On our first date, Evelyn and I dined at Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA. Open as Howe's Tavern in 1661, it's the oldest hostelry in the United States. By 1860, Harvard professors vacationed there, and one of them, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was inspired to write "Tales of the Wayside Inn." The tavern almost closed in 1923, until Henry Ford restored and renamed it as an example of colonial Americana. On a slight hill nearby, he built the New England-style Martha-Mary chapel, honoring his mother and mother-in-law. It's used only for weddings, and if a reception follows at the inn, the couple ride in a "carriage with fringe on top."
We visited the area often as our girls grew up. It was fun watching wedding parties spill from the white-steepled chapel onto the emerald green lawn, and sometimes we saw the bride and groom in their carriage! But our favorite haunt was a small, one-room school house Ford moved to the churchyard from Sterling, MA. Research convinced him it was the school where Mary had a little lamb. Built in 1798, it served as a school until 1856. It was a dirty garage when he had it dismantled and restored near the inn. He found the original school master's desk and chair, and furnished the room with period pieces. It's open each summer for tours. One desk is marked, "Mary sat here." Our girls sat there too.
The nursery rhyme is based on fact. Mary Sawyer (1806-1859) was growing up on a farm when two lambs were born in her barn. One died, and the other was not expected to live, so she asked to care for it in the house. She nursed it all day, and sat up all night with it, feeding it catnip tea. Gradually it improved, but it thought Mary was its mother. It would follow her anywhere if she called it.
One day her brother suggested they take the lamb to school. They arrived before the teacher and placed the lamb under Mary's seat, wrapped in a shawl. It was not noticed until Mary walked to the blackboard to recite and it walked behind her. Everyone laughed except the teacher, who demanded the lamb be taken outside. Of course it stayed by the door, waiting to walk Mary home.
A 12-year-old scholar named John Roulstone visited school that day. The incident touched him deeply, and afterward he gave Mary a slip of paper with the original verses of the poem. Eventually the poem became famous as part of McGuffey's Reader. Do you remember it?
Redstone School, 1983