In 1923, Henry Ford set his sights on Sudbury, Massachusetts. First, he wanted to build an automobile plant but was stymied by an Italian farmer who refused to sell him the tract of land he needed. Second, he planned to build an historic village and museum as a “splendid example of Colonial America.”
Ford centered this project on the old Howe Tavern (1686), which was also known as “Longfellow’s Wayside Inn” from the book of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Ford purchased the structure in 1923, along with 3,000 acres of surrounding land.
On this land, Ford built the Martha-Mary Chapel, a traditional, white, New England-style, nondenominational church and wedding chapel that has been used as a set in several movies; and the Grist Mill, a fully operating, water-powered stone mill that still grinds grain for the rolls, cornbread, and other baked goods served at the Wayside Inn.
Ford had the Redstone Schoolhouse of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” fame moved here from Sterling, Massachusetts, along with the little red outhouse behind it. He also constructed a stone dam to provide a fire-fighting reservoir to the inn and village, and constructed the Route 20 bypass to move traffic away from the project.
The dam was planned to create a reservoir for the complex by trapping water from a small stream that runs down the side of Nobscot Hill. In the interest of historical accuracy, it was, along with the rest of the complex, constructed “in the traditional manner.” That meant using local stone, oxen and manpower.
Unfortunately, the long dam was sited on “incompetent” fractured rock. Incompetent bedrock tends to be relatively weak and, in this case, porous. That meant the dam, despite its size and years of labor to correct the problem, simply could not hold the reservoir it was designed to create.
So, today, there it stands: a dam without water in the middle of the woods, 30 feet high and over 900 feet long, with forest on both sides. The little stream still trickles up to the dam and then under it, going on its way without hindrance.
Visitors can walk across the top of the dam safely because of chain-link fencing on either side. It’s unsightly, but the sides are very steep and the ground is far down. If you think you see a wrecked car or two at the bottom, that’s because local teenagers used to push them off the top. On the far end, visitors will be close to the backyards of homes built long after 1945, when Henry Ford sold the Wayside Inn and shifted his focus to Dearborn, Michigan.
Know Before You Go
The best time to view the dam is in the fall, when the leaves are off the trees. Turn off Route 20, the Boston Post Road, onto Brimstone Lane. Drive up this steep, one-lane road until you reach the Nobscot Conservation Land parking lot. On the other side of the road you will see a trail leading downward.
Follow the trail through the conservation land until you reach a fork and turn right. (There’s a sign on a tree at the fork.) You will cross over the stream that was supposed to feed the reservoir. The trail will lead you straight to the top of Ford’s Folly. Warning: the path is overgrown in places and you will encounter lush growths of poison ivy both there and on the dam. Dress appropriately.