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The New Henry in Town

By Corinne H. Smith

When Richard Smith moved to West Virginia at the end of 2017, he left behind nearly a two-decade legacy of portraying Henry David Thoreau in Concord, especially at Walden Pond, where he greeted visitors as Henry in the Thoreau house replica on a regular basis.

Last summer while Smith was contemplating his move, another Thoreauvian, Brent Ranalli, was exploring the idea of taking his efforts at historical interpretation to the next level. Ranalli did not know there would soon be an opening for some one to portray Henry David Thoreau in June 2018.

Brent Ranalli as Henry David Thoreau at Thoreau Farm.

Ranalli’s path first intersected with the Thoreau crowd when he participated in a panel presentation at The Thoreau Society Annual Gathering in 2009. The subject of the session was the publication of Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, a textbook which Brent helped to edit. He quickly felt a camaraderie with the people involved and attending the conference. He has been a regular presenter at each Gathering ever since.

Ranalli is interested in Thoreau’s fascination with Native Americans. He admires how Thoreau was able to take on a walking style that many of his friends equated with that of an American Indian. Ranalli has written and spoken about Thoreau’s gait, as reported by the people who were close to Henry. His research made him wonder: Why not study Thoreau’s gait by donning Henry’s style of clothing and portraying Thoreau himself? Ranalli began to gather parts of the wardrobe and the props he would need for this venture.

Meanwhile, Visitor Services Supervisor for Walden Pond State Reservation, Jennifer Ingram  was responsible for finding a new historic interpreter who could portray Henry and fill the void Smith had left. Over the winter, Ingram sent queries to members of the local historical collaborative in Concord. While she pursued some leads, none of the applicants seemed to fit the position.

Ranalli eventually heard about this new opening through The Thoreau Society, where he is a member, and contacted Ingram. She was immediately impressed. He certainly had the background and the interest; was in the right age range; and had the right build to portray Thoreau.

Ingram had a final test for Ranalli, however. The two met at the Pond office one day, and went to sit in the replica for an hour. Ingram felt that this experience would be critical for the prospective Thoreau. It would offer the reality of the interpretation. If the potential Henry didn’t feel comfortable being in this space, or if he felt he had to leave after a few minutes, then that would be that.

Instead, Ranalli stayed.

“It felt comfortable,” he said. “One could make a home there. With the replica furniture and the working wood stove, the house definitely feels authentic. It makes it easy to enter the world of the 1840s.”

He had not only passed Ingram’s test, but one of his own. And, he interacted well with the public who stopped by the house that day to meet Henry.

This month, Ranalli did his first Henry gig at an Acton elementary school. (He was careful not to talk to any classes that included his own sons as students.) He reports that the appearance went well. He was stymied only once. This was when someone asked what kind of car Thoreau would drive, if he were alive today.  (I suggested that Thoreau would be likely to take public transportation.) Yet, Ranalli feels as though he has already gained a deeper understanding of the author-naturalist by stepping into his shoes.

Brent Ranalli will portray Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond State Reservation on Sunday, May 27, 2018, beginning at 1 p.m. Be sure to stop by and chat with him as he “is” Henry at the house replica. Just don’t ask him about cars!

Corinne Smith is the author of Henry David Thoreau for Kids among other books; a frequent contributor to The Roost;  and is a tour guide at Thoreau Farm.

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Inside and Outside the Birth Room

By Donna Marie Przybojewski

“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk. I would fain forget all my morning occupations, and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is. I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” — “Walking,” HDT

I spent time recently at the Concord Free Library Special Collections rereading Thoreau’s “Walking” revisions. Henry’s lecture brought to mind the need for all of us to remove  stress and tension  from our minds, before we embark on activities to refresh ourselves.

Children’s book author Donna Marie Przybojewski at work in the HD Thoreau birth room.

No one can deny that we live in an age of technological overload, making personal introspection difficult and almost impossible to accomplish. Although technology has made life easier, it also has been the root of many of our problems. Technology pervades our lives and surrounds us with excessive stimuli that makes it challenging to relax and clear our minds. Cell phones, iPods, iPads, and Smart watches keep us connected with the world while complicating our attempts to be stress free.

Henry obviously did not contend with such technology, but he did find it troublesome to leave the world behind at times during his saunters. Even though life was a lot less complicated during Henry’s time, people still had worries, matters to attend to, and anxiety. Even Henry was not exempt from these types of troubles. We all face obstacles at one point or another, but Henry knew it was vital to abandon problems, thoughts, and stress when going into nature, and he was conscious of when he had not done that. Such was the difference. He was perceptive enough to appreciate that removing oneself from all that cluttered the spirit was essential to achieving clarity and health in one’s life. Whenever a person requires time for reflection and personal growth, nothing must muddle the mind.

As an avid hiker in the national parks, I adhere to Henry’s philosophy to leave the world behind and all that does not belong in nature when I am on the trails. It does not matter whether I am climbing to view Delicate Arch at Arches National Park in Utah in the sweltering heat of summer; hiking around the hoodoos in Bryce National Park also in Utah; the Sonoran Desert of Arizona; the Rocky Mountains in Colorado; or simply sauntering on the Towpath of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park near my home.

During such excursions, big or small, my mind is clear of all that creates tension in my life and complicates it. My thoughts are turned to lofty things.  As I immerse myself into the beauty of the natural world, my inner self emerges as it becomes refreshed and restored leaving behind all that is troubled and blemished. I gain new perspectives which assist me in reawakening what might have been lost in me.

However, there are moments, when the spirit is willing, the flesh does not cooperate, and I sometimes need a reminder from Henry when I allow the world to creep into my space of solitude during my time in nature.

Now, the same holds true for me when I am at the Writer’s Retreat in the birth room of Henry David Thoreau at the Thoreau Farm. That time is sacred to me because I can only visit once or twice a year. Therefore, the world is left outside as I spend time in reflection and creative growth. During this time, it is vital for me to experience the solitude and spiritual ambiance that the room offers. When I am at the Writer’s Retreat, I find myself energized with creativity and a special inner peace that enables me to exist only in the present, not realizing that eight hours or so has passed in what seems to be minutes.

On my visit in July of 2016, however, I am ashamed to admit, I did not adhere to Henry’s wisdom on that particular day. For some reason,  I unfortunately brought the world into the birth room that morning. Now, for a person who does not own a cell phone, I acted as if my life depended upon technology. There happened to be a number of pressing issues in my life that I believed needed to be dealt with, so I brought my iPad with me to check for the email that I was expecting. Immediately, I felt a difference — my sense of peace was missing. I brought the world into the room. Since it is my practice not to  leave the birth room once I arrive, this caused me great anxiety. The more I checked my email, the more tension I felt, which caused my heart to race and most likely, my blood pressure as well. There was no peace, no ambiance, and no creative energy.

I was flitting back and forth from my iPad to writing and contemplating. I felt anxious because I was not relaxed and knew I was wasting precious time and could not concentrate or write my thoughts. The more I was aware that time was passing, the more agitated I became. I felt nothing. I was broken. The room was not serving its purpose. Why?

Since I have never had a problem leaving my thoughts behind whenever I stayed at the birth room, this was confusing to me. The only technology I relied on was my iPod because I enjoyed playing the Thoreau Family Flute Book as well as Aeolian harp music. Both were the background to my journaling and meditation. This time though something changed. Even the music had now become a distraction.

This back and forth went on for about two hours when suddenly my iPod went dead. I heard no music. Shrugging, I assumed that the battery went dead and needed to be charged. Although I could not figure out why, since I had charged it the previous night. I went to plug it into an outlet — nothing happened. There was no charge. I thought thought the battery was completely drained and needed to be plugged in for a few more minutes before a light would come on. After twenty minutes, I checked — blank screen. My heart sunk. My iPod was dead —no Aeolian harp and no flute music.

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Henry’s words reverberated in my mind, “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something outside of the woods?” Precious time was being wasted because I was not allowing my spirit to leave the world that I was supposed to leave behind. What business did I have trying to contemplate and write if my mind was outside this special room?

Upon realizing this, I quickly shut my iPad and put it away. “I’m all yours, Henry,” I silently thought to myself. Without the technology, including the music, my sense of peace was restored. My respirations were slow and steady, and my mind was clear of all that did not promote the sanctity of this room. The remaining six hours turned out to be one of complete renewal for me and the beginning of an extraordinary journey that I would be taking in the months that lay ahead.

After my time at the Writer’s Retreat was over and I returned to my hotel, a surprising thing occurred. My iPod turned on and worked. Now, I tend to believe in guidance from other realms, and I have no doubt that I was being reminded (perhaps, by Henry) that if my time was to be renewing for me, then I had to leave all that was not necessary behind. It was a remarkable lesson to learn from one who never had a problem doing that. It is a reminder we all need from time to time — leave the world outside. Sometimes, silence can be the most inspirational background music we can hear.

Therefore, I am left with this one thought for the next time I use Henry’s room: “What right do I have to be in the birth room, if I am thinking about something outside the birth room?”

Donna Marie Przybojewski is a teacher and children’s book author, who writes about Henry David Thoreau. Her books provide many young people with their first introduction to Henry and Transcendentalism.

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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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