Times Past: Remembering big names who graced Northfield Inn

  • Today, the land that was formerly home to the Northfield Inn is now occupied by the Northfield Golf Club. This photo dates to around 1904. Contributed photo/Ed Finch

  • The Northfield Inn, which once stood off Holton Street in Northfield, was owned by the Northfield Mount Hermon School. Contributed photo/Ed Finch

  • Young guests of the Northfield Inn shoot off the toboggan slide during winter. Contributed photo/Ed FinchContributed photo/Ed Finch

  • Guests of the Northfield Inn enjoy a sleigh ride during winter. Contributed photo/Ed Finch

  • Guests of the Northfield Inn pose for a photo while snowshoeing. Contributed photo/Ed Finch

  • Once World War II ended, rations on gasoline and automobile tires were lifted and motels popped up incessantly, making it more difficult for the Northfield Inn to attract guests. The pool was thus installed as an added luxury. Contributed photo/Ed Finch

  • Guests of the Northfield Inn play tennis. Contributed photo/Ed Finch

  • Guests of the Northfield Inn play shuffleboard on a sunny day. Contributed photo/Ed Finch

Published: 6/30/2018 11:00:12 AM

Today, a flagpole that was once on the Northfield Inn’s roof is the only physical reminder that’s left to mark where the building stood off Holton Street. The Northfield Golf Club occupies the land that was once home to the 125-bedroom hotel, but its memory lives on in the minds of longtime Northfield residents, like myself.

I was born on Glenwood Avenue on April 20, 1928, and went to work at the Northfield Inn as a bellhop when I was only 14 during summer vacations from school. I made about $120 per month, an improvement over what I’d earned as a postal delivery boy and by polishing brass and sweeping the garage for Mira B. Wilson, headmistress of the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies, when I was 12.

Though the military and college took me away from Northfield for a few years, in 1957 I received a welcome call from the inn’s manager, A. Gordon Moody (grand-nephew to famed evangelist D.L. Moody). I was managing a Grand Union supermarket in West Hartford, Conn., at the time, and was eager to rejoin my family in Northfield. So when Moody asked me to become the inn’s assistant manager, how could I say no?

Built in 1888, the historic inn flourished many years right up to World War II. Given rations that prevented people from buying tires or using a lot of gasoline, Americans traveled largely by train and the Northfield Inn was a popular stop for travelers from New York and Boston.

Things didn’t come so easily, though, once the war ended. Rations were lifted and motels popped up incessantly. That meant big changes for the inn; we installed a new pool and a nine-hole golf course, and began offering year-round entertainment to make the Northfield Inn a more attractive destination.

When Moody fell ill, I was asked to move up from assistant manager to manager, a position I held for eight years. At the inn's height, I oversaw about 40 employees, many of whom labored in the kitchen to provide impressive dinners. The dining room seated 150 guests, though sometimes we served more than 250.

The rooms themselves varied considerably. Of the 125 rooms, there were plain rooms with no running water, but fancier, more expensive rooms could have running water, telephones and air conditioning.

The greatest memories I have from my total of 17 years working at the Northfield Inn, though, come from the guests, who were most often in town visiting the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies or the Mount Hermon School for Boys, which consolidated to become Northfield Mount Hermon School in 1971. Because the school owned the hotel, their histories are closely intertwined.

I met the son of singer and actor Burl Ives, who I found pacing outside the dining room with a young woman hoping to eat but without the money themselves. Imagine my astonishment when I explained that as a student at the school, he could bill his parents, and he asked me to bill his mother, Helen Ives. Later, I got to shake Burl Ives’ hand, as the son held his wedding reception at the inn.

I enjoyed breakfast with Arlene Francis, a fixture on “What’s My Line?” for 25 years, and answered plenty of her questions about the school, Northfield and the neighboring Chateau.

Another “What’s My Line?” star, and founder of the Random House publishing company, Bennett Cerf, stayed with us due to a speaking arrangement at the school. As he was leaving, he asked me who built and owned the Chateau. Without thinking, I replied “A nutty New Yorker.” He turned to me and said, “Well, I come from New York City, so do you consider me a nutty New Yorker?” I don’t know if my face turned red or not, but it should have.

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking,” came to stay with his wife for two weeks almost every summer. He could often be found on the south lawn reading.

Plenty of the famed guests came to perform at the campus auditorium, like opera singer Jan Pierce; blind Welsh pianist, composer and satirist Alec Templeton; and the piano duo Ferrante & Teicher. Those two had their pianos hauled in by truck, and I simply couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that the pianos were stood on end within the truck to transport them.

And then, there were relatives of particularly big names. John Eisenhower, the president’s son, and his son, David, came for an interview at the Mount Hermon School for Boys, though David went to Phillips Exeter Academy instead.

Charles Edison, Thomas Edison’s son, also brought his wife and her sister to Northfield to see the schools. Though no smoking was allowed in the dining room to Charles and his wife’s chagrin, special arrangements were made. We did a lot in the theme of keeping guests happy, which in this case meant bringing their meals to their room so they could both smoke and dine, until a private dining area could be set up the next day. The couple was very pleased and stayed an extra week.

Between the pool, the golf course and year-round entertainment, there was always something to do at the Northfield Inn. That was true no matter the time of year; during the winter, the famous toboggan slide launched sledders on a fast ride across the driveway and down toward the pond, a favorite game for children on Sundays.

Due largely to the growing availability of motels, Northfield Mount Hermon School closed the Northfield Inn in 1977 and soon had it torn down. The neighboring Chateau, which had 99 rooms by comparison, was also leveled in 1963. The inn’s colorful history, though, is something that will never fade.


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