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The Thoreau Houses

Editor’s Note:
This article originally appeared in The Concord Journal May 14, 1942. The writer, Ruth Robinson Wheeler, updated it for The Thoreau Society Bulletin #31 April 1950. “The Thoreau Houses” was updated in 2017 by her son, Joseph Coolidge Wheeler, a Thoreau Farm Trust Board Member

by Ruth Robinson Wheeler

It takes a little hunting to locate all the houses in Concord, which have Thoreau associations.

John Thoreau, Henry’s grandfather, had been a successful merchant in Boston. His second wife was one of the six brothers and sisters of the Kettell family of Charlestown, who hired the Wright Tavern to run as a bakery. Deacon John White married Esther Kettell in 1778 and lived in the house, which is now the southwest end of the Colonial Inn, so when John Thoreau married Rebecca Kettell in 1797, he knew of a similar house, which now forms the opposite northeast end of the same inn. This was owned by Ammi White, a cabinetmaker, and had been built about 1716 by Mrs. White’s great-grandfather, Col. James Minot. The Whites sold it in 1799 to John Thoreau, who sold out his business at the head of Long Wharf in Boston for $25,000 — a tidy fortune in those days, enough for a man of 45 with five children to retire on. Though Grandpa John died in 1801, this remained the home of his family — his daughters, and his son John, Henry’s father. John was then 14 and soon went to work in Deacon White’s store. Later in 1835-1837 when Henry was in his last two years at Harvard, his immediate family lived here with aunts.

Henry’s grandfather Dunbar (maternal side ) died in 1767 in Keene, N.H., and 11 years later, Henry’s grandmother Mary married Deacon Jonas Minot of Concord and came to live with her children, Cynthia and Charles, at the Minot Farm.

Henry's birthplace, Thoreau Farm, located at 341 Virginia Road.

Henry’s birthplace, Thoreau Farm, located at 341 Virginia Road.

This was a comfortable old farmhouse then located at 215 Virginia Rd. The house is still standing but it was moved in 1878 several hundred yards to the east where it still stands at 341 Virginia Rd. It is owned and operated by The Thoreau Farm Trust.

When Jonas Minot died in 1813, the widow Mary Jones Dunbar Minot inherited the “widow’s third,” which included the east half of the house. Her daughter Cynthia had married John Thoreau in 1812. John had tried keeping a store, which stood at the present site of the Town House and probably lived above the store.

Building where Henry's parents kept a store and most likely lived. Now located at 15 Monument St.

Building where Henry’s parents kept a store and most likely lived. Now located at 15 Monument St.

This building was sold at auction to John S. Keyes in 1850. He moved it to its present location at 15 Monument Street.

Widow Minot asked her son-in-law to run the farm for her, while she moved down to Lexington Road to the “old red house”.

Captain Timothy Wheeler House at 201 Lexington Road.

Captain Thomas Wheeler House at 201 Lexington Road.

This house, now painted white and much enlarged is at 201 Lexington Road. It is called The Captain Thomas Wheeler House. She lived in the east half until she died in 1830. This house is opposite the Concord Museum.

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in the old Minot house when it was still at 215 Virginia Road. In his Journal under the date of December 27, 1855, he wrote, “I was baptized in the old Minot House by Dr. Ripley when I was three months old and did not cry.”

The next spring, John Thoreau gave up the farm and lived with his family for seven months in the west half of the house where Cynthia’s mother lived on Lexington Road. Then came the move to Chelmsford, where the Thoreaus lived next to the meetinghouse; and the move to Boston in 1821. Back in Concord from 1823 to 1826, the family lived in the “brick house” probably the one, which stood on the corner of Main and Walden streets but was torn down. At this time, I believe, John Thoreau worked at pencil making with Charles Dunbar in a little shop, which stood near the present Scout House.

128 Walden St.

128 Walden St.

This shop now forms the kitchen ell of the Tuttle house at 128 Walden St.

From spring 1826 to May 1827 the Thoreaus lived on Main Street in the house next to Samuel Hoar, Esq., now numbered 166.

186 Main St., now part of Concord Academy

185 Main St., now part of Concord Academy

They then moved across the street to 185, which was then a simple square house.

Here they lived for eight years and from here in 1833 Henry entered Harvard, rooming in Hollis. In 1835 his family moved in with the aunts on Monument Street.

In 1837 the family moved to the old Parkman house. This house was moved in 1872 when the public library was built. In this house, Henry Thoreau began his school, wrote his first lecture, his first journal and his first essay.

Emerson's house at 28 Cambridge Turnpike

Emerson’s house at 28 Cambridge Turnpike

From here he took his trip up the Merrimac in 1839 and from here he went to Emerson’s house, at 28 Cambridge Turnpike in 1841 to live for two years.

When he came back from Staten Island in 1843, the family moved to a combined house and shop on Belknap Street where the family lived until 1850. Thoreau meanwhile was at Walden from July 1845 to the fall of 1847 and at Emerson’s through 1848. Belknap Street was then called Texas Street because Texas was very much in the news at the time when the railroad and the new station were built in this district. The Texas house no longer exists.

In August 1850 the family bought “the yellow house,” now standing at Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 10.29.30 AM255 Main Street. The present ell on the right was built later by the Alcott’s. There was an ell at the rear, which the Thoreau’s used for the secret part of their pencil making process. Here Henry David Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, and here his sister, Sophia, carried on the graphite business, for several years. She died in 1876.

The Concord Library has photographs of the old Minot farm house, brick house and Parkman house and they may be seen in THOREAU by Henry Seidel Canby. You can find the brick house in the background of Main Street in 1862 (page 10) and the Parkman house (which no longer exists), on the Main Street side beyond the library (page 102).

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Reflections of a Mother in the Birth Room of Henry David Thoreau

By Donna Marie Przybojewski

“Recalled this evening, with the aid of Mother, the various houses (and towns) in which I have lived and some events of my life. Born, July 12, 1817, in the Minott House, on the Virginia Road, where Father occupied Grandmother’s thirds, carrying on the farm. The Catherines the other half of the house. Bob Catherines and John threw up the turkeys. Lived there about eight months.” Journal, December 26, 1855

Whenever I use the Writer’s Retreat located in the birth room at Thoreau Farm, there is a protocol I follow. After organizing my books, journals, and writing utensils, I sit at the replica of Henry’s green desk and turn to face the wall where the bed would have been placed in the room.  DESK

I then reflect on what the day of Henry’s birth might have been like. As we prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth, it is good to remember that at one time, Henry was not the naturalist, philosopher, and social activist that the world would come to know. Henry was not a complex dichotomy on the day of his birth, but an infant cradled in the arms of his mother, Cynthia.

As a mother, I am drawn to Cynthia as I imagine that day. When David Henry, as he was known then, was placed in her arms after birth, what joy she must have felt cradling her new son. I surmise that she counted his fingers and toes, not foreseeing that a few years later, he would be missing one toe due to his carelessness with an ax. I am grateful that mothers cannot foresee all the dangers their children will encounter as toddlers and somehow survive.

Cynthia probably kissed his face and saw the beginnings of a prominent nose and clear blue eyes. Did he focus on her and the room as my own children had done?  At that time, she could not have imagined what those eyes would see with such vivid detail, not only the beauty of the natural world, of which she was so fond, but that her son would view with such clarity the wrongs that needed to be corrected in the world. Did she try to smooth a wild mess of downy baby hair growing in every direction? She would inhale David Henry’s baby smell that all mothers relish because it was too soon for him to smell like the woods with its mosses and pines. That would come a number of years later.

I feel a kinship with Cynthia. While embracing her tiny son, she probably had great hopes and plans for his future success evident by the fact that she promoted his education as he grew. She, as most mothers, would have desired happiness and a fulfilling life for her infant.

Also, I wonder if four-year-old Helen and two-year-old John ran into the room to see their newborn brother. Were they like my daughter, Ruth Rachel, who always insisted that she wanted a baby brother and examined my son, David, with the intensity of a physician making sure he was her baby brother when he was born? What were Helen’s and John’s thoughts? Was there a bit of jealousy on the part of Helen being old enough to understand the full meaning of having an addition to the family? Was she anxious to hold her new brother and touch his fingers? John, however, was too young to realize the impact he would have on David Henry’s life and the void he would leave in his brother’s heart due to his early death. He had no idea of the memorable camping trip they would share together that would be immortalized in a book.

Henry himself took pride in his stoic quality on the day of his christening. He proudly admitted he did not cry. There are other stories of Henry not expressing emotion, one being when his pet chickens were taken to the butcher or when he was accused of stealing a knife and he uttered not a word in his own defense except stating he did not take it. So, I imagine Henry did not fuss much, but took in his new world with silent contentment.

Being a good mother, Cynthia had a strong relationship with her brood as reflected in the many memories that Henry relates about his childhood. He inherited his love of nature from his mother, who took her family to the woods to imbibe in nature and cook their supper. It was she, in fact, who brought Henry to Walden for the first time. Did she even realize what an impact that made on his life and the importance the Pond would be throughout his life? She would even share stories of her childhood as Henry recalled in his journal when she spoke of sitting on the porch step of the farm where he was born. She related to him that as a little girl on that very farm, she would listen to the sounds of the night. Thus, she perpetuated the love of nature in her son.

Cynthia bought candy and treats to fill her children’s stockings at Christmas, only to have the illusion broken by a little girl who told young John and David Henry that she saw their mother purchasing the items and that there was no Santa Claus. Mothers everywhere can relate to a feeling of sadness when such innocent fantasies disappear.

Then, as all children eventually do, they grow up.

I cannot help but believe that Cynthia treasured all childhood memories in her heart while beaming with pride at the young man Henry was becoming, and when he became that adult, she had to call him by a new name, Henry David.

When he built his tiny home at Walden, it seems that she did worry about him. I can relate to her feelings of fear of how he would manage to take care of himself when my son moved to his own living space. So, when others find fault with Henry when he took her pies and cookies or say he took advantage of his mother’s goodness when he brought home his laundry for her to wash, I just chuckle. As a mother, with one child who has left the nest, it is a privilege to still take care of his simple needs. Just as my mother shared her love for me with her cooking, so, too, do I express my love for David by making sure his refrigerator is stocked. So, I believe that Cynthia shared that common thread as a mother with me.

Then, there is the issue of Henry moving back home and living there for most of his adult life in the yellow house. As a mother with a grown daughter still living at home, not by need, but by reason that she enjoys being with her family, I imagine Cynthia breathing a sigh of relief when Henry returned from an evening saunter especially during inclement weather, and she heard his footsteps going up to the garret as I do when my daughter returns late in the evening. Worry is part of the nature of being a mother no matter the age of the child. Cynthia, most likely, was no different.

I am certain that Cynthia felt the utmost pride in Henry. How could she not relish in her son’s achievements as a writer and a lecturer? She also must have appreciated his support for her concern for social justice. Following her example, Henry supported the abolitionist movement and demonstrated by word and action that injustice was a moral offense of society. Henry had learned well from his mother’s example. What mother could not take pride in that?

What we need to remember, and one of the most painful things that I reflect upon in the birth room is the fact that Cynthia suffered much. No mother should experience the death of a child, but she buried two of her children prior to Henry. How much more she must have been drawn to Sophia and him. As a mother who almost experienced the death of my son prior to birth, I can empathize the ache and unbearable breaking of the heart that she felt. Fortunately, my child lived, but I still share that bond with her. Then, the agony of seeing Henry during his final stages of tuberculosis when he could no longer take his daily walks. Knowing how he needed the outdoors for his own emotional health must have caused her such agony that she probably would have given her own life for his health. Such is the love of a mother. She probably remained strong before her family, especially Henry, as I did when I thought my son would die, but in the quiet of her room, she cried silently because of the final illness her son was facing.

As Henry took his final breath, Cynthia most likely remembered his birth when he took his first breath in her arms. As he lay dying, she was there to cradle him as he took his last. There was nothing that she could do to help him only be there with her loving presence.

At the moment of his death, could Cynthia in her deepest grief have possibly imagined the influence her son would have on the world and how many individuals would be drawn to him and his words in future generations? Could she even imagine that people one hundred fifty-five years in the future would continue to mourn his death just as she was mourning? Did she realize that because she gave birth to him that he would have a positive impact on the lives of thousands and would be influential in preserving the natural world that she so loved? How would she have felt if she knew that his 200th birthday would be celebrated around the world? Would knowing this have brought her some solace?

Therefore, as I look at the space where Henry was born, I feel a kinship with his mother and share her joy as well as sorrow. In this most special of rooms, I believe that one must reflect on Henry David Thoreau’s birth prior to any other activity. It is good to remember that Henry’s life and words are because of Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, a mother who influenced her son well. So, as we prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth, let us feel indebted to Cynthia for giving the world this iconic author, philosopher, and naturalist who was at one time her infant son.

Donna Marie Przybojewski is the author of three children’s books, 
Henry David Thoreau: A Discussion Starter Coloring Book, Henry David Thoreau, Who Can He Be?and Henry David Thoreau Loved the Seasons. Donna teaches junior high school and is a Thoreau Society Ambassador for the Thoreau Bicentennial.

 

 

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What is your something?

By Ken Lizotte
president, Thoreau Farm Board of Trustees

“One is not born into the world to do everything, but to do something.” Henry David Thoreau

This year represents a significant milestone in the life and legacy of Henry David Thoreau.

That’s because on July 12, 2017, Henry will have been born two full centuries ago. And on that day, Thoreauvians throughout the world, and especially in Concord, will pause for a moment to reflect upon the impact of Henry’s ideas— not only for entire civilizations, but for each of us individually as well.

Ken Lizotte, president of Thoreau Farm Trust, working at a replica of Henry’s writing desk in the Writing Retreat at Thoreau Farm.

At Thoreau Farm we will be pausing, too. It is right here, on the second floor of our farmhouse, on a summer day in 1817, where Henry was born. This is where it all started, within the walls of what we refer to as “the birth room” (now redesigned as a writer’s retreat), or, perhaps just as accurately, “the birthplace of ideas.”

What are our actual plans for this year? We will be sponsoring educational programs, guided tours, a book comprised of reflective essays by Henry followers, authors’ talks, historical presentations and much more. Our plans are ambitious and built to coincide with the big day.

And we could use some help! We are a tireless, dedicated merry band of Thoreau Farm trustees who understands we cannot do it alone. Join us! Roll your sleeves up and get directly involved in our Thoreau Farm community and ensure that this momentous occasion receives its due.

We’re looking for Thoreauvians like you to participate in what we’re calling a “Board of Activists” to help us carry out such functions as marketing, publicity, gardening, program planning, office work, events, and tours.

Share your skills and develop new ones!

Your commitment can be as much (or as little) as you wish. You’ll be helping us honor Henry in the most genuine way possible, by helping us spread the word about the precise location where Henry came into this world, where the spirit of Henry David literally began.

Please join us! Email me or our executive director Margaret Carroll-Bergman, margaretcb@thoreaufarm.org , for more information. We look forward to working with you on Henry’s behalf.

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