The taverns of Medford.

by John H. Hooper.
[Read before the Medford Historical Society, November 21, 1904.]


for many years the most direct route of land travel from northern and eastern New England to Boston was through the town of Medford and over Mystic bridge. This large amount of travel required more tavern accommodaions than were usual to a place of size and importance of the town of Medford. We accordingly find houses for the entertainment of man and beast located on all of our principal thoroughfares, on the roads from Medford to Woburn, from Medford to Malden, and on the great road to Charlestown, also in the market-place. Medford taverns acquired a justly high reputation for their excellent accommodations even as early as the year 1686.

Mr. John Dunton, who visited Medford in that year, says: ‘took Sanctuary in a Public, where there was extraordinary good Cyder, and thoa I had n't such a Noble Treat as at Captain Jenner's, yet with the Cyder and such other Entertainment as the House afforded (together with my Landlord and my Landlady's good company) I made a very pretty thing on 't. By this time the rain was over thoa it still remained cloudy: and therefore I thought it was best taking Time by the Forelock, and go back to Boston while it held up, there being nothing remarkable to be seen at Meadford, which is but [p. 2] a small Village consisting of a few Houses.’ It would be of great interest to know at what house Mr. Dunton was entertained at the time of his visit to Medford. In early colonial days, any person desiring to keep a public house of entertainment or to be licensed as an innholder, a retailer of strong drinks and other liquors, either in-doors or out, was obliged to obtain from the selectmen of the town in which he resided a recommendation that he was a suitable person to be licensed, and this recommendation presented to the Court of General Sessions of the Peace, was usually favorably acted upon by the court and a license granted, and the person so licensed was required to furnish a bond with sureties for the faithful observance of the law. The form of such license was as follows: ‘A. B. is permitted to sell liquors unto such sober-minded neighbors as he shall think meet, so as he sell not less than the quantity of a gallon at a time to one person, and not in smaller quantities by retail to the occasioning of drunkenness.’ The names of these licensed persons may be found in the court records and files in the office of the Clerk of Courts of Middlesex county. It is to these court records and files that we are obliged to look for information concerning the early tavern keepers of Medford, and these sources of information are far from being satisfactory. A careful search of the records and files fail to show that a public house of entertainment was licensed in Medford prior to the year 1690, although from the testimony of Mr. Dunton, there was an ordinary kept in Medford as early as 1686. In the year 1690 the selectmen of Medford addressed the Court of General Sessions of the Peace as follows: ‘The Selectmen of Meadford finding it necessary that there be a House of Entertainment kept in Meadford, have nominated and appointed Daniel Woodward to keep the same and we do present it to this Honored Court believing you would grant him a license. Meadford the 14th, April, 1690, by order of the Selectmen, Nath. Wade. John Hall Jun.’ The court granted Mr. [p. 3] Woodward a license. Where his house was located we have no means of determining (possibly it was the Willis Tavern). He kept a tavern in Medford one year only; the next year (1691) we find him located in Woburn. The want of a tavern in the town induced the selectmen to again address the court. ‘Meadford June 17, 1691, Whereas we are destitute of a Public House of Entertainment for strangers &c. and Mr. Thomas Willis proffering to supply said defect, the Selectmen of Meadford do allow of his proffer accounting him a fitting man for that purpose. Nath. Wade. Stephen Willis. Selectmen of Meadford.’ The court granted Mr. Willis a license. Again in the year 1692 the selectmen addressed the court. ‘To the Hon. Justices of the Peace at the Sessions holden 19th. July instant in Charlestown, by the virtue of a warrant from Mr. Samuel Phipps, Clerk, dated July 7. 1692 the Selectmen doe approve of Mr. Thomas Willis and judge him a meet person to be licensed to retail beer, Ale, Rum, Syder &c. and to keep a House of Public Entertainment for the use of the town and strangers dated 18 day of July 1692. from your Worships humble servants, Nath. Wade, Stephen Willis, John Whitmore, Selectmen of Meadford.’ Mr. Willis was again granted a license.

The next year (1693) we find Mr. Willis again licensed. Where the Willis Tavern was located we can only conjecture by the following: Mr. Willis owned land a short distance west of Marble brook, on the north side of the way from Medford to Woburn, and at the foot of ‘Marm Simonds' Hill’ (this hill was called in the early days of the plantation, Marabels Hill), and as will hereinafter appear, this location is the same as that upon which stood a tavern named at times Pierce's, Usher's and Putnam's Tavern. The evidence to be submitted shows conclusively that upon this lot of land stood a house or houses that were used a good part of the time for over one hundred years as a place of public entertainment. When this house was built we have no means of knowing. [p. 4] Very likely it was built as early as the year 1686, and may have been the house at which Mr. Dunton was entertained in that year. Mr. Willis sold this lot of land with the buildings thereon in the year 1714 to Mr. Stephen Hall. Mr. Hall sold the same year to Mr. John Richardson, 4th, and Mr. Richardson also sold that same year to Messrs. Joseph and Jabez Sargent. The Messrs. Sargent sold in the year 1717 to Mr. Nathaniel Pierce, ‘taylor and innholder.’ Who the occupants of this house were during these years is by no means certain. The records of the court fail to show that any person was licensed to keep a public house during the years 1694 and 1695, although it is probable that licenses were granted. In the year 1696 Mr. John Hall was licensed to keep a public house, and in the years 1697-8 and 9 Mr. Stephen Hall was licensed to keep a public house. Again in the year 1700, Mr. John Hall was licensed to keep a public house. The year 1700 was the last year that the court issued licenses to keep public houses of entertainment. Thereafter licensees were known as innholders. In the year 1701 Mr. John Hall, senior, was licensed as an innholder. It is assumed that the John Hall licensed in the years 1696 and 1700 was Mr. Hall, senior. Mr. Hall died in October, 1701, and from the year 1702 to 1706, both inclusive, Mr. John Hall (son of John Hall, senior), was granted an innholder's license. In the year 1703 Mr. Richard Rookes was also licensed as an innholder. Mr. Rookes was at this time owner of part of the brick mansion house formerly of Major Jonathan Wade, and his tavern was probably near the present square (perhaps in the brick mansion). He kept a tavern only one year; then from the year 1707 to 718, both inclusive, Mr. Nathaniel Peirce was licensed as an innholder. Mr. Peirce, as has been before stated, bought the estate in the year 1717. He died in the year 1719, and in that year and in the years 1720 and 1721, and also in the year 1726, his widow, Mrs. Lydia Peirce, received an nnholder's license. Up to this date I have [p. 5] been particular to give in detail the names of those parties who were granted licenses as innholders, etc., for the reason that this house appears to have been the first, and for many years the only, public house (excepting the Rookes' house) in the town of Medford, and these names appearing in such regular order, leads to the belief that they may have been occupants of this house.

The Peirces were located here without doubt, still this evidence, while it seems probable, is by no means conclusive, for Mr. John Hall, senior, lived on what is now the corner of High and Allston streets. Mr. Stephen Hall, his son, probably lived in his father's house, and Mr. John Hall, junior, lived on the Woburn road, on or near the spot where the house of the late Mr. Albert Smith now stands, and they may have done business at their residences. Let us now consider what evidence there is to authorize us to believe that the house of Mr. Willis was the house at which Mr. Dunton was entertained in the year 1686. At that date there were but three great highways leading through Medford, viz.: the highway now known as Grove street, the highway from Medford bridge to Woburn (part of High street and all of Woburn street) and the Highway to Malden (Salem street). So far as we know the house of Mr. Caleb Brooks, and possibly the house of Captain Timothy Wheeler, afterwards that of Mr. Ebenezer Prout, and still later that of Messrs. John and Stephen Francis, were the only houses on the first named highway at that date, and there is no evidence that either of those parties were ever licensed as tavern keepers. On the highway from Medford bridge to Woburn were the two houses of Major Jonathan Wade (one of which was probably the old Cradock Mansion) and that of Mr. John Bradshaw; nor is there any evidence that these houses were used as taverns. On the highway to Malden there was but a single house, that of Jonathan Tufts near the Malden line, and Mr. Tufts was never licensed as an innholder. [p. 6]

All the evidence tends to show the probability that the Willis' house was standing in the year 1686. This estate passed from the ownership of the Peirce heirs into that of Mr. William Willis. Mr. Willis was licensed for many years as a retailer of liquors, and there is every reason to believe that he occupied this house. In the year 1742 the estate was sold to Mr. Samuel Reaves. Mr. Reaves was never licensed as an innholder or retailer, and there is no positive evidence that the house was used as a tavern during his ownership. Mr. John Bradshaw, in the first part of the year 1750, kept the Admiral Vernon Tavern in Charlestown. He removed to Medford and was licensed as an innholder the latter part of that year, and in the years 1751-52-53. He died in the year 1753, and his widow, Mercy Bradshaw, was licensed for the remainder of the year, and the record reads that she occupied the house formerly of Mr. William Willis. Mr. Reaves sold in the year 1784 to Mr. Abijah Usher of Roxbury. In 1792 Mr. Robert Usher was licensed as an innholder and kept this tavern. He was succeeded by Messrs. Abijah Usher, Eleazer Usher, Wyman Weston, Ebenezer Putnam and others.

The estate passed from the ownership of Mr. Usher, and through many different persons down to the present day; it is now in the possession of Mr. F. E. Chandler. This estate has been aptly described as ‘a well chosen location for a place of entertainment for tired horses and thirsty men, at the foot of that sharp rise in the road known as Marm Simonds' Hill.’

A contemporary further described this house as ‘a groggy old hole.’

The Fountain Tavern.

Under the date of April 29, 1702, Mr. Peter Seccomb of Medford, bought of Mr. John Bradstreet, two and one-half acres of land bounded northeast and east on the road into Charlestown woodlots; southerly on the road from Malden to Charlestown; westerly upon said Bradstreet's [p. 7] other land. Three years later, July 4, 1705, Mr. Bradstreet sold to Mr. Seccomb an additional lot containing one-half an acre, and this lot of land adjoined the first on its westerly side and was twenty-eight feet in width on the road. These two lots comprised the Fountain House estate. This house must have been built soon after these purchases, for in the year 1713, Mr. Seccomb was licensed as an innholder, and no doubt was the first landlord of the Fountain Tavern. In December of that year he sold his estate to Messrs. Francis Leath and son, and the place for the first time was called the Fountain Tavern. Mr. Leath, senior, was landlord in the year 1714. During that year the estate was deeded back to Mr. Seccomb, who immediately sold to Captain Samuel Wade. In the year 1715, and for many years thereafter, Captain Wade was landlord of this tavern. In the year 1735 he sold the estate to Messrs. Stephen Hall, junior, Stephen and Simon Bradshaw. In the deed the house is spoken of as a dwelling house. In the year 1751 Mr. Simon Bradshaw sold one-half of a house to Mr. Stephen Bradshaw, and it was described as ‘at a place formerly called the Fountain.’

By this sale Mr. Stephen Bradshaw came into the possession of the whole estate. Mr. Stephen Hall, junior, having previously sold his interest in the estate to the Bradshaw brothers. Mr. Bradshaw sold in the year 1765 to Mr. Jonathan Patten. In the year 1775 Mr. Thomas Bradshaw was licensed as an innholder, and from that year until the year 1789, he kept the Fountain Tavern. In the year 1795 Mr. Patten's widow sold to Mr. Nathaniel Hall, from Mr. Hall the estate passed through the ownership of many different persons, down to the present day. Some of these owning only one-half of the house. There is no evidence that this house was used as a tavern from the year 1734 until the year 1775, when it was occupied by Mr. Bradshaw, although it is very probable that it was sometimes used as a place where liquors were sold, nor is it likely that it was used as a tavern after Mr. [p. 8] Bradshaw's day. The late Mr. Rufus Sawyer took down the old building and erected on its site the house now standing on the easterly corner of Salem and Fountain streets.

The Royal Oak Tavern.

This tavern stood upon land purchased of Dr. Oliver Noyes by Mr. Benjamin Willis in the year 1717. The estate was described as a house lot near Medford bridge, bounded west and northwest on the country road; northeast on a highway laid out from the country road to land of Aaron Cleveland; southeast on land of John Hall; southwest on the wharf and dock. The wharf referred to was that of Major Jonathan Wade, and also that of Mr. Matthew Cradock. It was then, as now, at the head of navigation on the Mystic river. The dock was on the easterly side of the wharf and was sometimes called Medford dock. The site of the wharf is now occupied by the brick building of Mr. Bigelow and by the old skating-rink building. The following extract from the printed records of the city of Boston will show the probability that at this wharf vessels were cleared for sea at an early date. ‘Aspinwall Notarial Records. 7 (6) 1648 David Sellick a Bill to pay for vessel Susan 3 £ 5 s. per hund. & Covt. of Lanclet Baker to finish it & mast it & do the joyners work & to beare halfe the vessels chardge till cleared belowe the bridge at Mystick. Also a Bill of sale of 1/2 said vessel from Lanclet Baker to David Selleck:’

Mr. Willis was granted a license as an innholder in the year 1720, and probably built his house soon after his purchase. He was sometimes called a shopkeeper. He occupied the estate as an innholder until the year 1730, when he sold the property to Mr. John Bradshaw, junior, who was the landlord until the year 1740, when he was succeeded by Mrs. Sarah Floyd. In the year 1748 Mr. Bradshaw sold the estate to Mr. Benjamin Floyd. From that date to the year 1759, when it was [p. 9] sold to Mr. Hugh Floyd, the house was kept by Mr. Benjamin Floyd and others. From the year 1759 to 1772 Mr. Hugh Floyd kept the tavern the greater part of the time. In the latter year he sold to Mr. Ebenezer Hills, who kept the house in the year 1773. Mr. Hills, in the year 1774, sold to Mr. Jonathan Porter. Mr. Porter was landlord from the year 1774 to 1786, both inclusive. He took down the old house soon after, and built the house now standing on the premises.

The old swinging sign that hung in front of this tavern is dated 1769. It is in a good state of preservation, except that one of the spindles is broken. The emblem and lettering is quite distinct, as indeed they might be, as the sign hung exposed to the weather only seventeen years. Whether this sign was the original sign of the Royal Oak Tavern, or only newly painted in the year 1769, cannot be determined. No doubt the emblem on the first sign was an oak tree, hence the name ‘Royal Oak.’ The name of the last landlord of the tavern, Jonathan Porter, was evidently painted over the name of his predecessor. In the upper portion of this sign is a bullet hole, and on the side opposite from which the bullet entered, a piece of the sign is slivered off. The angle of the hole through the sign would seem to indicate that the bullet was fired from above the level of the sign, unless the sign was swinging at the time the shot was fired. There is a tradition that this hole was caused by a bullet, shot from the musket of one of the Minute Men on the return of the Medford Company from Lexington, April 19, 1775. (For further description of the sign see illustration.)

The late Mr. Francis Bigelow was authority for the following incident in connection with the house now standing on the corner of Riverside avenue and Main street. At the time that Mr. Jonathan Porter took down the old Royal Oak Tavern and built the house above referred to, Mr. Benjamin Hall was confined to his house by sickness. Mr. Hall's house was so situated that his [p. 10] window overlooked the market-place, and he was much interested in watching the progress of the building. All at once an idea occurred to him; calling his man, he told him to go and find Mr. Porter and tell him that he had better set his house up a good height, as the marketplace was low, and that in all probability the grade would be raised. Mr. Porter heeded the suggestion and set his building on a high underpinning. An inspection of the cellar wall of the building on the inside will show that the grade of the street has been raised all of three feet in front of the house. I remember the time when four or five steps were necessary to enter the grocery store now occupied by Yerxa & Yerxa.

Mr. Bigelow also related the following story in connection with the Royal Oak Tavern and its landlord, Mr. Jonathan Porter:—

During the early years of the War of the Revolution, an English vessel was captured by an American privateer, and the vessel and cargo was brought into the port of Boston and sold. A portion of the cargo consisted of Rhine wine, and as there was but little if any demand for such wine in Boston and vicinity, it was bought by Mr. Porter for a trifling sum and brought to Medford and stored in the cellar of the Royal Oak Tavern.

After the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, the captured Hessians were sent to Boston and encamped in the vicinity. The officers were paroled and allowed the liberty of the surrounding country. Some of these officers visiting Medford stopped at the Royal Oak Tavern and were served with some of the captured wine. As the home of these prisoners of war was in the valley of the Rhine, they were much pleased to find that they could obtain their native wine so near their encampment. On their return to camp they told of their discovery, with the result that all of the captured wine was disposed of, to the enjoyment of the Hessians and to the profit of Mr. Porter.

[p. 11]

The Admiral Vernon Tavern.

This tavern stood on the lot of land at the corner of Main and Swan streets, opposite the Central Fire Station, upon land purchased by Mr. Aaron Cleveland in the year 1717 of the Hon. John Usher. It was a part of Gov. Winthrop's Ten Hills Farm. As Mr. Cleveland was granted an innholder's license in the year 1720, this house must have been built prior to that date. Mr. Cleveland was the landlord of this tavern from the year 1720 to 1738, both inclusive. In the latter year he sold the estate to Colonel Isaac Royall, senior. After the death of Colonel Royall in the year 1739, his son, Colonel Isaac Royall, junior, came into possession of the property. From the year 1739 to 1743, both inclusive, the landlords of this tavern were Messrs. John Reed, Abraham Skinner, and Captain Samuel Wade. Under date of December 26, 1743, Colonel Royall advertised as follows: ‘any person beforehanded so as to lay in a good stock of liquors and other necessaries for a Tavern, may meet with proper encouragement from Isaac Royall Esq.’ (from Brooks' History of Medford.) This advertisement was answered by Mr. John Bradshaw, who was a few years prior to this date the owner and landlord of the Royal Oak Tavern. Mr. Bradshaw was landlord of the Admiral Vernon from the year 1744 to about the middle of the year 1750, when he removed back to Medford. He was succeeded by Messrs. William Peirce, William Jones, and others. In the year 1768 Mr. Moses Billings was licensed as an innholder and took charge of the Admiral Vernon, where he remained until the year 1777. In the year 1778, Mr. Edward Walker took charge of this tavern. He was succeeded by Mr. Benjamin Shaw and others. Mr. James Tufts was licensed as an innholder at the Admiral Vernon in the year 1792, and was its landlord from that year to 1800, both inclusive. At the close of Mr. Tufts' term as landlord, this house became a private dwelling, and so continued until it was [p. 12] destroyed by fire in the year 1850. This house is said to have been the headquarters of Colonel John Stark of the New Hampshire Regiment, in the year 1775, and is supposed to have been the house in which he was chosen colonel of the regiment by a hand vote. (Prior to 1754 this house was in the Town of Charlestown.)

The Mystic house.

This house is now standing on Main street, and in late years was a part of the Mystic Trotting Park estate. It was built about the year 1847 by Mr. George E. Adams, who at that time owned and improved the Adams farm, and was used until the establishment of Mystic Trotting Park as a private dwelling. It cannot properly be classed among the taverns of Medford, although the Park proprietors were licensed as innholders.

Meads Tavern.

In the year 1758, Mr. Thomas Seccomb sold the estate upon which the City Hall stands to Mr. Israel Mead. Mr. Mead was licensed as an innholder from the year 1759 to the year 1762, both inclusive, and no doubt kept his tavern in the building then standing on the premises.

[To be Continued.]

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