Friendly Crossways celebrates 60 years of fostering community, social change
by Julie Moberly · The Harvard Press Friday, October 26, 2007
Surrounded by family portraits in the family’s cozy dining room, Keith and Mary Helan [Vesenka] Turner reminisced over the rich history of Friendly Crossways, the youth hostel and retreat center they took over from Mary Helan’s parents in 1996. The hostel, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, has seen a rich pageant of groups and individuals pass through the halls over the many years of its often intriguing history.
Farmer Brown & Family in May, 1898. This became Friendly Crossways in 1947. (Courtesy Photo)
Before its transformation into a hostel and retreat center, the property was a traditional New England farm, with cows, poultry, a small apple orchard, and corn and hay fields. The farmhouse itself was a rambling collection of buildings, with more than 10,000 square feet of house, carriage house, and barn, all covered by a leaky roof. When Quaker minister Leslie Barrett and his wife Winnifred first saw the property in 1946, they needed a great deal of vision to imagine the farm as the kind of youth hostel they wanted to run. With the help of numerous volunteers, however, the Barretts transformed the cow stalls and poultry abattoir into an attractive kitchen and dining hall, as well as two sleeping lofts furnished with army surplus bunks and [blankets; handmade quilts came with Mary Helan's mom]. When they were done, Friendly Crossways opened as part of the chain of American Youth Hostels in the spring of 1947.
Mary Helan credited the Barretts with creating a spirit of welcome and inclusion at the hostel, adding that they were also on the leading edge of social change: one of the first events to take place after Friendly Crossways opened was the outdoor, interracial wedding of a man from China, Mr. Lee, to his Caucasian bride [who was then disowned by her family in California]. Married in 1947 [on the front lawn of Friendly Crossways], the couple came back with friends and family to mark their 50th anniversary in 1997, celebrating with a barbecue and a four-tier cake.
Friendly Crossways is a full-circle kind of place, it turns out: when Anne Alcock and Martin Vesenka met at a Quaker work camp in Mexico in 1950, they discovered that each had been to the retreat center at different times. Smitten, the couple married in 1952. By the time Mary Helan arrived, the couple was living in Woodbury, N.J., where Martin Vesenka was principal of a Quaker school and where Mary Helan’s brother, Jamie, was also born. Before too long, however, adventure called the young family overseas in the early ’60s, when Martin was hired by American International Development and expatriated to Indonesia. Although she was only six years old at the time, Mary Helan remembers the experience as a politicizing one. “There was such a contrast between rich and poor,” she said.
During their stint in Indonesia the Vesenkas heard that the Barretts were interested in selling Friendly Crossways, and retiring. Intrigued with the idea of running the hostel that had figured so prominently in their lives, the Vesenkas bought the property and moved back shortly after Mary Helan’s eighth birthday. With young children and new baby Ruth in tow, the Vesenkas returned stateside to assume the tradition established by the Barretts. They immediately focused on improving the buildings and insulating them in order to run the retreat center year-round instead of the summers-only, seasonal business previously established. As walls were insulated and closed in, Keith said, Martin would frequently enclose souvenirs of the time within the studs: a newspaper, weather reports, notes on significant doings by the Red Sox—or one of the children—and all finished off with a signature and date. Occasionally when they make a repair, they will stumble on one of these time capsules, he said, and making them is a family tradition that he carries on to this day.
By the time the Vesenkas’ fourth child, Hannah, was born in the family’s living quarters, Friendly Crossways was in full swing as a retreat center for the groups that defined the spirit of each decade. In the [mid-60's, the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers for Ethiopia was trained here.] In the late ’60s, children from inner-city Boston came to Friendly Crossways to experience nature and living in a rural setting. In the ’70s, Mary Helan said, [former] Peace Corps workers, groups concerned with world peace and justice, and Gestalt therapy groups stayed in the rambling farmhouse. While the clients in Gestalt therapy would sometimes let loose with a wild, bloodcurdling scream and startle the family, the sheep took it all in stride, she noted.
Vesenka Family at Friendly Crossways in May, 1978 (Courtesy Photo)
The bucolic setting on Littleton County Road was an ideal place to grow up, she said, and the family raised ducks, geese, and sheep as part of a 4-H group. There was even one notable experiment in turkeys named “Waldorf,” a tom who came to an untimely end when he reached under a table crosspiece to get some corn and broke his neck trying to get it out from under the brace. Poultry aside, Martin Vesenka was also a gardener and a beekeeper, who encouraged his children to enter their animals in the Topsfield and Bolton fairs. [Since moving back Mary Helan has become an award-winning beekeeper and mentor for newer beekeepers.] Recently, Mary Helan entered a horticultural display at the Topsfield Fair that took home a blue ribbon for best of show “I’ve been trying to win that since we moved back,” she said.
Before moving back to Harvard in 1996, Mary Helan had a life of adventure far away from Friendly Crossways. After graduating from Brandeis University, she [was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, and then] moved to Hawaii to pursue a graduate degree in agricultural economics—and eventually her handsome scuba-diving instructor, Keith. Married in 1983, the couple lived on [Oahu and] the big island and welcomed children James, Daniel, and Rebecca while pursuing freelance careers. Keith Turner worked for many years as a[n assistant cameraman, director of photography specializing in underwater and aerial photography and] filmmaker for clients like National Geographic, [BBC, WGBH] and WQED, traveling all over the world with various film projects. Mary Helan [was the economist for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and helped develop an island-wide on-bike, on-road bicycling education program for fourth graders that was the inspiration for similar programs on other islands and states] and worked in recycling education for the Big Island,
“I was the recycling queen for the big island,” she said.
While living happily in Hawaii, the Turners were intrigued when they learned that Martin and Anne were planning to retire and would like to sell the hostel. But they enjoyed their tropical lifestyle so much that it took five years to make the decision to return to Harvard, Mary Helan explained. After overlapping with her parents for one summer, the Turner family took over from Martin and Anne and immediately began serving the varied clientele that has included a wooden recorder group from Holland, Suzuki violin players from Japan, and alternative healing groups, among many others. On the day of this interview, a group of 10 students from McGill University had trooped in the night before—just before midnight.
Running a youth hostel requires attention 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Mary Helan noted that it will never produce the kind of income found in private industry. Still, she said, the intrinsic rewards are worth it.
“As my mother said, it’s not a business, it’s a service.”
She and Keith both take pride in the comfortable, home-like environment they provide at the hostel and in the fact that Friendly Crossways is a family tradition, with three generations of Vesenkas and Turners having lived there. All three have been an integral part of the town, with family members across the ages involved in everything from community theater to the Garden Club to the League of Women Voters.
While they will continue running Friendly Crossways as long as they can, both Keith and Mary Helan hope to hire a manager sometime in the future, enabling them to occasionally escape to the warm waters Keith misses from his scuba diving days. With son James, now 20, at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts, son Daniel, 17, off to college next year, and Rebecca, a sophomore at Bromfield, it’s not immediately clear who the successor to the ownership of Friendly Crossways will be, she said, something she and Keith are philosophical about.
“We’ll see what unfolds.”
In the meantime, there are meals to prepare, weddings to plan, and beds to be made. Looking out over the fields where the sheep used to graze, her contentment with Friendly Crossways is plain to see.
“This is a beautiful, beautiful place,” Mary Helan said.