Friday, December 10, 1999
Toasting the spirit of yesterday's taverns
Carlisle is "on the wagon" again. In revolutionary times, however, it was very much "off the wagon." In just a period of thirty-five years, 1754 to 1789, Carlisle had at least five taverns that sold alcoholic beverages: the Spaulding Tavern, the Black Mansion, the Revolutionary Tavern, the Red Lion Tavern, and the Wheat Tavern. And maybe even more than that.
"Many people would set up a room of their house as a tavern for a little while to make some extra money and then close it down," said town resident, Minuteman, and history buff Jim Davis. "Wagoners passing through town on the roads would stop at taverns for a drink so you found them every five to ten miles."
Davis knows more than most about taverns as he lives across the street from probably the earliest tavern in Carlisle, the Spaulding Tavern at 476 East Street. He even modernized and renovated the building for his in-laws in the seventies. No evidence remained at that time that it was ever a tavern.
1754: Starting a business trend
Lieutenant Jonathan Spaulding built a new home for his bride Mary Fletcher in 1754. Like most dwellings of the period, it was a two-story house with a central chimney. Planning ahead, he outfitted one room for a home business, the Spaulding Tavern.
From reviewing account books, local historians concluded that Spaulding had a profitable tavern. His son William inherited the house and the business. As the second tavern keeper who had seven children, it probably wasn't long before the room served his family better as living space rather than as a bar. At any rate, this early tavern did not continue into the next generation.
Today's homeowners with growing families can easily relate to having to give up a home office. But can you imagine giving up a home tavern?
Drive past 476 East Street. The refurbished building marks the only former tavern in town that still stands on its original site.
1758: Competing for customers
Another tavern of the time was the Black Mansion, once sited at 57 Maple Street. Due to its physical proximity, the Black Mansion was probably in competition with the Spaulding Tavern. Records indicate that the establishments had competitive pricing; both offered a glass of rum for three cents.
The name of the Black Mansion, built in 1758, came from its unpainted, weathered exterior walls and the size of the building. Its back hall was even large enough to serve as a dance hall. Situated on Bedford Road, a direct route to Boston, the Black Mansion became a popular stop for travelers well into the mid-1800s. The original building was torn down in 1903.
Although it remains unclear exactly when the dwelling became a tavern, records indicate that the Carlisle District paid its owner, Stephen Blood, Jr., a fee of nine pounds in 1781 for entertaining the Ordination Council in honor of the Reverend Paul Litchfield. The first appointed minister to Carlisle, Litchfield would also receive a salary and lodging for his role.
Today, it's difficult to imagine Carlisle officials spending taxpayer money at a tavern...especially on a minister's behalf.
1759: Raising a glass to freedom
Nathan Green apparently recognized a business opportunity, and upon his marriage to Lois Conant of Acton in 1759, he built a structure that would double as a home and as a tavern. Records indicate he built the house for his father. Perhaps they shared the risk and profits in the endeavor. At any rate, the tavern portion was large, the fireplaces massive, and the woodwork intricate.
Sited on what was then the main road from Billerica to Concord, the structure eventually became known as the Revolutionary Tavern. According to local lore, British soldiers on parole frequented the tavern and often gambled with local Colonials under the apple trees behind the house. The British wagered with gold coins; the Colonials used scrip (promissory notes for goods or land), the temporary currency of the day. Another tale has it that the Colonial rebels buried four cannon balls near the base of an elm tree outside the tavern. Although the tree was lost years ago, an antique relic of a section of the elm, under the protection of the Carlisle Historical Society, has staples and an iron ring attached to the wood, lending credence to the story.
After the Revolutionary war, the Green family lived in the house for four generations. Records do not indicate how long they continued the tavern business. In 1860, Esther Maria Green married Lowell Stearns, and after acquiring the tavern and surrounding property, the couple built a new house on part of the land at 108 Stearns Street. They rented the old tavern as a residence until the decaying building was finally abandoned.
The Old Houses in Carlisle manuscript by Martha Fifield Wilkins (a.k.a. Mrs. B.P.Wilkins) reveals she tried to gain support to preserve the historic building in 1931. During the era of Prohibition and the Depression, however, she was unsuccessful in her efforts to save the old tavern. She recorded its piecemeal destruction, with the staircase removed to a house in South Sudbury and the unusual 11-foot mantel probably going to new construction in Bedford. She noted, "The casual antique bargainer discovered the paneled walls, the ornamental stairway, the choice cupboards, and the carved cornices, so that almost immediately they were removed from Carlisle. Too late we valued what had been there."
In 1935, Wilkins mourned the tavern's loss: "The old timbers are now gone, the bricks from the ovens and fireplaces lie in tumbled heaps, and the ruin is complete. Year by year nature with its lavish charity clothes the spot more thickly with a soft green mantle, and the Tavern is already but a memory."
Today, nothing remains. The entire building was razed; the cellar hole filled in. Yet, although we cannot remember the tavern, we can still picture the British soldiers and Colonials gambling under those apple trees. The competition must have been fierce with the pending conflict sure to come.
1771: The Red Lion Tavern
Perhaps nowhere is the juxtaposition between crown and colonial so evident as the Red Lion Tavern. Captain John Heald built the structure on the route from Concord to Groton in 1771. Today, the building stands at 621 West Street.
Like the period buildings of the time, the tavern had huge fireplaces, wood paneling, and small-paned windows. Upstairs Heald designed the building with a long corridor and many rooms to further serve the tavern guests as an inn. Legend has it that the upstairs windows had bars to prevent guests from leaving without paying.
The tavern served a variety of liquor: flip, slug, egg pop, cider, punch, wine, toddy, New England rum, West India rum, gin, and brandy.
A big elm once stood outside the building with a sign on a low branch that hung over the road. The original sign had a red lioness with a crown, showing allegiance to the English Crown. After the Revolutionary War, however, the owner changed the name to the Heald Tavern and painted a more neutral elm tree over the inflammatory crown. If you look closely at the antique sign, still on the building premises, you can see the imprinted shape of the lion beneath the faded picture of the elm.
The Heald family was patriotic and devout. Three men in the family had served as lieutenants to the crown. After settling in the New World and realizing the difficulty in being governed by a distant and unreasonable power, the Healds joined the local Colonial forces. Heald men would be among the first selectmen in Acton, Concord, and Carlisle. A church deacon would also come from their ranks, and in the mid-1800s, the Congregational Ladies Social Circle met at the old tavern. The building housed a Sunday school as well.
Heald family descendents lived in the old tavern until 1924. The building was relocated across the street in 1934 to a less conspicuous spot and away from annoying car headlights. The owners at the time, Mr. and Mrs. Martin K. Bovey, took special care to preserve the original frame and as much of the interior detail as possible.
Today, the Reverend Janet P. Lovejoy lives at the old tavern. She serves in pastoral roles at St. George's Episcopal Church in Maynard and Trinity Episcopal Church in Concord.
"In the past ten years, I've had retreats here which is the modern use of a tavern," said Lovejoy. "I've had groups of six to eight people. They come at nine, and leave at four. There's a lot of spiritual reflection and quiet time."
Every year, the Reverend hosts a holiday party for the neighbors to sing carols. She loves to bring people together in the old tavern, and feels that it summons up all the hospitality it can to welcome guests.
"I've thought about opening the tavern again," said Lovejoy. Upon further consideration, however, she realized that opening such a business in Carlisle is not as easy or as profitable as it was in Colonials' time, especially in a dry town.
1789: Meeting at the Long Block
Carlisle center provided an ideal location for a tavern. The Wheat Tavern was situated on the western side of the attached row of buildings, locally known as the Long Block, off the central rotary.
Lieutenant Daniel Wheat, built the site in 1781 as a residence, but then opened a general store at the site in 1789. It quickly evolved into a tavern. Due to its excellent location, the tavern provided a natural stop for teamsters with produce from Westford and Groton on the way to Salem or Boston, as well as for travelers heading from Chelmsford to Concord.
Captain John Green married the taverner's daughter, Lucinda Wheat, and further developed the business between 1820 and 1840. He made most of his livelihood from the tavern, and added inn services for guests wanting to stay overnight.
As many as 100 horses and wagons stopped at a time. Green also was active in the town, serving as town selectman, assessor, and representative to the Massachusetts General Court.
In the next decades, the tavern changed hands, and its use reverted to that of a residence. In 1930, Mrs. Nettie O. Wilson tried to revive the site as a gathering place with the Wheat Tavern Tea Rooms. She resisted modernization, and preserved the colonial atmosphere as much as possible.
Today you cannot help but smile at the tavern's replacement, the Carlisle Insurance Brokerage at the Long Block. The first thing a tavern needs nowadays is insurance.
Whither the taverns of tomorrow
Feel inspired by history to revive the tavern in Carlisle?
The Bed Rose Inn is already meeting the second definition of the word "tavern." Proprietor Milan Bedrosian did what few people thought possible: he turned part of his residence into an inn. Although, like the original taverns in town, he targets the business traveler, only about 10% of his guests are from that market.
"I've been told it's 'too nice for business'," said Bedrosian. "They say, `people are looking for a place to sleep instead of a place to enjoy life.' Well, I disagree." Time will tell if marketing to businesses proves effective.
Now, what about opening the other type of tavern, the one that serves alcohol?
First thing you'd have to do is get a zoning bylaw change. Carlisle is a dry town, and has remained that way based on voting results of alcoholic beverage ballots in 1944, 1946, 1948, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1996.
A change may come...someday. In 1996, the portion of the petition that would have allowed for the sale of wine and malt beverages was defeated by the narrowest margin to date; 1271 opposed, 1265 in favor, and 157 blank ballots.
If, in the next millennium, you were able to get a zoning bylaw change, you would still have quite a few tasks ahead. You'd have to apply for a state liquor license, deal with the selectmen, work with the police, and face the community at a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting. Yes, there's also a list of requirements you'd need to meet at the Board of Health to qualify as a food service and as a public water supply. You'd also need a larger-than-usual septic system.
And, last but not least, Town Clerk Sarah Andreassen asks, "Where would you put it?"
Parking 100 cars today is a much bigger issue than parking 100 horses was yesterday. Especially with the added factor of alcohol... But, hey, we hear the old St. Irene's is available...
To celebrate the year 2000, some Carlisleans will have to get off their wagons and spend their script in Concord, Acton, Westford, Billerica, or Bedford.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito