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.