"Have you seen any British soldiers?" the elderly woman asked. "They marched past here early this morning and we know they are coming back this way." Her eyes were wide and her voice cracked with panic, a commitment to character that caught me off guard. It was suddenly April 19, 1775, and a war had just begun only hours ago.
"No, Not yet," I said.
"Please let us know if you see any. We are gathering our things now, preparing to evacuate if fighting comes this way."
"OK. Well...good luck." I come off sounding like a callous ass, but I wasn't expecting to be brought into the story. For a few seconds, I felt sorry for her, knowing she and the other civilians would be in the crossfire within hours. Then I realized that she, I, and everyone around us would soon climb back into our time machines and be brought back to the age of modern conveniences. She would be back home quickly, this time with LED lights, gas heat, and 2,000 miles of ocean between her and the nearest British soldiers.
The Birth of a Nation
It may be a sad commentary but like most nations, ours is born of bloodshed. Minuteman National Historical Park is dedicated to the opening days of the American Revolution. It is here that the first shots were fired, and where both sides sustained their first casualties. Although the major battle reenactments happen only on Patriots Day Weekend each April, here it is always April 19th, 1775. Visitors can tour historic homes and taverns that have been converted into museums, and stand on the ground where the Minutemen took their stand against the King of England.
Getting from the town of Lexington to the Minuteman National Park Visitor's Center, then further to the Old North Bridge is a bit beyond walking distance for most visitors. There are several parking areas in town and throughout the major sites within the park, and you can feel free to drive from one site to the next. However, another option exists for those that prefer to be a bit more active in their travels. The Zagster™ Minuteman Bike Share is a service that rents cruiser style bikes from several docking stations in Lexington and Concord. Riders may rent for $1 per hour - you can find that in the cup holder of your car. Cruising along the Battle Road Trail (yes - it's allowed) makes short work of seeing all the sites within the park.
For those seeking a guided experience that covers the highlights of Lexington and Concord, the Liberty Ride Trolley Tour might be what you want. Leave the driving to someone else as you hop on and off the trolley at key points in the National Park and historic houses. The tour lasts 90 minutes. For me, it's a bit too short. But if you're just looking for an overview, this is the best option.
Perhaps it makes sense to start your visit in the town of Lexington. After all, this is where the very first shots of the American Revolution were fired. Plan to spend about two hours in Lexington before moving on to Concord/Minuteman National Historical Park. Begin your day by spending a few minutes at the Lexington Visitor's Center. Here, you can view a diorama of the Battle of Lexington and get a sense of what happened that day before digging deeper into the historical sites. There is also a public restroom available here. Then walk across the lawn to Buckman Tavern. This is where the Minutemen were gathered, waiting for the arrival of the first British troops. Although you can no longer purchase a pint of ale at the tavern, you can learn all about Captain John Parker and his company of militia, and about life in Lexington at the onset of the war. There is an audio tour available that guides visitors through the tavern.
Afterward, walk outside to Lexington Battle Green/Lexington Common. Although at first glance it looks no different than many town commons throughout New England, there are a couple of landmarks to see. First is the iconic Minuteman Monument at the southern angle of the triangular shaped Green. The familiar statue is often believed to be a likeness of Captain Parker, but no one knows what Parker actually looked like, and the spirit of the monument is to represent all Minutemen who fought on the opening day of the Revolution. There is also a stone marker at mid-field with an inscription of the orders that Parker gave his men that morning:
"Stand your ground. Don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here."
If you visit the area during the summer, there are often colonial dressed guides that will be happy to answer your questions and provide context on the Battle of Lexington.
One more historic location in town worth visiting is the Hancock-Clarke House. This was the home of Reverend Thomas Clarke, who on the night of April 18th, 1775, was hosting a couple of famous guests - John Hancock and Samuel Adams. It was this house where Paul Revere found the Patriot leaders and warned them to leave, for the British were coming to arrest them. Tours include a 15-minute film on the history of the home, followed by a live tour.
Minuteman National Historical Park
The young woman reaches down the front of her dress and pulls out a small piece of wood that runs the length of her sternum and abdomen. It's thin and reminds me of the cedar planks used to cook salmon, except a bit narrower.
"This keeps me from bending forward at the spine. That would break the stays in the corset underneath," she says. "Often, the wood was intricately carved and engraved by a woman's husband or suitor as a symbol of his love."
At this point, I'm quite certain my own wife would not appreciate such a gift. Times sure do change. But it does illustrate that the park's re-enactors take great care to create an authentic experience for guests. Having historically accurate clothing is a big part of that effort. Outfits are often hand-sewn by the re-enactors themselves and checked by historians that specialize in the colonial period.
The Minuteman National Park Visitor's Center is the best place to start your visit. Because the park's theme is Day 1 of the American Revolution, it's best to get an overview of what happened that day. There is a 25-minute multi-media presentation that explains the events leading up to and including the opening hostilities. After watching, the rest of the park's exhibits make much more sense. Afterward, you can start making your way to some of the park's historic homes, the Paul Revere capture site, and the Old North Bridge. If you rented Zagster™ bikes, then ride along the Battle Road Trail and enjoy. Otherwise, you will want to drive to each location, unless you are in the mood for a several-mile walk.
Minuteman Guided Tours & Ranger Programs
The park offers a few guided tours throughout the season. Unless you are a fan of American or military history and already are familiar with the story's plot, I recommend taking one. Your engagement and excitement level with go from, "Yay, another old house," to "I wish history class were this interesting." Most tours are free. You just have to show up. Tours offered include:
- Battle Site Exploration - Parker's Revenge: Tour the site where Captain John Parker met the British for the second time on April 19, 1775. The results were quite different than earlier that morning at Lexington.
- North Bridge Ranger Program - Hear about where the Patriots made their stand and where the first British soldiers fell.
- Muster the Minutemen - Simulate how the minutemen formed and marched toward Concord and see a flintlock musket demonstration. Children will enjoy this interactive program
- Bloody Angle - One of the fiercest engagements of the day occurred a short walk from Hartwell Tavern. See where the Patriots pinned down the British for 30 minutes at this deadly location.
Minuteman by Canoe
Located a few miles south of the Park is the South Bridge Boat House. Visitors can rent canoes or kayaks and paddle the calm water of the Concord River to the Old North Bridge. Paddlers can land their boat at The Old Manse, one of the park's historic homes, and walk to the bridge. This is a great way to incorporate an active family activity along with some historical sightseeing.
Whatever your reason for visiting Boston, make sure you take this short side trip to Lexington and Concord. Those boring middle and high school lectures will all of a sudden spring to life and have you practically hearing the alarm bells ringing through New England and smelling the sulfur musket smoke as the nation was coming into existence.
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