03 June 2011

Our Centennial Countdown Begins!

In 1910, any visitor seeking to find the thrill or comfort in visiting the Concord home of one of the world’s most beloved authors would have instead discovered signs posted that read “Private Property” and “No Trespassing."

Fortunately, this is hardly the welcome one receives today at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, in large part due to the brave foresight of several Concord residents who, in 1911, sought to both preserve the home where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived and perpetuate the legacy of the Alcotts in literature, education, the arts, and social justice. 

On January 23, 1911, the Concord Woman’s Club was able to raise enough funds to purchase Orchard House “with all the land in front of it and 20 to 30 feet in the side and back” from Mrs. Harriet Lothrop (aka author “Margaret Sidney”), owner of the adjacent Wayside as well.  Private donations garnered from around the world -- including a dime from a girl in Hungary! -- totaled $8,000 and were to be used “for papering, furnishing, also to begin a maintenance fund,” as noted in a Concord Patriot article.

As early as 1909, however, research was being done into establishing a “Corporation” to help save and preserve Orchard House.  On April 15, 1911, Articles of Incorporation were signed by the following founding members of the all-volunteer Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association:   Murray and Mabel Ballou, Anna H. Burrill, Charles and Elizabeth Darling, George and Laura Furber, Carrie M. Hoyle, Woodward and Bessie Hudson, Russell and Edith Robb, Abby F. Rolfe, Henry and Margaret Blanchard Smith Jr.  Several of these surnames resound to this day as a result of continued family involvement with Orchard House and other Concord organizations.

In 1913, John Sewall Pratt Alcott, the only surviving nephew of Louisa May Alcott, was asked by Good Housekeeping Magazine to write about his family and the home they so loved:

I suppose it was because it was right in their midst the people of Concord forgot the existence of Orchard House.  We tried many times to buy it, but it was not until the club of women of the town brought their united efforts to bear that the price was put within reasonable limits.  Two years ago they bought it, and when they had collected enough money they set right at work, making the necessary repairs and putting on the needed patches.  The house was in such a bad condition that one of the carpenters called into consultation advised Mrs. Henry Rolfe, the president of the Louisa Alcott Memorial Association, “to tear it all down and build a new one.”  The house has been restored, practically, through little self denials.

Board members gathered monthly in the Parlor of Orchard House or in Mrs. Rolfe’s home to review plans for and progress of renovations pursuant to the formal opening of Orchard House as an historic site.  With persistent fundraising and careful budgeting, the Board kept one eye on providing visitors entry into the idyllic and heartwarming home so vividly portrayed in Little Women, but were also intent upon providing a historically accurate context for the public to appreciate the talents and contributions of all the Alcott family members.

The first official Orchard House Guest Book signature was posted on July 13, 1911, with admission to the house being 25 cents.  Visitors came and went for nearly a year before a formal celebration of work completed on Orchard House was held on May 27, 1912.  An article in The Christian Science Monitor estimated 250 people visited Orchard House that one day.  Guests included descendants of the Alcotts and other notable Concord families, as well as people from across the globe who had been inspired by the ideals and works of the Alcotts.  Mrs. Rolfe provided historical background on the house, John Alcott reminisced about his Aunt Louisa and Grandfather Alcott, and Frank Sanborn also spoke.

The current stewards of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House -- a fifteen-member all-volunteer Board elected from nearly one hundred Corporators along with five full-time administrators and upwards of fifty part-time interpreters, educators, and volunteers -- still maintain the home in accordance with the highest standards of historic preservation and interpretive technique, enabling Orchard House to garner prestigious grants for on-going restoration and awards for quality tours, programs, and events.

Since the opening of Orchard House did not happen with haste, it is perhaps fitting that as the historic house today seeks to meaningfully commemorate its Centennial, the celebration is not confined to merely one date, or even bound by one year.  In April 2011, we honored the founders of L.M.A.M.A., whose dedicated efforts brought to life a place that had held sway in the hearts and minds of generations of Little Women readers, by re-enacting the signing of the Articles of Incorporation with several descendants of the original Board, current Board members, and an Alcott descendant:

This year's Summer Conversational Series & Teacher Institute (July 10th - 15th) has as its theme, "Creating a Vision:  The Power of Place - A Centennial Celebration of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House."  Authors such as Concord’s own Jane Langton will join scholars from around the world to discuss the power of place in their own writings and other contexts, as well as the significance of Orchard House as an abiding source of inspiration.
As time passes toward May 27, 2012, we will offer many other opportunities for fans and supporters to celebrate with us.  Please keep checking back on this blog, as well as on our website -- www.louisamayalcott.org -- for details, and don't forget to say "Happy Anniversary" when you visit us!