By Rod Lee
Good fortune has followed the Black Tavern for almost all of the more than two hundred years the venerable property has existed opposite the First Congregational Church, the Grange and the Town Common and in close proximity to the grounds of Nichols College in Old Dudley Center.
That is still true today, but it might not have been if a dedicated group of preservation-minded area residents had not stepped up to save the site, which actually consists of three structures—the Tavern, the annex/shop and the Barn (adjacent)—from possible demolition.
What has happened since The Black Tavern Historical Society (BTHS) came into the picture in 1983 is nothing short of miraculous. “Healy’s Inn” (as the building was called when Hezekiah Healy first opened its doors as a stop on the Hartford-to-Boston stagecoach route for travelers and locals alike) was literally saved from the wrecking ball by “mostly seventy-year-old men” who took it off the hands of Nichols College for one dollar, according to the BTHS’s Bob Ducharme.
These men immediately began restoring the inn. “It’s amazing what they did,” Mr. Ducharme, who with his wife Chris currently oversees the care and maintenance of the Black Tavern, said. The Ducharmes live in an apartment in back of the building. Now, Mr. Ducharme said, “a second generation” of BTHS members is involved in keeping the Tavern, indeed the entire complex, shipshape.
It is impossible to calculate in dollars or by any other measure the extent of the loss that would have materialized if Nichols College, then facing a financial strain, had not been approached by townies who felt the Tavern, which had fallen into disrepair, was worth preserving. These interveners were conscious of the Tavern’s illustrious pedigree. They knew that Hezekiah Healy, a cabinetmaker, his wife Becca and their daughters Becca D. and Clarinda were the initial occupants of the Tavern, and that the Tavern had remained in the hands of the Healy, Goodell and Williams families (through marriages) until the widow of Dr. Charles Goodell (youngest son of Warren and Clarinda Goodell, grandson of Hezekiah Healy and a prominent Methodist preacher who Mr. Ducharme refers to as “the Billy Graham of his day”) passed ownership to Nichols College in 1946—nine years after her husband’s death.
A similar scenario played out with the Barn, which Nichols College also acquired and used as housing for students from around 1980 until 2000. During the winter of 2001, the BTHS became aware of Nichols’s intention to remove the Barn for expansion. Again the BTHS said “hold on a minute.” Negotiations ensued and Nichols sold the Barn and the land to the Society in May of 2002 for $17,000.
From 1990 when the Tavern was opened to the public after approximately six years of restoration work to the present the Society has spared no effort in preserving and upgrading the buildings. The Tavern itself, Mr. Ducharme said, in giving a visitor a guided tour of the many rooms (starting with the Meeting Room, the Hearth Room, the Tap Room, the Museum Room and so on, on two floors, is “structurally sound.” Meanwhile a whole lot of “sweat equity” and more than $100,000 has been poured into rehabilitating the Barn.
Hezekiah Healy, who died in 1817, or thirteen years after the Tavern opened, would be pleased to know that a man after his own heart is the current steward of the site. Mr. Ducharme is a retired Oxford High School woodworking teacher who is using the shop to build furniture that complements the pieces, like a breakfront in the Meeting Room, that are still part of the premises.
The Ducharmes have been on-site for about eight years, since Mr. Ducharme jokingly asked his wife “what do you think about selling our house and moving to the Tavern?” when the previous caretaker was about to leave. That’s exactly what they did. “Best move I ever made!” he said, on July 26th.
“Sgt. Robert Ducharme” is also a Civil War re-enactor with Company E of the 15th Massachusetts Vol. Infantry Regiment and as such will be participating in a “Town Common Celebration” sponsored by the Dudley Historical Commission on August 12th. The event will commemorate the 155th anniversary of the death of Frank Corbin, a Dudley soldier who was killed at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. There will also be a dedication of the new Town Common monument and monument to Civil War soldiers incarcerated at Andersonville.
Mr. Ducharme is tickled by the state of the Tavern and its companion buildings. The Society, which boasts two hundred-plus members including about forty who are active, hosts a slew of events and programs. Guest speakers in the Meeting Room, for instance; Sheryl Faye will appear on September 21st as “Eleanor Roosevelt—The First Lady of the World.” Concerts are offered in the Barn in the summer.
The Tavern and the Barn are both available on a rental basis. Chris Ducharme handles this end of the business. She can be reached at 508-943-8782.
Hezekiah Healy chose black for the color of the Tavern because black paint lasts longest. How happy he would be to know that the Tavern itself is still around, two hundred thirteen years later.
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.