HI-Friendly Crossways is the Longest Continually Operating Hostel in the HI-USA Family of Hostels
by Mary Helan Vesenka Turner, PhD
As of April 2010, Hosteling International USA-Friendly Crossways, located in the bucolic town of Harvard, about 30 miles west of Boston, became the longest running hostel in the United States. Friendly Crossways, prior to its reincarnation as a hostel and retreat center for nonproft groups in 1947, was a traditional New England farm with a variety of livestock, a small apple orchard, and corn and hay fields. There was 10,000 square feet under a leaky roof with a farmhouse attached to a carriage house attached to a barn. When a Quaker minister, Leslie Barrett, and his wife Winnifred found the property in 1946, it was fairly run down. However, with their vision, and lots of help from volunteers who cleaned out the cow stalls, built in a kitchen and dining hall in the former carriage house, and furnished two sleeping lofts with army surplus bunks, Friendly Crossways was opened for business as part of the large chain of American Youth Hostels in the spring of 1947. Because the facility was not insulated and had no heat, it could only be open from late spring to early fall. With their Quaker background, the main service that Friendly Crossways provided was as a retreat center for peace and justice groups and American Friends Service teen workcamps. One of Reverend Barrett's first activities was to preside over an interracial wedding on the front lawn. At this time in the US, both interracial marriages and outdoor weddings were very rare!
In 1948 Martin Vesenka, a young teacher from Rhode Island, led AYH bicycle trips, staying at Friendly Crossways when the overnight fee was 25 cents. In 1949 a young nurse, Anne Alcock, attended a church picnic at the center. Martin and Anne met at a Quaker work camp in Mexico in 1950, and found they had this place in common. In 1952 they were married, and for several succeeding summers Martin was the chaperone in the boys' dorm and Anne chaperoned the girls' dorm. The Barretts retired in 1963 and Martin and Anne, who were living with their three children in Indonesia, purchased the hostel and took over in October. The price of an overnight had increased to $1.50.
Among the groups they hosted early on was a training of the first set of Peace Corp Volunteers who were bound for Ethiopia. With the proceeds from this group, and more over the next 30 years, Anne and Martin were able to fund a lot of upgrades to the facility. The cow watering units were removed from the conference area, hay was removed from the hayloft to provide another sleeping space, private rooms were roughed out, the roof was repaired, new water lines put in to accommodate more bathrooms, and the place was insulated and a variety of heating units were installed. Martin worked on interiors during his summer's off from teaching, and Anne found handmade quilts for all the beds, and oversaw the hand stencilling in the private bedrooms. During that period they were saddened to see the number of hostels drop out of the AYH system, as fewer bicyclists took the time to tour the country.
Anne and Martin's eldest daughter, Mary Helan, and husband Keith Turner moved from Hawaii to take over Friendly Crossways in 1996 upon the retirement of her parents. The overnight rate was $10 by then. The Turners have concentrated on exterior projects such as building ramps and terraces to make the facility wheelchair accessible, "generational upgrades" such as putting on a new roof and redoing the well water and septic systems, and green projects such as installing water saving shower heads, low flow toilets, and energy efficient refrigerators and heaters. In 2012, our 5 Kw array of rooftop photo-voltaic solar panels went live, reducing our dependence on oil-generated electricity.
One of the first groups that Keith and Mary Helan hosted was a family reunion and 50th wedding anniversary of the couple who were married on the lawn in 1947!
In 2009, after a particularly harsh winter, part of the backyard was landscaped to provide a beautiful wedding glade and fire circle. We now enjoy the privilege of witnessing and catering to catering to a dozen or so unique and memorable barn wedding weekends on our property each year.
The primary service, the one that allows Friendly Crossways to stay open for individual travelers, is still to provide a unique meeting space for all kinds of nonprofit groups, including alternative healers, religious retreats, music makers, artists, poets, and peace and justice and environmental organizations.
And, as has been the history of Friendly Crossways, volunteers have showed up in a timely manner to assist the Turners in major projects. The original cement and field stone front terrace, for example, was built by Soviet refusniks (escapees from Stalin's oppressive regime). When the Turners moved in an Australian hosteler, a bricklayer by trade, came at just the right time when stone wall and cement work needed to be done. Hostelers are always welcome to help weed the organic fruit, flower and vegetable gardens, or help pick (and eat) the harvests! In addition, Mary Helan and Keith have continued the tradition of the previous managers in making the facility and grounds available for local community groups such as town sponsored children's soccer practices and an organic food coop as well and special fund raising events for victims of natural disasters.
Mary and Keith are both Joan and Bob Beard award recipients for excellence in hostel management by new managers. Anne and Martin Vesenka won the Ruth and Bill Nelson award in 1984. It is HI-USA's highest award for managers who personify the warmth, spirit and hospitality of "keepers of the hostel". Mary Helan and Keith are 2002 recipients of the Ruth and Bill Nelson Award. Another family tradition continues.