Autumn in the North Cemetery.

Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?

These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.

Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...

...seems to be working so far

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Sturbridge Mystery

"Re-printed from the October 1958 issue of New Englander Magazine.--ed

My Sturbridge Mystery

William Foster

In the fall of 1948 I was on a drive to Albany, New York for a business meeting with the owners of a new department store that had recently opened. Back then I seldom drove such long distances on business, however this was a trip not just for business, but to also visit an old friend that lived not too far outside of the city. It was trip I will always remember, and wish I could forget as well.

I left Boston around three o'clock on Wednesday afternoon after I had completed my sales reports for the week. My itinerary included two stops en route to Albany. One stop was one third of the way to my destination in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and the other was to be somewhere in the Lee, Massachusetts area. I felt that dividing my trip into thirds would be easier on my automobile. It was a pre-war sedan that had been used by a neighbor while I was overseas. He owned a hospital supply company and used the auto for deliveries throughout the Boston area. Since his job was vital to the war effort he was not subject to the gas rationing most everyone else experienced during those years. Now, me and that former delivery wagon were on our way west. The rain started minutes after I had left.

I drove on US Route 20 for a little over two hours, and arrived in the town of Sturbridge just before evening. I had been to Sturbridge several times, and was familiar with the roads in the town, but for some strange reason, I missed my turn, and had to turn back and look for my turn off. The rain had long abated, but there was a heavy mist like fog along Route 20 that limited my visibility. The headlights on my automobile strained in the dark, and I slowed my speed to a walking pace in order to see the road, and my turn more clearly.

After a few minutes I found the previously hidden road, and turned right. I was headed for the center of the town, and to an old inn that overlooked the village green. I had stayed there a few times, and thoroughly enjoyed my stay, and the menu. For the life of me, though, I cannot remember the name of the inn. There are many things I cannot remember about that day, except for the memories that have kept me awake at night ever since.

I found the inn just where I left it two years prior after I had returned from Europe. The sun was setting, and the daylight just about gone from the air. I parked, and took my bag inside to the desk to check in for the night. I had called in advance and they were holding a room for me.

When I entered the inn I noticed the unmistakable scent of burning hardwoods. A pleasant smell I remembered fondly from when I was a child growing up in Wayland. I placed my bag near a chair against the wall, rang the little bell at the front desk and then walked about examining the pictures on the wall as I waited for the clerk.

I was becoming quite hungry, and only wished to check in and to sit down for a good meal in front of the fire. I opened my watch and noticed it was now after six o'clock. I had been waiting for the clerk for close to twenty minutes.

I turned to the front desk, and there behind the old wooden desk was a young lady. I had not seen, nor heard her come into the room. Her sudden presence had startled me somewhat. She was dressed in a simple dress that touched the floor, and on her head was one of those white cotton hats that have a ribbon woven just above the wavy end of the hat. It was similar to the hats seen in old paintings from the revolutionary war times.

At first I thought this strange, but since the inn hearkened back to the late 1700's, and there was a new museum in town that was devoted to this time period, I later thought she was dressed in costume for the benefit of the tourists that had been coming to the town.

"My name is William Foster. I believe you have a room for me", I said once I regained my composure.

The clerk smiled, and looked into her ledger, and after a time looked back at me.

"Sir, I don't see your name listed among our other guests", she told me.

"I had called earlier today, and spoke with a gentleman that had assured me there was a room available, and that he would reserve it for me."

"Sir, I have been here all day long, and I don't remember seeing you before. I do have one room left that is available for one night only. Will this help?", she asked me while smiling the most engaging smile I had seen in a very long time.

I didn't have the strength to argue the point, besides her smile was so disarming.

"Yes. Yes, I will only be here for one night. I travel to Albany tomorrow."

"Very well, Sir.", she said, as she turned the ledger towards me to sign.

She handed me an actual quill to write my name. I had not seen a real quill pen in many years, and the ones I had seen were on display at the Old Statehouse in Boston.

"You folks are really going all out for this colonial New England stuff, aren't you?"

She lifted her head from the ledger, and just smiled.

I placed my bag into my room on the second floor, changed my clothes and headed back downstairs in search of a meal. I noticed the woman was no longer at the desk as I walked by on my way to the dining room at the end of the hall.

On the right was a wide door leading into a large hall. The fireplace glowed red from the low fire within, and except for the occasional candle, this supplied the only light into the room.

I found a table close to the hearth, and was soon greeted by a large man wearing a button down, collarless shirt topped by a dark vest. The firelight struck his clothes and revealed shiny areas on the front of his vest that exposed the waiters favorite place for wiping his hands. I thought this a bit odd for such a well know, and widely acclaimed country inn to have amongst its staff, a bit of a slob.

"What can I get for you, Sir", the man asked, "Would ya be wanting a drink, or a meal this evening?"

"I'd like some wine to start..."

"Sorry, all I got is ale, and maybe a bit of rum."

"Fine. I'll have an ale."

"And, would ya want something to eat as well, sir?"

"Can I see a menu?"

"I have venison, and potatoes."

"That's it? Venison and potatoes? Nothing more?"

"And, bread."

By this time, I am not sure if the fatigue of the day, or my extreme hunger that made me order the venison and potatoes and ale, but whatever the reason was I was glad I had. It was the most filling, and delicious meal I had had in a very long time.

The waiter told me he would add the meal to my bill as he brought me another ale. I thanked him, and took a seat in a fine old upholstered chair near the fire. I watched the fire for some time. A young boy came in, his arms loaded with wood, and he dropped the wood on the hearth, and then scampered off. A few men came into the room a short time later, called for the waiter and asked for some ale. The men stood behind me, and after a short while joined me as I sat by the fire. They nodded their greeting to me, and sipped their ale, all the while talking in loud tones about their day. It was obvious they were just off work from the new museum, Quinebaug Village, since they were still dressed the part they had played all day.

I listened intently as I finished my ale, and soon, excused myself, bid the men goodnight, and left the tavern heading for my room. The men nodded in response and went back to talking about what men playing farmers and such talk about after work.

When I got to the hallway I decided to take a short walk outside. The rain had long disappeared, and the temperature had risen enough to maintain the mist that had accompanied me on my drive into town. The air smelled of smoke from the chimneys of the homes surrounding the what the town referred to as the Common, a large parcel of open land with many large and ancient trees. At one time this land was used for the training of militias, animal grazing and more recently, agricultural exhibits.

As I walked across the road I noticed that there were only a few lights on within the fine old homes. Soft, dim lights, and in one, or two of the windows, there was that soft red glow of the hearth reflecting against the glass. It was only eight o'clock, or so, and I thought it strange that it seemed that everyone was down for the night. Then again, this was the country, and people most likely rose for the day quite early.

Once I had crossed over to the Common I saw a couple not too far away. They were walking from the main road towards the opposite corner of the parcel where the road to Worcester was plainly marked by a large wooden sign. I watched the couple make their way across the Common emerging, and disappearing in and out of the mist, and from behind the large old trees. I called out, "Good evening." towards them, but they were so engaged in conversation I don't think they heard me. The fog was now very thick, and I watched the couple walk behind a tree near the road to Worcester, and I watched for them to reemerge on the other side.

They did not. I thought I must have lost them in the mist, but the disappearance was so sudden, and complete I thought better of that, and ran over to where I had last seen them.

There was nothing. No one. I looked as far as could in the dark down the road, and saw not even a shadow. The only sound was that of a wagon pulling up the inn.

How could they have moved so quickly? Although it did bother me a bit, I wrote it off to the weather, poor lighting, and the landscape. I walked back to the inn, and entered through the front door.

"G'evening, sir. Are you alright?", the girl from the front desk asked me as I entered the hall.

"Yes, of course. Just out for a walk. I am off to bed now. Good night, Miss."

"I've warmed the bed for you, sir, and left the warmer full of coals on the grate in the hearth. G'night, sir", she said softly as I climbed the stairs. Warmed my bed? How quaint, I thought, but realized it was something that needed to be done once I was upstairs. It was very cold in that hallway, away from the fireplace downstairs.

I entered my room, and felt the linens on my bed, and they were indeed, very warm. I kicked off my shoes and without so much as washing up, or removing my clothes, I fell deep asleep.

I slept very well that night, and my dreams were quite realistic. I will share those with you at some other time for they would take many more pages to explain.

In the morning I awoke to a beautiful autumn morning. There was a frost on the grass of the Common, and the yellow and red leaves littered the ground around the old tree where many leaves hung in defiance of their fate.

I went downstairs and was met by a very friendly clerk at the desk.

" Good morning, Mr. Foster. I trust you slept well."

"Yes, I did, thank you. I am fit enough for the second leg of my trip, but first some coffee, and breakfast would be nice."

"Of course", he nodded and led me to the dining room. The room was much brighter this morning than the poorly lit one I had dined in the previous night. I was seated at a table by the window, and handed a menu by a lovely waitress.

"G'moring", she chirped to me, "Would you like some coffee?"

"Yes, please. I feel very good this morning, and may even attempt to complete my trip to Albany today."

"You will certainly avoid others on the road by traveling on a Sunday."

"No, no. I am going to leave today", I corrected her.

"Yes, today is Sunday, Mr. Foster."

I sat back in my chair, my mouth open as I watched other patrons stroll into the dining room. Some were clutching the Sunday paper they had just purchased at the front desk. How can this be? I left home on Wednesday afternoon. This should be Thursday morning.

"Are you sure this is Sunday? I came in on Wednesday, last night. Ask the girl that was working the desk, she'll tell you", I implored.

"Only Bert works the desk, Mr. Foster, there is no girl that works the reception desk. I think you still need to wake up a bit", she said as she poured my coffee, "I was just getting off yesterday afternoon when you arrived. That was Saturday. This is Sunday".

She smiled, then told me to let her know when I was ready to order.

Well, Dear Reader, I must tell you that I walked from the dining room, and immediately grabbed a newspaper form the desk. It was a Sunday paper.

I cannot explain what occurred that night in Sturbridge. I have been without an answer for ten years. What I can share is that the new account in Albany was obtained somehow, and it has been the highlight of my career thus far. It led to my leaving sales, becoming a writer, and eventually to my position as editor here at New Englander Magazine. I have returned to Sturbridge many times since that autumn, and tried to recreate the circumstances that so bewildered me.

Had it been a dream? Was I ill with fever at the time? I feel I will never know. I do plan on returning to Sturbridge next week, and I hope to solve this illusion once and for all. I only wish that I could forget that original visit, and return to a normal nights sleep once again.

Editors Note: William Foster did return to Sturbridge in the fall of 1958, however he never returned to his position as Editor at New Englander Magazine, and has not been seen since. Of particular note, when his disappearance was investigated, and the small grave yard beside the inn was searched, a grave stone was discovered that had previously not been recorded in the town records:

William Foster
b. 1803 d. 1848

A wayward traveler
Who lost his way
in time

A strange coincidence in even a stranger mystery.--ed."

Happy Halloween.

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