READING – He visited two centuries ago, but his connection to Reading lives on and will be celebrated with the installation of a historic plaque in front of the Latham Law Offices Building on Main Street.
Other than local historians and perhaps a few current residents whose relatives passed on the story of his visit, most readers are unaware that the Marquis de Lafayette spent time here.
As a young man in his early twenties, he greatly aided the American colonies in their struggle for independence from Britain by providing French financial support to the struggling nation. In doing so, he became a hero for America. During the war, he and General George Washington forged a strong bond becoming lifelong friends. In 1824, President James Monroe sent a long-awaited invitation to Lafayette to visit America. In the letter, he expresses “the sincere attachment of the whole Nation whose ardent desire is to see you once more among them”. The marquis was so popular with the people that he was nicknamed “the guest of the nation”. Traveling with his son, George Washington Motier de Lafayette and his secretary, Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette spent 13 months in the fledgling nation visiting all 24 states of the time.
He made several visits to Boston, including during the Revolutionary War and again in 1824 and 1825. During his visit in June 1825, Lafayette, with a crowd of thousands from many states, laid the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument the 50th anniversary of the battle which took place near there on Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775. This battle has been considered the first major battle of the American Revolution. While the colonists were defeated, the British suffered heavy losses and realized that war with the colonies would be hard, long and costly.
According to a June 25, 1825, article in a New Hampshire newspaper, the Concord Register, General Lafayette passed through Medford on his advance to New Hampshire and stopped briefly at Reading. The newspaper noted that, “At Skinner’s hotel, Reading, a large number of people crowded to see him and were received with great affability”.
Originally Skinner’s Hotel was Skinner’s Tavern. In the 1860s a new building was erected on the site of the hotel and over the following years this building housed various establishments including two banks at once, the library, a pharmacy and a meeting. Eventually the building became what it is today – Latham Law Offices.
General Lafayette’s connection to Reading also included his friendship with Dr John Brooks, the town’s first physician, born in Medford in 1752 and later apprenticed to Dr Simon Tufts for medical training. While at Medford, Brooks became interested in the military and studied British military maneuvers in Boston. Completing his apprenticeship, Dr. Tufts told him that Reading needed a doctor, so Brooks opened his medical practice there at age 21. As war with Britain loomed, Brooks was asked to command a local militia of Minutemen. On the eve of April 18, 1775, he and his men answered the call to arms and arrived at Concord to engage the British troops. His military career was so successful that General Washington asked him to go to Valley Forge to help General Lafayette and Baron von Steuben train the Continental Army. While working with Lafayette, the two became close friends. Brooks eventually became the lieutenant commander of the 7th Massachusetts where he remained until the end of his service.
After the war, Dr. Brooks took a leave of absence from his military duties and retired to Medford. There he began his medical practice but remained active in military affairs as well as civic affairs. He served in the state legislature and was governor of Massachusetts from 1816 to 1823. He was considered one of the last pure Federalists. He was active in the movement to build the Washington Monuments and Bunker Hill. In 1825, Brooks welcomed back his old friend and guest of the nation, General Lafayette, when Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown.
Commemorating the historic bond between General Lafayette and Dr Brooks, their service to our fledgling nation and their connection to Reading, the town has granite sidewalk markers on either side of Main Street in the square. Lafayette reads:
GEN MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE
TALKED TO CITIZENS READING AT
THE TAVERN THAT WAS ONCE
ON THIS SITE AUGUST 1825
Brooks’ marker reads:
DR. JOHN BROOKS
APRIL 19, 1775
MILITIA LEADER – ALARM RIDER
1ST DOCTOR OF READING
LATER MASS GOVERNOR
For the installation of a plaque commemorating a visit by Lafayette it is necessary to verify that he spent time where the marker will be placed. According to the Massachusetts Lafayette Society, Julien Icher, project manager for the French Consulate General in Boston, documented Lafayette’s farewell tour through New England with a physical trail and a web app. The document that proved Lafayette’s presence in Reading was the article published in the Concord Register stating that the general had spent time at the Skinner Hotel. This positive identification enabled the organization Lafayette Trails Inc. to provide a plaque to the town of Reading acknowledging the historic event.
Local resident Peter McGuire actively led a group to promote Lafayette’s visit here. A plaque unveiling ceremony will be held in the garden outside the Latham Law Offices at 643 Main Street on Friday, August 19, 2022 at 1:30 p.m. Various personalities will be present including the Vice Consul of the French Consulate in Boston. ; Massachusetts State Representatives and Reading City Manager and Vice-Chairman of the Select Committee. Also in attendance will be Alan Hoffman, president of the American Friends of Lafayette Society and Dorothea Jensen, director of Lafayette Trails Inc.; members of the Latham family and Mr. McGuire.