Everyone has stories of what it means to be free, to be American. None of us would have any of those stories or collective experiences if it weren’t for roughly 70 colonists who stood bravely in the dewy grass of the Lexington town common, or as it is known today—the Lexington Battle Green. This spot and the actions that took place there on April 19, 1775 have earned the area the nickname “the cradle of liberty”.
While we were stationed in Massachusetts and my husband had the privilege of trekking up the road to be a recruiter in Salem, I had the privilege to work a few seasons as a docent for the Lexington Historical Society. The tourists season would start on Patriots Day, a state holiday commemorating the events that started the American Revolution in Boston, Lexington, and Concord. For those unsure of how the whole thing unfolded and how our hard fought independence came to be, here is a quick history lesson:
For some time before the battle, a group of patriots held secret meetings in taverns from Boston, Lexington, and Salem. They discussed the need to break free of King George, means to hide a stockpile weapons, and even a small little nighttime act of vandalism that became known as the Boston Tea Party. The group got wind of plans by the British troops to set out from Boston on a mission to confiscate weapons in Concord and essentially keep these ragtag colonists in line for a little longer. The Brits had planned to arrest Lexington residents Samuel Adams and John Hancock that night, too. Paul Revere waited for the cue to set off on horseback, along with William Dawes, to warn Hancock and Adams and get the word to the guys guarding the guns in Concord. Revere got captured between Lexington and Concord (within a few hundred yards of where we were living on Hanscom Air Force Base). Samuel Prescott, a doctor, joined in and helped to finish the ride. After alerting Lexington, the colonists, made up of farmers, tavern owners, and ordinary folks, lined up on the town common. They waited until the Brits marched into town right around dawn. Words were exchanged and then, someone (no one can say for sure to this day) fired. That is collectively known as “the shot heard around the world”. By the end of the short battle, 8 colonists were dead and 10 were wounded. While there were a few skirmishes and dust-ups before this April morning, this small battle and the actions of the British heading toward Concord and eventually back to Boston in the afternoon are widely known as the actual start of the Revolutionary War.
One man on the battlefield that morning was Colonel William Munroe. He had a house and Tavern right down the street, and a family waiting anxiously inside that morning. Munroe Tavern was where I worked giving tours from April until October for three seasons. The tavern wasn’t just the home of a guy in the battle. It was used by the Brits on the way back to Boston later that day. General Earl Percy and his men busted into the tavern to use it as a makeshift hospital to treat their wounded troops before finishing the retreat to Boston to regroup. They dragged their wounded into the dining room and tossed one up on the table. Colonel Monroe’s wife and small children fled from the home and hid in the woods out back. General Earl Percy and his men shot up the place and even tried to burn it down before packing up their wounded and heading the rest of the way back to Boston.
The tavern was beautiful, painted Monroe Red (an official color in some stores in the area). The sitting room where I and the other docents sat and waited for visitors was the oldest part of the house. It was dated 1690 and had a small stone fireplace. The dining room and tap room (where the actual tavern was) was loaded with amazing furniture. It had a silverbox for the Monroe silverware and a case with personal belongings of Mrs. Monroe. Her tiny satin wedding shoes were inside, along with engraved rings. The walls were plastered with horsehair. The floor boards were huge, because boards under 12 inches wide were used for the British ships and not be used by the colonists. There was a deck of cards in the tap room. They didn’t have numbers because any scrap of paper with numbers was considered by King George to be a taxable document. There were no closets in the bedrooms because they were considered ‘rooms’ and therefore, taxable by King George (you can see why we wanted to get away from this guy).There were lager heads in the kitchen by the fireplace, used to make the grog. It was here I learned most colonial women didn’t die young in childbirth. They died from infections from constantly burning their skirts and legs when cooking by fireplace. Upstairs was lovely, narrow, and still. The lead windows would hurt your eyes if you stared out of them too long as the glass had a ripple effect. The narrow stairs that tiled slightly to the right made me dizzy and were hard to navigate in my “uniform”—a long colonial skirt and cap on my head.
While the actual tavern was so interesting and I felt lucky to be a part of people’s experiences as they toured it, along with John Hancock’s house down the road, the people I worked with are why my time there was such a learning experience. I worked with people who were as essential to the history of the area and our country as the tavern was. Elsa O. Sullivan was our leader. She was the wife of one of the inventors of radar during WWII. Her husband was deep in the bowls of secret labs at MIT inventing more than we may ever know and helping our country to win that war. He had passed away years earlier, but she talked non-stop of Leo and their love and travels, only touching on how important he was in other regards. Early in their marriage, she worked as a newspaper reporter alongside Jackie Kennedy before she married Jack. While in Washington D.C., she was also friends with Katherine Graham—one of my personal heroes and owner of the Washington Post during Watergate, along with her many other amazing accomplishments. Elsa not only knew these kinds of women, she was one of them. Her stories were fascinating and I felt honored to be a blip on her radar. She was also a big collector of rabbits—stuffed, ceramic, pictures of bunnies, sweaters, pins, anything rabbit. Another amazing soul I had the chance to spend endless summer afternoons with was Iris Howard. She was from North Carolina and from a very influential and wealthy family, raised by nannies and having went to the best schools. She made waves in the women’s rights movement in ways she will never get credit for. She married a New Englander she met in college and came up north in her early 20s. She was in her 80s and still had a southern accent that wasn’t twangy, but delicate and elegant as she told stories about her massive childhood home and family. She too loved and missed her husband incredibly. She also waited year after year to see the Red Sox win and was thrilled when they did in 2004. They hadn’t won since the year she was born. She was warm, buttery almost, but spicy when she felt like it. While Elsa had a formality to her, Iris had a spontaneity and said some shocking stuff even for my 20-something-year-old ears. Pictures from her youth showed her to be a beauty like no other. She still was with her bright eyes and laugh. Her hugs made me feel like family. They both loved my children and soaked them up anytime my kids were at the tavern. The groundskeeper and helper with all Elsa needed, Joe, was a former driver for Robert Kennedy. He was invited to many events at the compound at Martha’s Vineyard and became friends with Jack and Bobby Kennedy in his youth. He said when any household staff needed to be let go, Bobby was the one to do it. The family called him the “Hatchett Man”.
As each season ended, we had a formal dinner together at the tavern. We spent hours having wine, great food, and listening to stories. Elsa always put ice in her wine and would have a little too much, but that was when she really told some great tales. When I was there, with those women, I soaked up every word as they told stories of their lives, loves, children, and grandchildren. Their take on history, their role in history, and their vibrance was fascinating. I would sit and find myself wondering how on earth I ended up having wine with these amazing and accomplished women. I loved every second of my time in Monroe Tavern. I would gladly put on that skirt and cap for the chance to sit with those ladies for one more afternoon. There was no better history lesson than listening to them share their stories, their unique and amazing American stories that have now become a part of mine.