02 September 2015

'A Joy to Run': Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Walk/Run!

"I always thought it was extraordinary that Louisa May Alcott walked and ran long distances because women in her day were commonly forbidden such 'unladylike' and 'dangerous' activity," commented Orchard House Executive Director Jan Turnquist.  But Louisa May Alcott found a joy in running, one so deep that she figured she must have been a horse or a deer in a previous life.  "Ten years ago, when looking for a fundraiser for Orchard House, a Walk/Run event seemed like a natural idea to me, since it was truly in keeping with Louisa herself!"
Executive Director Jan Turnquist at last year's Walk/Run

Now in its tenth year, the Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House Walk/Run event keeps Louisa's legacy alive.  Running was Louisa's joy and sometimes her comfort.  When she felt herself coming down with an illness while serving as a nurse in the Civil War, she took to running in the early mornings to keep up her stamina.  According to Alcott biographer John Matteson, it was this physical stamina that aided Louisa in her recovery from typhoid pneumonia and mercury poisoning in the months following this ordeal.

Louisa's physical strength and capability always marked her as different from other women of her time.  She was "universally recognized as the most beautiful and fastest runner in town," according to Alcott biographer Madelon Bedell, and she was always, like Jo, her autobiographical counterpart in Little Women, considered a tomboy.

In the autumn of 1845, when Louisa was only 13 years old, she went for a run that she likened to a spiritual experience.  She sensed a "vital sense of His presence, tender and sustaining as a father's arms," she wrote in her journal.  She found more than comfort in her running; she found freedom.

In this spirit, the Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House Walk/Run was born.

Louisa May Alcott, portrayed by Jan Turnquist, kicking off the race in 2013!

 Over the past ten years, the Walk/Run has become a community staple; the familiar sneaker signs that mark the runners' path can be seen around Concord in early fall, commemorating Louisa May Alcott's love of running and the solace she found in it.

Because of similar feelings of joy and comfort, as well as a great admiration for Alcott, world-renowned runner Uta Pippig joined forces with Orchard House to become Honorary Chair of the race.  Raised under Communist repression in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Boston Marathon "stood for freedom in her mind," and she eventually achieved her goal of competing in and winning this historic race--not once, but three times, consecutively, in 1994, 1995, and 1996.  She is still the only woman to have achieved this incredible feat.

Leaving East Germany to run this race in 1994 branded her a defector.  Happily Uta not only later became a U.S. Citizen, but she also won the German Reunification Race after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  

Uta Pippig at the finish line of the Orchard House Walk/Run in 2014
Two strong women of achievement, Uta Pippig and Louisa May Alcott share this deep connection to running.  Pippig will be in attendance at the race this year to continue Louisa May Alcott's legacy and encourage all runners to find a similar joy and freedom.  Louisa's autumn run in Concord took place on a dewy, "perfect" morning, and you too can share in a similar experience.  Walk or run on a dewy morning in Conord in autumn--following in Louisa May Alcott's footsteps--at the Walk/Run on September 13.

Uta Pippig will not only be in attendance at the Walk/Run this year, but in honor of its success and the celebration of its 10th anniversary, Pippig will also be presenting her "Running to Freedom" program on Wednesday, September 16 at 7:30pm at Trinity Episcopal Church on 81 Elm Street, Concord.  All are invited -- runners and walkers or not! 

Louisa May Alcott and Uta Pippig are both trailblazing women; not only in the realm of physical activity but in their spirit for activism as well.  On September 13th, we will celebrate the joint effort of these two incredible women to bring freedom to others, as well as the wonderful effort of all our runners and walkers present at the race.  Don't miss these incredible events--history is still being made in Concord, Massachusetts! 

See www.louisamayalcott.org for September 13 Walk/Run details and for the September 16 "Running to Freedom" ticket information.  Tickets will also be available at the door.  

25 February 2015

Travel Back in Time with Welcome to Our Home

Many visitors feel that entering Orchard House is like entering a secret door to the past.  Walking through the rooms, it's as if the Alcott family is just down the street visiting the Emersons, and we are lucky enough to have a peek at their belongings and hear their stories while they're out.

But there's a way to visit Orchard House while the Alcotts are at home and to experience more deeply this feeling of traveling into the past.

Once a month, the final tour of the day enters Orchard House after the museum has closed to the public.  Not only will visitors have the chance to enter the museum at a unique time of day, as the sun is setting and the house falls quiet, but they will also have the opportunity to see and experience Orchard House as it was in the nineteenth century.  This special living history tour is known--with the sincerity of the invitation--as Welcome to Our Home.

As you knock on the door to the kitchen, the rustle of skirts and creaking of footsteps on the other side invokes wonder and excitement.  Your guide, a living history portrayer of a member of the Alcott family, invites you into the Alcott's home and launches directly into the family stories, engaging and enchanting visitors and bringing you back to her time.

This hour-long, extended tour of Orchard House gives an overview of the lives of the Alcotts and nineteenth-century Concord, including little-known bits of history sometimes even too anecdotal for biography or book. The guides have sought out these stories among the books in our library or even in the Alcotts' letters and journals, which can be found at the Houghton Library at Harvard.  The guide might have the chance to tell, with detail, about the time May fell into the Concord River, or talk more extensively about the inspiration for Laurie. 

These stories, however, truly come to life through living history, when the house is quiet and other visitors have gone, and they can often be told with words inspired by the Alcotts' own pieces of writing in their journals and letters.

When you see your guide, dressed in her historically-accurate clothing, against the backdrop of Louisa's bedroom, speaking these words, you have a one-of-a-kind experience of feeling truly transported to another era, a simpler time.

Children are especially enchanted by the guide's costume, believing wholeheartedly in the sincerity of the character.  Welcome to Our Home is an event for visitors of any age and interest level to experience not only the incredible lives of the Alcott family (and, consequently, the March family of Little Women) but also to feel immersed in nineteenth-century life.

As with our regular guided tour, guides have the opportunity to present the story of the Alcotts with their individual preferred anecdotes and bits of information, so there is always a new fact to learn or a new quote to inspire!

This month, this special Welcome to Our Home tour will be offered on this coming Saturday, February 28th at 4:45 pm (to 5:45 pm).  We invite you to experience Orchard House in a new way and to enjoy the artifacts and anecdotes with a little more depth and detail.  Step through the threshold of Orchard House into the past, and let a member of the Alcott family welcome you into our home!

Space is limited and reservations are strongly suggested for the tour.  Please call (987) 369-4118 extension 106 to make your reservation today.

12 February 2015

Bronson Alcott & Abigail May - A Love Story

The courtship between Bronson Alcott and Abigail May is one of my favorite stories to tell as an Orchard House guide, especially around Valentine's Day.  Sometimes--usually upstairs in Mr. and Mrs. Alcott's bed chamber, when I am introducing Mrs. Alcott's family--a visitor on the tour asks, "If Marmee was from such a wealthy, prominent family, and Bronson was so poor, how did they even meet each other?  What brought them together in the first place?"

My face lights up, and I clasp my hands together. "I'm so glad you asked," I say, "It's such a nice story!"

And the story goes something like this:

Young Bronson Alcott
Bronson Alcott's first attempt at opening his own school--like the others that followed-- did not last long.  It was not a complete failure, because his students learned exceptionally well, admired him, and other educators found his methods fascinating, but he could never learn to please those whose support he needed most: the parents of his students.  Learning well was not particularly valued by many, but rather keeping children in their place was of paramount importance.  Because Mr. Alcott refused to beat the students (which meant he was spoiling them), allowed questions in the classroom (considered permissive and not tolerated in other classrooms), encouraged reading books (thought to be a waste of time by practical farmers), brightly decorated his classroom, had real conversations with the students and valued their ideas, he was deemed incapable by the practical people of a small, rural town.  These were new ideas not seen in other classrooms and parents didn't know what to make of them.
But just as his school closed down, he received a letter from a respected minister in Brooklyn, Connecticut, who had called a state-wide conference on the deplorable condition of education in that state.  At the conference, he  had been inspired by what he heard about Mr. Alcott's new methods. This man was named Samuel May.  May was well-connected, a descendant of the prominent Boston families the Quincys and Sewalls, and he invited Bronson to meet with him.

Abigail May Alcott
When Bronson arrived at the May home, however, it was not Samuel that answered the door, but his visiting sister, Abigail. Bronson eventually enchanted both siblings with tales from his classroom and his beliefs about education.

After meeting Abigail for the first time, Bronson Alcott did what he always did--he wrote in his journal:

"an interesting woman we had often portrayed in our imagination.  In her we thought we saw its reality . . . In refined and elevated conversation with a lady thus estimated by our reason and thus offering herself to our imagination, we could not but be pleased, interested, captivated."

After that first meeting, Bronson returned to Connecticut to open one more school there. The endeavor lasted only about eight months, during which time, he kept in contact with the May family.
Eventually, Samuel helped Bronson secure a new position at a school in Boston. Abigail wrote to him, offering her help as an assistant in his school.  Afraid that the people of Boston would accuse him of favoritism, Samuel (with help from Bronson) discouraged Abigail from becoming Bronson's assistant.  Luckily for Bronson this allowed him to continue to pursue a personal relationship with Abigail.

In his journal, Bronson wrestled with revealing his growing feelings for Abigail.  He could not be sure of her feelings towards him, so he continued to write. Sometimes, when visiting with her he would even reveal mysterious passages from his personal writings as a way to hint at his true feelings for her.

In The Alcotts: Biography of a Family, Madelon Bedell calls their courtship "a comedy of errors" (41) , where the lovers avoided revealing their true feelings for several months.  Finally, however, it was Abigail who could not hold back any longer. She confessed to Bronson that she loved him. Shy Bronson, still apprehensive, did not speak the words but rather showed Abigail the many passages from his journal where he had written about her.

They were quickly engaged to be married.

Abigail wrote to her brother:

       I never felt so happy in my life--I feel already an increase of moral energy--I have something to love--to live for.

And Bronson again turned to the pages of his journal:

I then commenced living, not only for society, but for an individual.
I identified a human soul with my own.

There's something significant for me that the future Mr. and Mrs. Alcott solidified their love with writing, a prophecy of just how important writing would be to all of the Alcott's lives.  Somehow, it seems like a happy ending to a story that was only just beginning.

Bedell, Madelon. The Alcotts: the Biography of a Family. New York: Potter, 1980.
Matteson, John. Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. New York: Norton, 2007.

15 October 2014

Orchard House and the Power of Place

In 2012 Orchard House celebrated it's 100th anniversary as a museum. There were many events held that year to celebrate. For one of these, Pulitzer Prize winning Eden's Outcasts author, John Matteson, spoke to Orchard House supporters about the personal connection he developed with the House as well as the "incredibly generous spirit" that many who visit feel when they are here. We wanted to share the following excerpts from that talk and highlight some of the reasons we are embarking upon our new documentary.

From our Kickstarter Campaign Video - John Matteson in Bronson's Study

I offer my thanks to all of you for the passionate and durable commitment that you have made to the legacy of Louisa May Alcott and to that extraordinary place known as Orchard House. . . as I say a few words about the House and what I shall call the Power of Place.

There are very few dissatisfactions that I can think of that go with being a biographer. One of them is the fact that your editor and your agent very seldom want you to write two books about the same people. Much as I would have loved to spend a good deal longer in Alcottland, the push was on for something different and, hence, as you know, I have spent the last four years intently focused instead on Margaret Fuller. And therein lies a fascinating comparison. . . quite honestly the experience hasn’t been the same, and I have been asking myself why. Some of it may have to do with the fact that there’s nothing to compare with the giddy experience of being a first time author. Perhaps something more of it has had to do with the personality of my subject. Louisa May Alcott’s humor, her vitality, and her loving insights into the human condition make her an incomparably appealing person with whom to spend four or five years. These might have been partial reasons why Eden’s Outcasts was a uniquely fulfilling project, but neither of them is the reason. I truly believe that the reason why writing about Margaret Fuller was more challenging – the reason why it was so much harder to bring her up closer to my imaginative eye —was that, unlike the Alcotts, she has no accessible public place that is particularly hers: no living shrine that is sacred to her memory. . .

The epilogue of my biography of Fuller is called “Margaret-Ghost,” which is a description borrowed from Henry James. It is singularly appropriate for her. Without a place where people can go to learn about her, to see her belongings and where she slept and ate and wrote, one feels that she is farther away, almost but not quite beyond the field of our magnetism, resistant to our poor power to call her back. We have letters galore, a few journals, and handful or two of images, but she can never be present.

It was from this same fate of almost irretrievable remoteness that Louisa and the other Alcotts were rescued a century ago, when the foresighted founders of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association saved Orchard house from destruction and set it on the path to becoming the thriving historic site that it is today. Knowing Orchard House as well as all of you do, I am sure you find it no mere flight of imagination to suppose that a building can possess a soul. One’s appreciation need not be for history; it need not be for literature. One need only understand the preciousness of love and family to know that Orchard House is more than boards and nails, greater and more precious than paint and plaster. It is a place that welcomes, and it is one that inspires.

My own association with Orchard House began when I was in the early phases of researching and writing Eden’s Outcasts. As you may know, Eden’s Outcasts was my first book, and back in 2002 and 2003, I was taking my very first steps toward authorship. If you had asked me then to offer any good reason why anyone should take any great interest in me as a writer, I would have been stumped for an answer. Astonishingly, though, that didn’t seem to make any difference to anyone at Orchard House, and certainly not to our wonderful executive director, Jan Turnquist. She immediately granted me full, behind-the-ropes access to the entire house and even conducted me down to the basement to discuss the then-intended renovations of the foundation. Then she took me to lunch. She made me believe that I was just the right person to be writing Louisa’s and Bronson’s biography, and she kept on making me feel that way, straight through to publication. What a remarkable woman, I thought then, and I think so now. But what I did not realize at the time was that Jan was really just reflecting in concentrated form the incredibly generous spirit that pervades the entire organization that makes Orchard House go. It is a spirit that began with the Alcotts themselves, and, remarkably, it continues to be made manifest in those who preserve the Alcott legacy. Private person that she was, it might have taken Louisa quite a while to get used to the steady stream of admiring visitors who now make their respectful way through her father’s house. However, if she were able to see the welcoming spirit with which today’s custodians have made the house available to the public, the careful fidelity with which they preserve the authenticity of the past, and the spirit of goodness that touches everything that is done there, I think she would be deeply proud.

Now, I should freely confess that I am a world-class sap when it comes to matters like this one. I should admit that, in 2005, when my wife Michelle and daughter Rebecca took me to see the Little Women musical on Broadway, I was sobbing helplessly before the curtain went up. So I may not be the best person to consult regarding the way a person of average sensitivity approaches Orchard House. But, for whatever it may be worth, I have walked along the Lexington Road from Concord’s Town Center with an anticipation and an upwelling of emotion that is barely describable. I have felt something that is probably quite close to the sensation Emerson recalled when he wrote of being “glad to the brink of fear.” I suspect that, as you have walked that last gentle curve before the Alcott property comes into view, many of you have felt the same involuntary tightening in your throat, the same hint of moisture in the corners of your eyes. If you have, then you know just what I mean when I call Orchard House one of the most precious places on earth. If you haven’t ever felt those feelings, then I encourage you to take that walk again, sometime very soon. For unlike the ghost of Margaret Fuller, who wanders always in search of her true home, the spirits of the Alcotts are safe at home and always waiting to receive us, thanks to all the marvelous people, in 1912 and in 2012, who have made certain that they need never stray.