SUDBURY -- The American flag with 13 stars was hanging above the front door when we arrived at Longfellow's Wayside Inn, the self-proclaimed ''oldest operating inn" in the country.
The Revolution was not yet conceived when David Howe opened his ''house of entertainment" in 1716 to serve travelers along the Boston Post Road between Boston and Worcester. His son, Ezekiel, continued the business -- and fought in the Revolution as a lieutenant colonel. In fact, Ezekiel Howe led the Sudbury Minutemen to Concord, where the ''shot heard 'round the world" was fired.
A local group portrays the Sudbury Minutemen and Militia in Patriots Day reenactments, and each year since 1964 ''the colonel" has hung a pewter tankard from the wooden beams in the inn's Old Bar Room at the end of his one-year tenure. The house specialty is the Coow Woow, an early American cocktail of two parts rum and one part ginger brandy.
''It's good strained over ice the right way," the bartender assured us. We ordered beer and wine.
Still, it seems fitting that the bar hews to tradition. Though the inn was enlarged and altered over the centuries (and seriously damaged in a 1955 fire), the bar occupies one of the original two rooms built by David Howe. Its creaky wide floorboards and big fireplace attest to its age.
Our quarters, Room 7 on the second floor, were a study in snug practicality. (Rooms 7 and 8 are the smallest in the inn.) The double bed was covered with a white cotton spread and flanked by a well-worn candle stand on one side and a small chest on the other. An armchair with rich red upholstery sat in a corner by the window; a wrought-iron reading lamp was attached to the wall.
Most of the furniture had the patina of age, except for a modern-looking armoire that served as a closet and storage for extra blankets and pillows. The inn's only TV is in a small sitting room in an 18th-century bedchamber.
That palpable sense of the past must have attracted Henry Ford, who bought the property in 1923 as what became a trial run for Greenfield Village, his re-created historic village in Michigan. Before dark, we followed a walking tour map to the water-powered gristmill that Ford built in 1929. It was closed for the season, so we drifted over to the Martha-Mary Chapel, where a group had gathered for a wedding rehearsal.
The classic white chapel was built in 1940, also by Ford (who created the inn's nonprofit status and was its last private owner), and sits next to a red one-room schoolhouse that was moved to the site. Local lore holds that Mary's little lamb followed her to this school one day and a bronze plaque reproduces the entire poem as it appeared on the pages of an 1865 McGuffey's Reader.
But Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave the inn its literary fame. He visited in 1862, a year after the inn had closed. Nonetheless he wrote a series of poems about the innkeeper and his colorful guests, ''Tales of a Wayside Inn," published in 1863. When the inn reopened at the end of the century, the new owner adopted the current name for that connection.
Later, in the Tap Room, our fellow diners included no one quite like the young Sicilian, the Spanish Jew from Alicant, nor the Cambridge theologian of Longfellow's imagining. We found ourselves instead with an Australian couple, three Japanese visitors, and a couple celebrating the 27th anniversary of their wedding in the Martha-Mary Chapel. Next to us, a woman admonished her husband not to order the steak.
''You can have that anywhere," she chided. He ordered it anyway.
We stuck to hoarier fare. The Jerusha Peach Mold (half a peach in Jell-O with whipped cream dressing) was offered as a salad, though our waitress admitted many people prefer it for dessert. It's ''a Wayside Inn tradition," though, as is the lobster pie of lobster meat in crumb-topped bechamel. In honor of the season, we also ordered turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and butternut squash. All in all, the food was competent and traditional. The pastry cook works with flour and meal ground at the mill, producing airy breads and corn muffins, delicate pie crust, and silky Indian pudding.
By luck, we were seated in the late-18th-century Tap Room rather than the Main Dining Room, a 1929 Ford addition with carpeted floors, acoustic tile ceiling, glaring electric candelabras, and pink tablecloths. The Tap Room features a fireplace with beehive oven, wide pine floors, and original ceiling beams. Tables were covered with brown-and-white checked cloths and lighted by single white tapers. Sometimes you can't improve on the past.
Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers in Cambridge, at firstname.lastname@example.org.