A Visit to Concord: The Old Manse

The Old Manse sits on banks of the Concord River, just steps from the Old North Bridge where the first shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired. The house has seen its share of history, and housed some of the great thinkers of America’s Transcendentalist movement. My wife and I decided to take a tour.

The Old Manse was built in 1770 for minister William Emerson. William was a patriot, and witnessed the battle between the Minutemen and British soldiers on the banks of the Concord River in 1775. He served as a chaplain in the Continental Army, and died in 1776 or 1777, leaving behind his wife Mary and several children. Mary married the replacement minister, Ezra Ripley, and continued living in the home. The house stayed in the Ripley family until it was acquired by The Trustees and is filled with the family’s original possessions.

The building has spare, thin white-washed walls and a few of the obligatory wallpaper cut-aways and original paint patches. It is cold inside, despite the warm weather outside, a trend which I assume continues into the winter. The fireplaces are small and can hardly be expected to heat the rooms.

Path to the Battlefield from the Old Manse
Path to the Battlefield from the Old Manse

After the revolution, Concord became an intellectual hotspot, largely due to the influence of Ripley’s step-grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1834, Emerson came to Concord to visit, and in an upstairs bedroom of the Old Manse wrote his essay Nature, one of the early important works of American Literature. Emerson attracted and nurtured Concord residents like Bronson Alcott (whose daughter Louisa Mae is more famous now), and Henry David Thoreau, who was everyone’s handyman.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1857

When Ezra Ripley died, the Ripley family rented the Old Manse to soon-to-be-famous residents, newlyweds and all around bad tenants Nathaniel and Sophia (Peabody) Hawthorne, for $100 a year. The Hawthornes were broke and couldn’t pay the rent. After three years of not paying the rent, they were invited to live elsewhere. Nathaniel’s friend from Bowdoin College, Franklin Pierce had just been elected President, and Nathaniel was in line for a sweet job at the Salem Customs House. They had installed a wood stove in the kitchen and “took the stove, but left the pipe hole” – a gaping opening in the kitchen mantle. In a great bit of literary graffiti, Sophia and Nathaniel scratched a few small lines in the glass window panes. They are very cool to look at now, but I can’t imagine the Ripley’s were pleased. Fortunately for us, the cost of glass window panes was high, so they were not replaced. My favorite was written by Sophia:

“Endymion painted in this
room – finished January 20 1844

Una Hawthorne
stood on this window
sill January 22d 1845
while the trees were all
glass chandeliers – a goodly
show which she liked
much tho only ten
months old”

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, etching by Stephen Alonzo Schoff

In the upstairs studio, in the room where Emerson wrote Nature, Hawthorne wrote the stories collected in Mosses from an Old Manse. The windows of the room look out over the orchard and woods of the farm. One assumes Emerson wrote facing the windows, but Hawthorne wrote with his back to them on a small desk Thoreau built into the wall. Mosses from an Old Manse is the source of many high school literature assignments. I remember an excellent movie of “Young Goodman Brown” that we watched on Halloween along with the animated Disney movie of the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” during American Lit class.

Hawthorne's Desk at Old Manse, built by Henry David Thoreau
Hawthorne’s Desk, built by Henry David Thoreau

Two small landscapes hang on the wall of one of the downstairs rooms. They are replicas of Sophia Hawthorne’s paintings that now hang in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Sophia’s diamond etched graffiti memorialized the finishing of a painting. I had a fleeting thought of a newlywed couple, each working in their own studios. That warm thought was quickly dashed. Our tour guide told us that Nathaniel Hawthorne asked his wife to stop painting, as her reputation exceeded his. She did stop painting, although I couldn’t find any evidence in my vast internet research to back up the guide’s claims. Was she too burdened by motherhood and running the household? Or was her husband’s ego too fragile? At any rate, she stopped painting.

Oil on linen, Villa Menaggio, Lago di Como – Sophia Peabody

The tour also focused on one less famous resident of the home, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, whose name is truly one of old New England. Sarah Ripley serves as a reminder of women’s place in this society, even one as enlightened as nineteenth century Concord. Although she was denied much of an education, she taught herself seven languages (French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, one I don’t remember and Sanskrit). She tutored young men, preparing them for entry into Harvard and a world of intellectual enrichment that she would never know. Harvard would bar women from attending for a hundred years after Ripley’s death.

The Emerson family’s grandfather clock stands in the sitting room. At the top of the hour, our tour guide hushed the group. As we listened to the clock chime the hour, he said, “This clock chimed the hour as Mary Emerson watched the British soldiers march to the bridge, and chimed as she hid in this room with her children as the fighting broke out. The clock chimed at the first moments of our country’s history, and still chimes now.”

Emerson - Ripley Grandfather Clock at Old Manse
Emerson – Ripley Grandfather Clock at Old Manse

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