“The Wayside Inn is Burning Down!
Curt Harding and Jeanne Fredey were high school sweethearts and two of the most popular members of the Sudbury High School Class of 1953, so it was no surprise that the guest list for their wedding at Newton’s Grace Episcopal Church on the evening of December 21, 1955, was a Who’s Who of old Sudbury families. Guy Palmer, one of Curt’s old basketball teammates, was best man and David Hawes, son of Moderator L. Roy “Tim” Hawes of North Sudbury, was one of the ushers.
The list was so extensive that Jean Fredey, the father of the bride, took the precaution of booking the spacious north ballroom at the Wayside Inn for the wedding reception. Among the guests dining and dancing before the roaring fire in the great north fireplace were Eleanor and Jim Greenawalt.
Greenawalt had recently been named a captain by newly-appointed fire chief Albert St. Germain, partly because of his firefighting skills and partly because he lived conveniently close to the fire station. His wife, the former Eleanor Goulding, was right at home in the Inn, having attended the Southwest School and taken dancing lessons in the same low-ceilinged ballroom.
Outside in the parking lot, cars started hard as the last guests headed homeward at 11:30 p.m. New England had been in the grip of a severe cold snap for the better part of a week and meteorologist E. B. Rideout predicted that it would continue for some days more. The temperature was already zero and falling fast. Since it was a Tuesday night, there were no overnight guests at the Inn.
Night Watchman William Mann of Marlborough clocked in at midnight, made his first set of rounds and set about cleaning up the mess in the north ballroom. The job still wasn’t finished when it was time for his second round at 2 a.m. On the lower floor near one of the pantries he smelled something unusual. Opening the door to the boiler room, he was greeted by a puff of smoke.
Mann slammed the door and retreated to the registration desk in the old bar room where he phoned Assistant Inn Director George Griffin who was asleep in the coach house across the street. It took several rings before Griffin awakened. He instructed Mann to notify Innkeeper John Saint at his home on the Boston Post Road, hung up, and dialed the fire department.
Meanwhile, others had become aware that something was amiss at the Inn. A trailer truck driver on the Route 20 bypass smelled smoke and saw flames shooting from the windows of the north wing. He flagged down a Marlborough police cruiser and passed on the information, but by the time it had been relayed to Sudbury, the alarm had already been given. At the same time, Inn hostess Priscilla Staples was awakened by a bright light shining in her bedroom window. Looking out, she saw the entire north wing in flames.
Leo Quinn, the town’s only permanent firefighter besides Chief St. Germain, glanced at the clock as he fumbled for the telephone on his bedside table at the Loring Parsonage. It read 2:20 a.m. He put out the call over the monitors in the homes of the town’s 20 call firefighters, crossed the driveway to the fire station, and cranked up Engine Four, a ’43 Ford pumper given the town by the Wayside Inn. This truck, equipped for high-pressure fog, and carrying 500 gallons of water, was the nearest thing to a piece of Class A fire apparatus that the town owned.
The call box awakened St. Germain from a sound sleep at his home on Peakham Road, a ten-minute drive from the Inn. He turned on the two-way radio in his cruiser and immediately received a call from Police Sergeant Ernest Ryan who was already on the scene.
“It’s bad,” said Ryan. “I’d send for as much mutual aid as you can get.” St. Germain immediately radioed a second alarm that brought units from Framingham, Marlborough, Southborough, Wayland, Weston and Concord to the scene.
Quinn raced Engine Four down the service road to the rear of the Inn and pulled up as close to the building as the heat would allow. Flames were already shooting from the serving room windows on the second story of the north wing and the roar of the fire could be heard from a great distance. Mickey Hriniak, a call firefighter with only one arm, helped Quinn pull booster lines from the truck but the fire was too hot and the water did no good.
By the time St. Germain arrived on the scene at 2:35 a.m. the second floor of the north wing was totally engulfed in flames and the fire was beginning to work its way back toward the kitchens below. As the Chief radioed for more mutual aid, Captain Greenawalt, who left the building only hours before, arrived with Engine Three, a 1942 International that carried 500 gallons of water.
Grabbing fire axes from the trucks, St. Germain and Greenawalt started chopping a hole in the ice on Josephine Pond, a small impoundment to the rear of the Inn that services the ice house. The ice was 16 inches thick and it took the men nearly ten minutes before they had a hole large enough to take the intake hoses from the two pumpers. The International and a pumper from Marlborough set in and started pumping water to supply other trucks as they arrived.
By 2:45 a.m., eleven pieces of apparatus were on the scene, two each from Framingham, Marlborough and Wayland and a ladder truck from Concord. Several attempted to draw water from Hop Brook to the west of the Inn, but wound up sucking air. The nearest fire hydrant was more than a mile to the east at Ecke’s Motel.
By 3 a.m. nearly 100 firefighters were pouring thousands of gallons of water from 20 hose lines on the inferno, but the fire continued to make headway. Flames spread to the West Wing which contained the 1800 ballroom and the tap room, and started to work horizontally toward the older rooms in the front of the building, which were filled with priceless antiques.
St. Germain ordered two engines from Framingham to concentrate on cutting the fire off in the East Wing and they succeeded in stopping the flames at the old kitchen. The display pewter on the tables was melted by the intense heat and the wainscoting and ceiling planks scorched, but a thick coating of ice preserved most of the furniture.
Elsewhere, things weren’t going as well. The 16-below-zero temperatures slushed up the water in the pumps of the two big engines drawing water from the pond and gasoline heaters had to be rushed in to get them going again. A gauge froze up on a Wayland pumper, increasing the pressure in an inch and one half handline to more than 1,000 pounds. Two Wayland firefighters were sent sprawling and Robert Groton was transported to Leonard Morse Hospital in Natick with a broken leg.
As the night wore on, the trucks began to run short of fuel and Algy Alexander and the Interstate Oil Company were asked to open their stations and relay gas and oil to the site to keep them going. By the time the final all out was broadcast, 200 gallons of fuel had been consumed.
There was a touch of humor amid the tragedy. Nobscot Boy Scout Reservation ranger Freddie Craig, a call firefighter, reached into the icy waters of Josephine Pond to clear a hose strainer and came up with a handful of one very surprised horned pout!
Meanwhile the word had spread throughout the town. The Sudbury Civil Defense, Red Cross and Grange set up a canteen at the Town Hall and started relaying coffee and sandwiches to the firefighters at the Inn. There they were distributed by Mrs. Alfred Gardner and Mrs. Thomas Cahill. Paul Ecke, owner of Ecke’s Motel, appeared with a huge Thermos of hot Irish coffee.
By 3:30 a.m. the fire was under control in the East Wing but flames broke through the gambrel roof on the main house and the fire vented itself out. Police Chief John McGovern was on the spot with his cameras as firefighters forced the front door, only to be greeted by a flash of flame and smoke. His dramatic picture was picked up by the Associated Press News Service and carried on the front page of newspapers all over the globe.
Several volunteers rushed into the front rooms of the Inn to see if anything could be salvaged, but Jerusha Howe’s pianoforte and the “Somber Clock” that Longfellow immortalized were frozen to the floor and covered by a thick coating of ice. Small items, such as the Molineaux etchings and Howe coat of arms, were covered with thick layers of soot, but survived. Two priceless Paul Revere prints were a total loss and the Howe family bible and its box were badly scorched. Water pouring down the front staircase quickly froze into a glistening cascade. Outside, the firefighters were barely recognizable, their helmets, heavy slickers and boots coated with layers of ice.
By 4 a.m. the North and West Wings were totally demolished and the firefighters concentrated their efforts on the front of the building. St. Germain declared the building a “total loss” and later set damages at $200,000, not counting the many priceless antiques. By the time the blaze was brought under control, a million gallons of water–four times the capacity of the town’s storage tank on Goodman’s Hill–had been pumped on the remains of the Inn. Under the ice of Josephine Pond, all that remained was mud.
By dawn the word had spread far and wide. The Inn fire made the front pages as far away as the New York Times and was carried on all the wire services.
The fire was out, but immediately a new question arose. Would the Inn be rebuilt and continue its tradition of hospitality? Or would it go the way of many other old buildings that had burned and just become an historic site, devoid of life and charm? There was but one acceptable answer to that question and the citizens of Sudbury immediately took steps to see that it would be the right one.
Less than six hours after the last engine returned to quarters, the Sudbury Board of Selectmen met in emergency session and voted unanimously to offer the Ford Foundation “any cooperation and community effort deemed necessary,” to rebuild the Inn.
The following day, groups from all over the community were meeting. Twenty Wayside Inn abutter met at the home of Robert Caldwell on Peakham Road, which, only a few years before, had been Henry Ford’s Southwest Schoolhouse; Don Atkins called an emergency meeting of the Sudbury-Wayland Kiwanis Club and the Reverend Ernest Bodenweber of the Memorial Congregational Church hosted a meeting of the Sudbury clergy.
Out of these meetings came the formation of the Citizens Committee for the Preservation of the Wayside Inn, with Boston Banker Edmund Sears and attorney John C. Powers, as vice chairmen and Calvin Smith and insurance man Leslie Hall, the Sudbury Town Historian, as prime movers.
The committee knew there could be no delay. Ford Vice President of Public Relations Charles F. Moore was planning a fact-finding trip to Sudbury in early January, accompanied by experts from the Ford Foundation and the Ford Motor Company. It was important that the Ford delegation realize how much the Inn meant to Sudbury and its neighbors. A massive letter-writing campaign was the only answer.
Powers took a month off from his law practice to coordinate the effort. With the help of his father, a columnist at the Boston Globe, he launched a publicity campaign that kept the Inn’s plight in the headlines. Soon offers of antique furniture, old panelling, period fireplaces and even a cage of live finches started pouring in from all over the country.
More than 40,000 brochures explaining the Inn’s plight and including a quote from Henry Ford: “Nothing that is good ever dies,” were printed and sent to public officials, private citizens and civic groups all over the country. The Sudbury High School Student Council sent a check to cover part of the $1,000 postage bill and members of the committee, now headed by Al Gardner, the president of the Boston Bar Association, dug into their pockets to come up with the rest.
High school students volunteered to stamp and address chain letters, businessmen on cross-country trips dropped off brochures wherever they went and politicians sought support from people in power at all levels of the government.
“Our pitch was to kill them with kindness,” Powers recalled later. “We just wanted to say thanks for keeping the Inn going so long. It was an enormous event and there were so many people in town who helped us out.“
The efforts paid off in spades. By the time Moore and his delegation arrived in Sudbury January 4, 1956, more than 10,000 letters had arrived at either Sudbury or Dearborn, Michigan, and more were on their way at the rate of a boxcar full a day. They included appeals from Presidents Harry S. Truman and Herbert Hoover, Senator John F. Kennedy, former House Speaker Joe Martin and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Townspeople hoping for a quick decision from the Ford interests were disappointed. Moore stated that meetings with the Citizens Committee were beneficial, but it would be at least two weeks, and probably a month, before a decision could be made.
“We don’t want to just erect another building,” he told the Boston Traveler. “Our decision will be based on cost, the ability to obtain materials, and whether the experts feel that there is enough left of the building upon which to start. My personal impression is that enough of the building and materials remain to justify a restoration job.“
Unbeknownst to the Citizen’s Committee, Moore had more than his personal observations to go on. The day after the fire, Dr. Donald A. Shelly, Director of the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, had sent Roy Woodbury Baker, the Chief Custodian for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, to see if the Inn was worth restoring. Baker not only said that it was, but told Shelly he’d be very interested in supervising the job.
Meanwhile, local residents were hedging their bets. Representative James DeNormandie of Lincoln introduced a resolution in the Massachusetts House of Representatives calling for the restoration of the Wayside Inn. It was approved on January 6.
The rest of January dragged on with no word from Dearborn and nerves all over Sudbury were fraying. On February 12, the Boston Herald carried the page one headline “Sudbury Ready to Restore Wayside Inn if Fords Don’t.” The Citizens Committee stood ready to call on thousands of offers of assistance from all over the world if the Fords failed to come through.
Six days later, their wait was over. On February 18, William Clay Ford, President of the Wayside Inn Board of Trustees, delivered the good news: “I am delighted to report that the Ford Foundation, through its president Mr.H. Rowan Gaither, Jr., has informed me that the Foundation will undertake financial responsibility for the restoration of the Wayside Inn.“
On February 23, 1956, Gaither made it official with the announcement that the Foundation would supply $500,000 for the restoration work. Just two months and two days after the fire–64 days that seemed more like an eternity–the Sudbury Citizen carried the news in a banner headline across its front page: “Wayside Inn to Live Again.“
Henry Ford’s words were prophetic. “Nothing that is good ever dies.“
Chief Albert St. Germain’s Fire Department report in the 1955 Town Report made no mention of the Wayside Inn fire, but did recommend the purchase of a Class A pumper with a tank capacity of at least 750 gallons. “I sincerely hope that the citizens of Sudbury will insist on the purchase of a real fire truck this time,” he commented.
Town Meeting did just that. The following March, $8,000 was appropriated for a new Class A pumper. Sudbury would not get caught short again.
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.