CONNECTIONS: The Red Lion Inn guestbook summons history

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By Tuesday, Mar 13 Life In the Berkshires  4 Comments
The Red Lion Inn, circa 1900. Image courtesy Red Lion Inn

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

In 1775, troops moved through the village on a north-south connector road; it was not called Main Street then, it was Plain Street. Berkshire County stood at the nexus of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts: a natural stopping point for travelers and horses to rest. Stagecoaches interspersed with troops and inns were everywhere. In fact, in the 18th century, you could call Stockbridge bustling and, long before anyone might guess, one basis of the Berkshire economy was tourism.

Coach inns had taverns and, one clergyman complained, there were more taverns than churches. Some say the inn was called Stockbridge House; some say it was called Bingham’s Tavern; no one says it was called the Red Lion Inn, not then. It stood where it stands today, “a large and elegant house.” Whatever the name, that year, Ethan Allen stopped in and bought a jackknife. Perhaps he was the first famous patron, but he was not the last.

In the 20th century, they called the Red Lion the Inn of Presidents. Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt stayed there.

Anne Oppermann, the inn historian, is not prepared to say that all six slept there: “They may have just eaten a meal at the inn.”

The dining room of the Red Lion Inn in 1935. Image courtesy Red Lion Inn

On the chance that one or more ate there, Oppermann produced a 19th century menu. It reads: “Soup, Baked Scrod, Boiled Mutton, Roast Beef, Roast Turkey, Potatoes, Onions, Asparagus, Lettuce, Artichokes, Pudding, Apple, Berry, and Custard Pies, vanilla Ice Cream.” One hopes the guests were meant to choose and not eat it all.

As Opperman put the menus away and produced the guest books, she apologized for not being a trained historian. The apology was unnecessary; her meticulous attention to detail, impressive organizational skills, and love of the job are qualifications enough. She has been at it for 18 years  –finding facts and sometimes perpetuating rumors, but always differentiating between the two.

James O’Brien was doorman and head porter at the Red Lion Inn from 1883–1932. One reporter was clever enough to get an interview when he retired. O’Brien remembered the night President William Howard Taft arrived at the inn:

“His Ford motor car broke down near Monument Mountain. He walked from that location to the inn.”

Taft was expected in Williamstown but, after the arduous walk, he broke his trip at the inn at least until transportation was found.

O’Brien recalled that another accident brought President Theodore Roosevelt to the inn. It was September 1902 when Roosevelt’s carriage traveling on South Street was hit. The president was not injured, but the first member of the Secret Service to guard a president was killed. O’Brien welcomed Roosevelt to the inn and expressed his regrets.

So a Revolutionary War hero and every American president between from 1885 and 1945 (except No. 4) visited the inn, and even that is not the Red Lion’s only claim to fame. A tour through the guest books is revealing.

The entrance lobby of the Red Lion Inn in 1929. Image courtesy Red Lion Inn

On Jan. 1, 1857, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow checked in. He returned in April 1859 and July 26, 1860. Why he was staying at the inn is hard to say since Longfellow owned 75 acres in Stockbridge with a house and barn.

Longfellow married Frances Appleton in 1843. Her family had a summer home in Pittsfield and a piece of land on the Oxbow in Stockbridge. On Sept. 23, 1850, Longfellow purchased 34 acres in Stockbridge from Alma Wells for $2,000; it was land contiguous to the Appleton land. On Oct. 4, 1850, Longfellow purchased the adjoining 36 ½ acres from his father-in-law for $2,800. Longfellow purchased a final 5 acres Aug. 5, 1856. He sold it in 1867. So, if he slept at the inn, he did so with a house a mile away.

On July 30, 1860, Mrs. Herman Melville of Pittsfield signed the register. From 1850–63, she had a home in Pittsfield. Arrowhead was about 14 miles from the inn. Perhaps she was dining or perhaps breaking a journey.

On Sept. 27, 1890, there was a contingent of ladies of the Lenox cottagers: Constance Parsons, Miss Barclay, Edith Sands, Alice Greenleaf, Josephine McBirney, Margaret Folsom and Ethel Stokes. The names are bracketed. It may be a clue that they were a party taking tea, lunch or dinner at the inn.

Many who performed at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, including Gloria Swanson and Anna Russell, stayed at the inn. More recently, Bette Midler was sitting on the porch on a summer evening. After greetings, she explained she was in Stockbridge to watch her daughter perform at BTF. The tradition continues.

Slip into the Widow Bingham Tavern at the Red Lion Inn for a comfy seat, a good meal and a slice of Stockbridge history.


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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Tony Carlotto says:

    Another fabulous piece by Carole. She never stops. Kudos!

  2. Karen Marshall says:

    Wonderful story; great photos.

    For another look at the Red Lion Inn history, come to “Women Who Shaped the Red Lion Inn” next Tuesday, March 20 at 2pm at the Tuesday Club monthly meeting at the Stockbridge Congregational Church on Main Street. Open to all, with a delightful tea immediately after.

  3. Tweed Roosevelt says:

    James O’Brien’s memory is faulty when he said that Theodore Roosevelt was not injured in the carriage accident which killed Secret Service Agent Craig. In fact, TR was almost killed and was confined in a wheelchair for several months. Perhaps O’Brien was confused, a forgivable lapse of memory after some 30 years, and he was remembering TR before he left on that ill-fated carriage ride. The accident was caused by an inattentive trolley driver who slammed into the presidential carriage. Also killed was at least one horse. The other passengers in the carriage included the Governor of Massachusetts and TR’s secretary, both of whom survived as did the carriage driver. No one was hurt in the trolley.

  4. Rick Wilcox says:

    The Berkshire Eagle has a photo of Teddy Roosevelt, with a swollen face, giving a speech while standing on the Red Lion porch after the accident. Also photos of the injured horses that pulled the trolley car that caused the accident, which I believe had to be put down. History is filled with stories from people with bad memories. There is always more to every story. Nicely done Carole

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