But he did stop for a drink.  Of water.

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"Reception to Washington on April 21, 1789, at Trenton on his way to New York to Assume the Duties of the Presidency of the United States," by NC Wyeth (1930). Although this depicts Washington’s Inaugural journey to the new capitol in New York City, public receptions for his Presidential tour six months later were similar.

George Washington Never Slept Here

“George Washington Slept Here” is a cliché of country inns and small towns throughout the original colonies. Claims to intimacy with our beloved first president – or better still, knowing him even before he was famous – are the mainstay of tourist attractions, whenever even the most tenuous of connections can be asserted.


Why is this even possible? Because George Washington slept in an incredibly large number of places. Unlike most of the landed gentry, who stayed in their own comfortable homes with imported furnishings, George went for years without sleeping in his own proper bed.


Nevertheless… George Washington never slept here.


Although Washington spent a good part of his young manhood either surveying in the western wilderness or fighting in the French an Indian War, his status as a permanent guest began in earnest in May 1775, when he went to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He thought that he would be back home soon. However, one short month later, in June, the Congress created the Continental Army and made Washington its commander in chief. He would only spend 10 days at Mount Vernon in the next eight and a half years.


That is roughly 3,100 nights not in his own bed. One reason for this was his idiosyncratic habit of staying in the field with his troops. The British preferred not to fight in the winter, and sometimes their officers would withdraw from the field and spend the cold months in a comfortable residence. Washington’s troops, especially in the unsuccessful early years of the war, were always on the verge of leaving. The winter camping was harsh, and supplies and clothing were scarce. So staying in the field with his men rather than going home – showing that they were all in this together, keeping a close eye on them, and the occasional bout of (yes) guilt-inducing public tears – was a necessary means of holding his army together. Washington stayed in the field for eight consecutive winters, not just the winter at Valley Forge.


But the main reason that Washington slept in so many places was his presidential tour. After the war ended in 1783, he returned to Mount Vernon for a few years. Then the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 took him away again, and in 1789 it was off to New York as the unanimously-elected first President of the new United States of America.


Starting up a new country is no easy task, and there were significant disagreements over the role of the federal government, the establishment of central bank, the scope of taxation, among others that threatened to break the new federation apart. Washington’s solution was to leverage his popularity and go on tour – to travel to every former colony, to every town therein if possible. To travel through his “infant, woody country” and instill in his new citizens the idea of unity and what it meant to “be an American.” One essayist refers to Washington as The Common Denominator – Americans disagreed about a lot of things, but they all agreed about George.


So, just six months after his inauguration, in October and November 1789, Washington was on the road again, touring New England for the first of what would be three presidential tours through the states.

The Washington Kerchief, given to Col. William McIntosh and passed down through his family. It was given to the Needham History Center in 1911, when the (then-) Historical Society was established.

So, I’ll get to the point. Did George Washington come to Needham?


Yes. Yes he did. Well, it was West Needham then - sadly, now it’s Wellesley. He did not sleep here, but he did stop for a drink of water (which he praised as being of very high quality). The visit took place on November 6, 1789, as Washington was en route from Watertown to Sherborn.


It was a quick stop, but consider – he had been up since dawn, and would travel some 35 or 40 miles that day, from Watertown to Uxbridge on the Rhode Island border. That was a typical day’s travel for this trip – he did not have much time to waste.


Washington mentions us in his diary of the trip – also briefly. “Friday, 6th. A little after seven o'clock, under great appearances of rain or snow, we left Watertown, and passing through Needham; (five miles therefrom) breakfasted at Sherburn… From Watertown, till you get near Needham, the road is very level — about Needham, it is hilly — then level again, and the whole pleasant and well cultivated…  Upon the whole it may be called an indifferent road—diversified by good and bad land — cultivated and in woods — some high and barren, and others low, wet and piney. Grass and Indian Corn is the chief produce of the farms. Rye composes a part of the culture of them, but wheat is not grown on account of the blight. The roads in every part of this State are amazingly crooked, to suit the convenience of every man's fields…”


Washington was met at the town line by a party of supporters and former comrades-in-arms, led by Col. William McIntosh, with whom Washington was well-acquainted. As he passed through Lower Falls, he had his drink at a well near the bridge at the intersection of River Street and Route 16. Washington then went on his way to Sherborn via the old Sherborn Turnpike – a road known ever since as Washington Street.


The location of the shady elm and the well that provided Washington’s famous drink is (approximately) at the intersection in Wellesley of Route 16 (ie, Washington Street) and Ledyard Street. This is in Lower Falls, near the intersection of Route 16 with Route 95. Both the elm and the well are long gone. There is a small park beside the river at the bottom of River Street, in which there is a plaque that commemorates the visit.


This may actually have been Washington's second visit to Needham. It is said that he passed through town in 1775, on his way to Cambridge to take over the Continental Army. But since he was not so famous then, and in a big hurry, no one bothered to record it for sure.

Col. McIntosh served as a Colonel in the 1st Suffolk Regiment during the Revolutionary War, fighting at Dorchester Heights, Castle Island, Fishkill, and beside Washington in other parts of the NY campaign. He also served Needham as Delegate to the Third Provincial Congress (1775), and as a Representative in General Court (five years between 1775-1783); locally, he served as Selectman for 12 years between 1767 and 1792. It is said that Washington called him out by name at the Needham arrival.

Though many people have claimed over the years to be friends of George Washington, the evidence that he and Col. William McIntosh were in fact acquainted comes both from preserved correspondence, and from the Washington Kerchief. The Washington Kerchief is a printed cotton textile, roughly 30” x 30”, made in late 1776 or early 1777. A number of them were made by Philadelphia printer John Hewson at the request of Martha Washington because she thought that Washington’s status as military commander needed a bit of a boost. As such, it is considered to be the first piece of American political propaganda. 


The kerchiefs were given to friends and supporters, and after the Revolutionary War were passed down as treasured souvenirs of the Commander’s friendship and regard. One such kerchief was given to Col. McIntosh, and passed down through his family. Because only a few kerchiefs were made, and because they are so fragile, only a few are known to have survived.  The McIntosh kerchief was given to the Needham History Center in 1911 by Timothy Otis Fuller, who was one of our Incorporators, and a 5th-generation descendant of Colonel McIntosh.


Washington’s second term ended in 1797, and he returned finally to Mount Vernon. His new priority was to manage his estates, which had suffered from his absence and yielded little profit, despite their grand appearance.  Tenants refused to pay their rent. He built a whiskey distillery to generate some cash, and also dabbled in land speculation around the newly-planned capitol, to be called Washington, DC.


George Washington’s “retirement” lasted only two years. On December 12, 1799 he came home in the evening after spending the day inspecting some of the farms on his estate, and had dinner with friends. Later that evening he complained of a sore throat and some congestion in his chest. Two days later, he was dead. 


He died in his own bed.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. For information, see our website at www.needhamhistory.org.

“George Washington on his Deathbed,” by Junius Brutus Stearns (1851). 

Calendar and Events

Visit our Calendar for all our event listings

History Book Group - All who enjoy reading books based on history are welcome!

We meet at the Needham History Center. More information HERE.

  • November 29 at 1:00 pm Beheld (TaraShea Nesbit)
  • January 24, 2023 Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson)

The Black Cyclists of Boston, November 9 at 7:00pmWith Lorenz J. Finison. Black cyclists were a small but significant part of the cycling scene in Boston more than a century ago. Their achievements and the barriers they faced are mostly forgotten, but they protested those barriers, raced, and toured - including in Needham. This talk resurrects their history. The Boston exploits of Major Taylor and Kittie Knox will be central to our conversation. Souvenir cards from a recent Kittie Knox memorial event will be available. More information HERE.

Current Exhibits

Mapping Needham, 1770-1970

Deja View: a Look Backward at Needham through the Cartoons of Bob Larsen

The History of Needham in 100 Objects

The Game of LIFE: the Serious Business of Children’s Games

The Thursday News is posted every week on our website, www.needhamhistory.org (scroll down).  An archive of previous weeks' stories is there as well.

What's New in Store?

All Around Needham! A montage of Needham places and memories. Get your Needham Spirit – in our traditional colors of Navy & Gold. (Pssst – the holidays are coming. Just sayin’). Available in our Gift Shop and ONLINE HERE.

  • A durable enameled metal plaque, white with lettering in shades of navy and gold.  9” x 6,” with holes for hanging in the corners. $15.

  • A challenging 1000-piece puzzle! Finished size, 18.5” x 28.” It even includes an 11x17” poster (suitable for hanging!) as a reference image. $30.

November 27 (Sunday), from 1-4 pm - Holiday Sale and Open House. It’s time to do your holiday shopping (you know it is!)  We have unique Needham gifts. Enjoy music and snacks as you check out our Needham-themed gifts and vintage treasures in the Heirloom Shoppe. We also have crafts from Needham artists. Unique and special!

Community Events
Other events of interest, from around town and beyond

The 11th Annual Needham Diversity Summit will be held on Sunday, November 6th from 1-5pm at Pollard Middle School. Free admission to an inspirational line up of speakers on the theme of "Building Our Future Together: Act for Justice". Professor Chad Williams, a Needham resident, will be the keynote speaker. There will also be a student panel discussion and 6 breakout sessions, followed by an informal social gathering with locally baked pastries and coffee. The Summit is open to anyone who is interested in the topic and the work of the Needham Diversity Initiative. It will be an in-person event, but some of the presentations will be live-streamed through Zoom. For more information and to register go to www.needhamdiversity.org/event-details/needham-diversity-summit.

Our friends at the Natick Historical Society are sponsoring a lecture series, Indigenous Histories and Futures. The third talk in the series is Indigenous Natick Today with Tribal Historian Pamela Ellis, December 14, at 7:00 pm. Talks are presented on Zoom, and registration is required. For links and more information, see https://www.natickhistoricalsociety.org/bridge-street-series.

In celebration of the Library Foundation of Needham's 20th Anniversary, the LFN is offering a unique fundraising campaign. You can dedicate an inscription on the Library's glass Balustrade which surrounds the second floor main staircase and windows. Space is limited, and the program closes on December 31, so act now. To learn more and to participate visit www.lfnonline.org.

Needham organizations can now share their events with the community using the town’s online events calendar. Calendar postings are designed to announce one-time or special events, not regularly scheduled activities. The calendar can be used to promote educational, social, cultural or recreational events in Needham open to the general public sponsored by non-profit, civic, social, charitable, fraternal, or educational organizations. The Community Calendar may not be used to promote political or commercial events. Submit your events at http://needhamma.gov/?ct=t(EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_5_18_2021_14_31_COPY_01 (Scroll down this page to Upcoming Events for the Submit link).

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We thank our Corporate Sponsors 
for their generous and ongoing support!
Lead Sponsor - The Needham Bank 
Exhibits Sponsor - Beth Israel Deaconess - Needham
Program Sponsor - North Hill 

The Dedham Inst. for Savings . The Middlesex Bank 
Louise Condon Realty . Petrini Corporation . The Vita Needle Company
The Needham Women's Club . JC Timmerman, Inc.

The Needham History Center & Museum

781-455-8860 / www.needhamhistory.org