Inn, had joined Charles Francis Adams, Massachusetts House Speaker B. Loring Young, and distinguished lawyer and businessman E. Sohier Welch in forming a Wayside Inn Trust to relieve the aging Cora Lemon, widow of landlord Edward R. Lemon, of the financial and physical burdens connected with running the ancient hostelry.

An appeal went forth to philanthropists and ordinary citizens all over the northeast. Shares were priced at $100 with the Trust’s declaration of purpose being: “to acquire and hold the Wayside Inn at Sudbury…so well known through the song and story of Longfellow and Hawthorne and its patronage by Washington and Lafayette and other great men of past generations.”

The purpose of the Wayside Inn Trust was two-fold: to preserve the Inn with its priceless antiques as nearly as possible in their original condition and, secondly, to maintain and operate the Inn as an inn.

The appeal was sent out over the names of Charles W. Eliot, Allan Forbes, Henry Cabot Lodge, Dr. Myles Standish and other notables. Its aim was to sell two thousand shares at $100 apiece and use the $200,000 raised to purchase the property from Mrs. Lemon and put it in trust for future generations of Americans to enjoy.

There was plenty of enthusiasm for the project, but little money was forthcoming, despite glowing support from the Boston newspapers and the city’s most prestigious historical organizations. Chagrined, Brooks decided to play a card of his own. He boarded a railroad car in Worcester and paid a visit on Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.

Brooks’ goal was to persuade Ford to purchase ten shares in the Trust, hoping that the Motor Magnate’s example would attract other giants of industry to the cause. Ford was polite and listened carefully to Brooks’s pitch, but remained non-committal. Brooks rode home disappointed. It appeared that his two-year quest for a new landlord at the Inn would have to continue a little longer.

As it turned out, he was wrong. Not long after the Fourth of July, Brooks received a telephone call from Dutee Flint, Ford’s real estate agent in Rhode Island. Ford was interested in the Trust, Flint said, and would like to talk about it the next day, July 9, 1923at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.

Brooks hurried to the Copley bright and early the next day, but Ford was nowhere to be found. Flint was there, however, bringing with him an elaborate set of instructions which Brooks was to follow to the letter. Any kind of publicity must be avoided at all costs, Flint explained.

And so it was, on the morning of July 10, that Brooks entered the hotel from Copley Square, mingled for a time with the guests in the lobby, and exited out the west entrance to Dartmouth Street. There, as promised, was a Lincoln Zephyr limousine containing Flint and Henry Ford.

Ford signalled to chauffeur John W. Burke, who threw the Lincoln in gear and headed west by a circuitous route, just in case any members of the press were following. At Sudbury, Ford asked Brooks to show him all the property on which the trust held options, scribbling down acreages and prices as he rode.

After an extensive tour of the Inn conducted by Mrs. Cora Lemon, Brooks approached Ford once more. “Would you like to invest in ten shares?” he asked. “I’ll take it all,” Ford replied.

And he did, and then some. Within a few days of the initial transaction with Mrs. Lemon for $60,000 for the Inn and 60 acres of land, his agents had options on 1,300 more acres, much to the consternation of local land speculators who had hoped to make a killing. By the time he was through, Ford owned nearly 2,000 acres worth some $170,855, making him one of the town’s leading taxpayers. His holdings included all the old Howe property and extended to the tops of Nobscot Mountain and Doeskin Hill, “to provide a fitting frame for the picture and keep hot dog stands and peanut wagons out of the front yard,” as he put it.

Ford managed to get off on the wrong foot with his new Sudbury neighbors, however, holding an exclusive winter skating party and dance for business associates and Boston friends and hiring a squad of burly security men to keep party crashers and the media at arm’s length. He later made it up to the town by hosting an old-timer’s dancing night and inaugurating his annual Middlesex County Farmers Picnic with Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison as honored guests.

The first five years of Ford’s tenure, with one exception, were spent in refurbishing the Inn, its farms and outbuildings. Crews of laborers and stone masons began digging a new millstream and erecting the two-foot-thick stone walls for what would become the Wayside Inn Grist Mill while others shored up the Inn’s foundations, and opened fireplaces that had been bricked up during Edward R. Lemon’s time.

By 1925, Ford’s agents had tracked down much of the original Howe family furnishings that had been scattered at the settlement of Lyman Howe’s estate, and crews, under the direct supervision of Edison, were installing electric lights with bulbs shaped like candle flames. Only the Edison room, now the Drivers and Drovers room, was left with its Victorian decor and huge sleigh bed as a tribute to the great scientist.

Ford’s contacts with local and state officials were sparse, but dramatic. In 1927, after discovering the Redstone Schoolhouse in nearby Sterling being used as a storage shed for the Baptist Church, he had it dismantled and rebuilt across the brook from the Inn.

Ford then approached the Sudbury School Committee, explaining that he needed a school “to accommodate the children in the families of his employees at the Wayside Inn and that he would take in some others.” The Committee was reluctant at first, but approved after Ford made it clear that he would pay the teacher’s salary and the costs of supplies and transportation. The school was opened on January 17, 1927 and remained so until June, 1951.

In 1926, after engineers determined that heavy truck traffic on the Boston Post Road was damaging the foundations of the Inn, Ford ordered the construction of the mile-and-a-half-long Route 20 bypass. Upon its completion on December 11, 1928, he sold it to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for $1 and never cashed the check. According to the Boston Herald the by-pass cost Ford $288,000.

By 1930, Ford realized he needed another school to allow the graduates from the Redstone, which taught grades one through four, to continue their education without having to be bussed to the Center School. He rebuilt the nearby Southwest District School on Peakham Road, which first opened in 1849 and later burned down. The Southwest accommodated grades five through eight. As was also the case with the Redstone, pupils at the Southwest were required to attend dancing lessons at the Inn under the direction of Dancing Master Albert “Hollywood” Haynes.

The unique Wayside Inn Boys School came into being in 1928 when 31 underprivileged boys between the ages of 16 and 18, all wards of the state who had been carefully screened for aptitude and intelligence, began to gather at the old Calvin Howe House opposite the Grist Mill dam.

Ford’s stated goal was to give each boy a high school education, a salary, and the opportunity to learn a trade while working half a day on the Inn estate. The salaries were quite generous by depression standards, varying from $435 to $504 annually, depending upon age, class and ability. Out of this, each student was responsible for room and board, clothing, medical care, entertainment and laundry expenses. Each was expected to start and maintain a savings account.

The Solomon Dutton House (now 182 Dutton Road) was renovated to allow the expansion of the student body to 50 boys in 1931. Later the enrollment was increased again to 75. The school closed shortly after Ford’s death in 1947.

Ford’s talent for making lemonade out of lemons bore fruit in the form of the Martha-Mary Chapel. The 1938 Hurricane had knocked down a stand of huge white pine trees on the little knoll behind the Redstone Schoolhouse. Ford directed that the timber be cut and sawn and the lumber used to build a non-denominational chapel for the Boys School. Ground was broken in August of 1939 and the wrought iron weathervane placed on the steeple on July 30, 1940, Ford’s 77th birthday.

Ford stipulated that the building, named after his and Clara Ford’s mothers, Martha Ford and Mary Bryant, was to be built–as much as possible–with materials available on the Inn property and by people who lived, worked, or attended school there. The chapel was the sixth and last Martha-Mary chapel constructed by Ford. Four of the others are in Michigan and the fifth at Richmond Hill, Georgia.

Ford’s first foray outside his Wayside Inn enclave was to create considerable consternation around the town. On June 4, 1926, the Boston Herald announced that Ford intended to buy the Charles O. Parmenter Grist Mill as well as all available water rights and turn the complex into one of his “village industries” in this case, to manufacture Bakelite dashboard parts.

Howard Goodnow, acting as agent for Ford, explained that obtaining water rights was crucial to the project because Ford intended to double the size of the millpond to more than 100 acres. Goodnow hastened to explain that “a great majority of the land-owners have come into line and that the land needed will become available.”

Goodnow also compared the Sudbury situation to that of Flat Rock, Michigan, where Ford had dammed a small stream and put in a parts plant that employed more than 500 people at a minimum salary of $6 a day. He noted that the population of Flat Rock was 2,000–about the size of Sudbury–and that similar prosperity could be expected here.

“In a village this size this means unheard-of wealth,” he told The Herald. “From a sleepy country village with hardly more than one general store, it [Flat Rock] has become a town building new homes on every lot. A town with a new electric light and water system–both of them supplied, by the way, by Mr. Ford’s waterpower. A town with a bank going up and another one promised….”

But there was a fly in the ointment. At least one key water rights holder, Giuseppi Cavicchio, deemed Ford’s offer for a one and one half-acre chunk of meadow land between Union Avenue and the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad tracks, unfair and held out for an unprecedented $300,000. Cavicchio originally gave Goodnow an option to buy the property, but later changed his mind.

Cavicchio’s action was not received kindly by his neighbors, many of whom stood to gain a tidy windfall from the sale of their meadowland, much of which was inaccessible for farming or haying. Ford had made it clear that his offer was an all-or-nothing proposal. If Cavicchio could not be persuaded to sell, all deals were off.

The situation was complicated somewhat on November 1, 1927, when the mill burned down, but efforts continued both before and behind the scenes to acquire Cavicchio’s land and turn it over to Ford so that the project could move forward. But even discreet overtures by the selectmen were not successful. An entry in the 1939 Sudbury Town Report noted: “Much effort has been made by the Selectmen and other citizens of town to effect a compromise between owners of land along Wash Brook and the Ford interests so that way may be cleared for the long-awaited and much-desired establishment of a small industrial plant in Sudbury.

“Progress has been made and it is sincerely hoped that the last remaining obstacle may soon be overcome. These efforts on the part of officials have been made with the friendliest of intentions in the interests of the town only.”

In the end, however, efforts to sway the remaining water rights holder were to no avail and, in 1946, all parcels in the “Wash Brook Project” were sold back to their unhappy former owners.

Meanwhile, Ford had other projects in the works. On February 17, 1928, he announced acquisition of 200 acres of flat land near Mirror Lake on the Sudbury-Stow line for a possible airport and airplane parts factory. The following July he purchased the Parmenter-Garfield General Store in Sudbury Center, had it sawed in half, and moved it with teams of oxen to a new site next to the old Hager’s millpond on Route 20 in Marlborough. On June 20, 1930, it opened once more as the Wayside Inn Roadside Market with Clara Ford on hand to wait on the first customers.

Henry Ford would remain a presence in Sudbury until he died in 1947, but after the town had politely rebuffed his offer of the Parmenter-Garfield store lot as a site for the new Town Hall in 1930, he confined most of his activity to the Wayside Inn Estate.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.