Category Archives: General

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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200 Years and Counting: Thoreau’s Work Still Relevant

By Harriet Martin

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. ― Henry David Thoreau

It takes only one click of a button to be assaulted by conflicting and contradictory opinions from both sides of the aisle. The country we live in today is at a turning point in its history. With so many opinions vying for our attention, it provides great insight to look back at the words of a pioneer of civil disobedience for desperately needed guidance today.

A prominent writer and abolitionist, Henry David Thoreau was famous for his essays on various topics in his era. One of his most profound collection of essays was “Civil Disobedience,” which postulated how much loyalty an unjust, corrupt, or in any way ineffective government deserves from the citizen who cares about the future of the country he or she lives in. Henry was thrown in jail because he refused to pay a poll tax he found unjust.

In this day and age, more freedoms are allowed to people who wish to protest for the issues in which they believe. After a controversial election, many people were concerned about hot-button issues like women’s rights, science, the environment, and taxes. Following Thoreau’s model of non-violent civil disobedience, people took to the streets.

Women march in front of the Capital Building Credit: New York Magazine

Women March in front of the Capital Building
Credit: New York Magazine

On January 2, all around the world, women and their allies left their jobs, homes, and families and organized in massive marches. The Women’s March in DC drew from 470,000 to 680,000 participants, The Atlantic reported. Each participant was armed only with a sign and her voice in the true spirit of peaceful protest. People chanted and marched down streets declaring in one unified voice, “We are Strong.” Other major cities that hosted a Women’s March were New York, Chicago, and in our back yard, Boston. In total more than 550 towns and cities registered protests and marches just in the United States. As well as us common folk, many celebrities turned out to show their support for women’s rights. Gloria Steinem was an honorary co-chair of the Washington March and Scarlett Johansson was an official speaker. Other celebrities marched with the people on the streets.

Another march that took place recently was the March for Science on April 22, 2017. This march focused on our planet and the steps that need to be taken to advance science and protect the environment. After a tumultuous election, the scientific community marched to demonstrate the importance of science to citizens of the earth. Protesters gathered to encourage policymakers to make policy based on scientific evidence; provide funding for research and discourage political attacks on scientific integrity. Many scientific organizations were represented, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the biggest scientific societies in the country. One outspoken co-chair of the march included Bill Nye. The march took place across the country and the world. Major gatherings took place in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. The march in Boston had 70,000 people! Not only modern times have used the idea of peacefully protesting regimes.

From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., some of the most ardent advocates of civil rights have used the idea of peaceful protest. Gandhi read Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” and it inspired him to persevere in his quest for civil rights. Martin Luther King also read Thoreau’s essays, which highlighted how widespread Thoreau’s ideas became and the impact they had.

Who knows, without Thoreau we might not have achieved much of the social progress we rely on today.

Harriet Martin is a student at Concord-Carlisle High School and a youth blogger for The Roost.

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Thoreauvian World Domination Faith in the Seed of an Idea

By Tammy Rose

Thoreau knew about the cycle of the seasons, the dispersion of seeds, about migration of birds and about immigration of peoples. When he lived at the pond, there were Irish railroad workers living in shacks (much like his) and he noticed the succession of humans, just as he noted the succession of trees.

“Such Irish as these are naturalizing themselves at a rapid rate-and threaten at last to displace the Yankees-as the latter have the Indians” The Journals, 1851

He wrote of Brister Freeman, a former enslaved Concordian resident who had purchased an acre of land in Walden Woods in the late 1770’s and whose name still holds title to Brister’s Hill and Brister’s Spring. If you are in the area, it is just the other side of Rt 2, inside the Hapgood-Wright Town Forest of Concord. He was most certainly not an “immigrant,” but one who had come to this country under the force of others. The Robbins House in Concord offers more information about him and other African American Concordians, including Ellen Garrison, Henry’s contemporary. We know of her through her letters, but there are many other stories, lives, cultures who are lost to time.

At Harvard, he took Italian, French, German, Spanish and was adept at Latin and Ancient Greek. I know plenty of young linguists, including myself, who were also inspired to take these languages as part of their Thoreauvian educations. He also had great respect for Native Americans and was adept at finding arrowheads on the ground, symbols of a lost culture.

Thoreau had all of these humans in his consciousness as he described the varied world around him. And the world has received his words, to the extent that they have taken in his ideas as their own. His ideas influenced the writings of Tolstoy and Chekov. Gandhi was introduced to the works of Thoreau by Henry S. Salt, who had written the 1890 Thoreau biography as well as other books on Ethical Vegetarianism. And Nelson Mandela, the ultimate symbol of Civil Disobedience, spent 27 years behind bars under Apartheid before he became President of South Africa. This is how the seeds of ideas get dispersed. Henry would have been proud.

Nelson Mandela's cell where he spent part of his 18 years in prison on Robben Island. He spent a total of 27 years behind bars. (Photo courtesy of Renata Nowalk-Garmer}

Nelson Mandela’s cell where he spent part of his 18 years in prison on Robben Island. He spent a total of 27 years behind bars. (Photo courtesy of Renata Nowalk-Garmer}


Is there any other American writer whose most valuable ideas have been exported like this? Alexander Hamilton? Mark Twain? Even Walt Whitman, who “contains multitudes,” has a voice for the modern era, but one which is difficult to translate. Walden the pond also benefits by being at the crossroads of education and innovation. Even the most analytic MIT student needs to escape to the woods every so often. Families who are in the country because of the H-B 1 Visa can be overheard on the shores of Walden on any given summer day. Close your eyes, and except for the sand, you could easily imagine you are at the U.N.

Speaking of politics, sometimes Thoreau could predict the future in examples from the past.

“The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.” –Walden

 Sound like anyone we know? Any popular ruler speaking to a mob before him? But thoughtful ideas spread like seeds, cross political borders without regard to fear or prejudice. They transcend, space, time, walls and even language. The only modern equivalent we have is technology; where the medium is the message. Whether it be stone, paper, breath or video. And Henry continues his previous section:

 “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;— not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.”- Walden

 Eugene F. Timpe published a book of essays in 1971 called Thoreau Abroad  covering 12 different cultures/countries (England, France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Bohemia, Russia, Israel, India, Japan, Australia). What would that number be if a similar volume were to be published now, in 2017?

There is a new project to be done, indeed, which I imagine would be easy enough to do. It is possible for us to translate Walden “into every language,” as stated above. And “carve it out of the breath of life itself.” It is entirely possible to request this of the visitors of Walden, alone.

Using very basic technology, contributors could be asked to translate and videotape themselves speaking a single line from the book Walden into a videocamera. A website could be created to receive submissions from around the world to capture and document the more obscure (and dying) languages.

What would be the biggest barrier to the completion of such a massive project?

There are certainly enough people across the world who would volunteer their time and language skills. The technology has never been cheaper. Many excellent translations of Walden have appeared in languages that Thoreau could have only dreamed of learning, including most recently, Farsi.

What then would be the biggest problem for this or any other project to celebrate the diversity of peoples?

Walls. A killing off of support, both monetarily and politically. Massive cuts to the National Park Service, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Increase in funding for Defense and Security, both terms being NewSpeak for their inherent opposites, War & Fear. A strict political separation of people which prevents cross-pollination of ideas, languages and people.

Keep the faith. Plant a seed.

 

 

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