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House For Sale: Wales, Massachusetts

Yankee Plus Dec 2015


House For Sale: Wales, Massachusetts
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If you’re female, live within driving distance of central Massachusetts, are fed up with winter, love to cook, scrapbook, quilt, knit, discuss books–whatever–and have several girlfriends who feel the same way, read on.

We’ve found the place for you to spend a fun winter getaway weekend. It’s a 10-room, rose-colored Federal-style home on four acres, built in 1846, known as the Cora Needham House in the tiny town (population 2,000) of Wales, Massachusetts, which, although relatively unknown, is as centrally located in New England as you can get.

For instance, more than 30 colleges and universities are within a half-hour drive. Boston, Hartford, Providence, Newport, Lenox, Amherst, Springfield, and Worcester are all within an hour or less. It’s also next to Brimfield, home of the Brimfield Antique and Collectibles Show (the largest such outdoor fair in the world, open in May, July, and September), and close to Sturbridge, home of one of New England’s most popular attractions, Old Sturbridge Village–which, under new management, is thriving, even in winter. For instance, on January 31 there’ll be an ice-cutting demonstration on the mill pond there, after which you can get warm–and fed–by the roaring fire at the Bullard Tavern.

But to get back to the women’s winter getaway weekends at the Cora Needham House … Your hostess (and the home’s owner) is an Amherst, Massachusetts, native known to everyone in the area as simply “Maggie.” That would be Margaret Ullery, once a successful professional opera singer in New York and now an interior decorator, teacher, writer, and, as we discovered during a recent visit, an all-around fun person. She still sings occasionally, too, at local functions.

So then who was Cora Needham? Well, she was the daughter of the original owner of the house, who also owned the local woolen mills. Maggie told us that in researching her house’s long history, she discovered that Cora operated a little shop in the house where women gathered daily to supposedly buy pins, combs, ribbons, and such, but more to gossip and be together–sort of a 19th-century version of what Maggie’s doing with the place today.

Now, instead of spending just a winter weekend at Maggie’s, you could move in permanently. Yes, Maggie has recently put the Cora Needham House on the market. She’s asking $479,000, which, when you consider that she’s including almost all furnishings and decorations–you could simply walk in and take over–is truly a bargain. Why sell? Well, she’s owned this property since 1973 and feels that now may be the time to live closer to one of her grown daughters, in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Her other daughter, following her mother’s artistic path, is a graphic designer and nightclub singer in Los Angeles.)

Speaking of decorations, Maggie has over the years made every room a work of art, including each of the four “themed” bedrooms in the main house (one of which has an adjoining spa/Jacuzzi room), the two and a half bathrooms, the living room with its fireplace and beamed ceilings, the library, the fabulous kitchen with stainless-steel Jenn-Air appliances and granite counters, the family room with its fireplace, and even the cozy breakfast nook. As we meandered about with Maggie, admiring the hand-painted antiques, the Tiffany lamps, the Oriental rugs everywhere, the gilded mirrors, stunning chandeliers, and lace curtains, it occurred to us that this was a home that would be far more appreciated by women than men.

“I considered having men’s getaway weekends, too,” said Maggie, “with beer drinking, football seminars, and so forth, but then decided it wouldn’t be appropriate for a single woman to host such a thing.” We agreed.

A typical winter-weekend day at the Cora Needham House is, naturally, very female-oriented, too. It begins with yoga or some sort of exercise and a scrumptious breakfast, followed by a morning of scrapbooking, cooking classes, or whatever the weekend theme is. Lunch is often just soup and a sandwich prior to an afternoon of antiquing, spending time at a nearby spa, cross-country skiing, taking a sleighride, shopping, visiting Old Sturbridge Village…

Although Maggie’s super chef will put on a five-course dinner on request, often the ladies get “dolled up” and enjoy the early evening at any number of gourmet restaurants in the Sturbridge area (Cedar Street and Rovezzi’s are among the best). Then it’s back to the Cora Needham House to gather in front of the fire (in pajamas!), have a little wine, and watch a movie (Maggie makes the popcorn)–but very often they all just chatter about, as Maggie puts it, “whatever is bothering us–whether it’s marriage, love affairs, rotten husbands, children–anything. There are lots of laughs and sometimes a few tears.”

Later in the morning of our visit with Maggie, after touring the property, including the beautifully landscaped grounds, and examining the “mortar and pestle” stone displayed out front (once used by the Nipmuc Indians for grinding corn), we remembered noticing, among many family photographs on the stairwell wall, one of a particularly beautiful woman. Who, we wondered, was she?

“That’s my great-grandmother, Mabel Mason Van Vechten,” said Maggie. “She was one of America’s first female physicians and invented various surgical instruments and was also an inventor of the traffic light.”

“The traffic light? Really?” We replied, our head spinning a bit.

“Yes,” said Maggie. “And the photo next to her is my ancestor, Hosea Ballou [1771-1852], a founder of American Universalism. One of his books recently sold for more than a thousand dollars.”

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