, Salem, MA

December 18, 2013

Where every day is a tea party

Swampscott's Ford is VP, executive director of museum recognizing historic event


---- — SWAMPSCOTT — If the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party becomes a national holiday, or at least a day when Greater Boston hotels, convention centers and restaurants swell to mark the occasion, you will have Swampscott resident Shawn Ford to thank.

On Monday, the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum and the Old South Meeting House were once again witness to the Boston Tea Party, only this time it was a re-enactment of the tea-dumping event that took place on Dec. 16, 1773, exactly 240 years ago.

The destruction of the East India Company’s tea supply by the Sons of Liberty — a protest of the Tea Act — was considered an act of treason, Ford said, an event credited with sparking the American Revolution.

On Monday, Ford was at the forefront of planning for the anniversary celebration.

At 50, he has risen from being a trolley conductor with Old Town Trolley Tours to vice president and executive director of the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, a for-profit business owned and operated by Key West, Fla.-based Historic Tours of America Inc.

Historic Tours of America also runs tours and operates sites in Key West; Washington, D.C.; St. Augustine, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.; and San Diego, Calif.

Ford is a 26-year employee with the entertainment company, He created its international and domestic sales department, representing the company in the tour and travel industry. He’s also the past president of the Boston chapter of SKAL, the international association of travel and tourism professionals, and he has served on numerous tourist industry boards and commissions.

A native of Lexington with a love of history, Ford moved to Lynn in 1987, working for Old Town Trolley Tours, which is part of Historic Tours of America. He later moved to Swampscott.

The Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum opened in 1973 to kick off the start of the nation’s bicentennial celebration. Back then, the museum, run by Boston Tea Party Ships Inc., charged admission of $1 for adults and 50 cents for children, Ford said.

When Historic Tours took over the attraction in 1989, he was named its general manager.

The goal since then has been to update and expand the attraction, add ships, and do justice to what the Sons of Liberty and the event meant for the history of the nation.

Plans to bring the museum into the 21st century were put on hold, however, when the gift shop was struck by lightning and burned. The museum closed. A replica of the Beaver, one of the three ships raided during the Tea Party, escaped harm, fortunately. But there was another fire in 2007, and in all, it took 12 years to rebuild. The attraction reopened in the summer of 2012.

As head of the museum, Ford would like to see Dec. 16 become a nationally recognized day and to grow the annual re-enactment event with encampments, seminars and symposia “to really put Dec. 16 on the map.”

“It was the single most important event that led to the American Revolution,” he said.

An event in mid-December would also generate business for hotels, restaurants and stores, he said.

The new Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum on the Fort Point Channel is on the same body of water where Griffin’s Wharf — where the Tea Party took place — once stood.

It cost $28 million to build the museum dedicated to a tax revolt, but Ford said it did not include a dime of taxpayer money. The project is an example of a successful public-private partnership, he said. Historic Tours of America put up $6 million, and the city of Boston, through the Boston Redevelopment Authority, put up $3 million. The city is the landlord for the site, and the BRA grant came from mitigation money from a private developer of a nearby project.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority put up the rest through an $18 million construction loan, with money for the loan coming from a fund from user fees tourists pay on sightseeing tours, attractions and car rentals, among other things.

Today’s Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum differs greatly from the one that opened in 1973, Ford said. It features live actors and high-tech, interactive exhibits.

Visitors become part of the story and are given a character card and a role to play in the events of Dec. 16, 1773. Those who took part in the destruction of all 342 chests of tea disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians, so each visitor is given a symbolic feather. Visitors also get to toss replica tea chests into the harbor.

There are two authentically restored tea ships at the museum, the Beaver and the Eleanor. Construction of a third ship, the Dartmouth, is scheduled to begin in Gloucester in 2014, built by master shipwright Leon Poindexter, who also has worked on the USS Constitution.

The museum even contains an authentic tea chest from the Tea Party, the Robinson Half Chest. It’s one of only two known to have survived.

Ford said Samuel Adams and those who took part in the destruction of the tea were taking on the British Empire, the most powerful nation on Earth at the time. They were risking everything — their homes and their livelihoods — “based on an ideal.”

While other Colonists were successful in preventing East India Company ships from unloading their tea, only in Boston did the Colonists rise up and dump the tea into the harbor.

“These Bostonians did that,” Ford said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.