Louisa May Alcott’s summer retreat

A trip to a warehouse bookstore in the middle of nowhere produced a great find! I had just about given up the hope of finding something interesting until this book caught my eye:  Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985, edited by Anne M. Lyell.

What is so significant about Nonquitt? This is where Louisa May Alcott spent her summers in the last years of her life. This book was such a great find because of new pictures of Louisa, her nephews, the cottage she rented and the summer home she eventually purchased.

The book devoted a short chapter (chapter 9, pages 94-97 – all references come from these pages unless otherwise noted.) to Louisa with anecdotal stories of her summers in the southeastern Massachusetts seacoast town near New Bedford.

What brought Louisa May Alcott to Nonquitt?

Recollections from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian suggest that Louisa came to visit the family and fell in love with Nonquitt. He writes:

“I was spending a summer at Nonquitt and she came to visit a friend. I walked over to the cottage and sat an hour with her on the veranda. She was tall, rather rustic looking, dressed in black silk, her shoulders a little bent, her checks somewhat thin, her big, black eyes sparkling now and then with humor or irony.”

Louisa was in her late forties at the time, obviously showing the ravages of her constant battle with her health. Remembering how vibrant she once was, it is sad to read how much her poor health had aged her.

Renting the first cottage

Louisa rented a house in 1881, sharing it with her niece, then 2-year-old Lulu (daughter of younger sister May who had passed away soon after childbirth). Her older sister Anna also summered at the cottage with her two teenage sons, Fred and John.

Anna’s memories

Anna writes, “I went to Nonquit[t] where Louisa had a cottage, a lovely green paradise which offers everything one can wish. Here I rested, and for fun got up theatricals (as usual), charades, etc., and grew quite young and festive, and enjoyed my lark so much I didn’t not want to come home . . . we [Louisa and Anna] take turns and so keep our boys there eight or ten weeks.” (pg. 141, The Alcotts As I Knew Them by Clara Gowing, e-book version).

Still in love with the theatre

Louisa, Anna and sons Fred and John took active part in the summer theatricals (Fred and John are shown in the above picture). Having never outgrown her love of the theatre, Louisa wrote and rewrote scripts and took on the jobs of coach, scenery designer and stage manager.

Summer paradise

Louisa rarely did any serious writing while summering in Nonquit. Mostly she took great pleasure in watching her little niece, Lulu:

“My poppet is a picture of health, vigor and delightful naughtiness. She runs wild in this fine place with some twenty other children to play with – nice babies, well-bred, and with pleasant mammas for me to gossip with.” (from a letter to a friend, 1882)

The Pied Piper of Nonquitt

An anecdote from the New Bedford newspaper speaks of Louisa often out walking with her red parasol in hand, followed by a group of children (she was, of course the famous “Miss Alcott” by this time). The newspaper goes on to say:

“There seemed to be a certain magnetism about her that drew the little ones to her, and it was a familiar sight to see the famous writer seated on her porch, or on a rock on the beach, a dozen or more children grouped around her, while she told children’s stories to them . . . Then when a demand would be made for the retelling of some one particular story, she would purposely change some character or some situation in it. The children would immediately correct her, and tell to her in their own way, the stories she had previously related to them.”

Always writing . . .

Even though Louisa came to vacation in Nonquitt, she could never stop writing. She contributed several short stories to the local paper, the Nonquitt Breeze.

Buying her piece of paradise

In 1883, Louisa purchased her own property,a cottage at the northeast corner of Narragansett and Central Avenue (presently called Old Wharf Road). She recorded in her journal on June 24:

“To Nonquitt with Lulu and K. and John (Pratt), Fixed my house, and enjoyed the rest and quiet immensely. Lulu wild with joy at the freedom . . .” In July she wrote, “Restful days in my little house, which is cool and quiet, and without the curse of a kitchen to spoil it . . .”

Louisa took her meals at the local hotel.

Failing health

By the end of 1885, Louisa was troubled by vertigo and rheumatism. It was then that she began to destroy letters and journals that she didn’t want prying eyes to see.

June of 1886 was her last visit to Nonquitt before poor health settled in. In a letter to Mary Mapes Dodge (friend, and editor of St. Nichoas Magazine where many of her books had been serialized), Louisa writes:

“Lu and I go to Nonquitt next week; and after a few days rest, I will fire up the old engine and see if it will run a short distance without a break-down.”

She fought against her ill health and finished her last book, Jo’s Boys.

The fate of Louisa’s cottage

In 1888, Louisa died and the nephew she adopted, John Pratt Alcott, inherited the Nonquitt house. In 1907 it was sold to John’s brother Fred who added on to the house.

In 1945 it was moved one block and is owned as of 1987 by Daniel Strohmeier.

The store where I found the book

So where did I find this book?

The store is known as the Book Bear in West Brookfield, MA. They are decidedly old-fashioned, not accepting credit cards and not doing email! They do have a website (click on the name) so you can get an idea of what they have.

I definitely will be visiting again soon!

Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985 is available online through Amazon and other outlets (the link leads to Amazon). I look forward to reading the rest of this fascinating book.


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11 thoughts on “Louisa May Alcott’s summer retreat

  1. Gina says:

    Awesome find. I have never seen those photos before. That is awesome. :)

    • susanwbailey says:

      That’s the first photo I’ve found of an acting troupe of the period and having John and Fred in it was an extra bonus! The cottage she rented reminds me of the gingerbread cottages in Martha’s Vineyard (Oak Bluffs). I actually got to stay in one of those cottages. They are so TOTALLY cute!

  2. Gina says:

    I also love how she is quite fashionable in the photo.

  3. julie says:

    Thanks for sharing these great photos and fascinating stories of Louisa’s later life.

    • susanwbailey says:

      What I loved about it is that it made it seem like she actually enjoyed being with children. So often you read about how she disliked writing Little Women and she complained about writing “moral pap for the young” (and I’m beginning to see why), and how she didn’t like being chased by her fans. So it was utterly charming to read those accounts of her time with Lulu and the other kids.

  4. What a wonderful find!

    Did you know that chapter about Louisa was in the book before you came across it? That is such a great picture of her and one I don’t ever recall seeing.

    • susanwbailey says:

      It was a total fluke. We had spent a long time at the store and I combed through many sections. The things I found were things I had already (although finding the Katharine Anthony bio with the dust jacket was pretty cool, and we also found Margaret Fuller’s treatise on 19th century women. At the end my husband was telling the owner about my interest in Louisa (he didn’t realize I had already talked to him) and the owner mentioned something about a book in the Transcendental authors section. I had looked there already but noticed this book on Nonquitt in the section next to it on New England. I remembered that she had a summer place in Nonquitt so I looked it up and viola! I was very excited to see those new pictures!

  5. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for finding this book. These pictures were new to me. I love the the cottages and the picture of her nephews.

  6. EmeraldZen says:

    What an amazing find! I love the insight into Louisa’s later life…great comment about how fashionable she looks, how she loved children, AND I love her quote that she enjoyed gossiping with the pleasant mama’s of well bred babes who played with lulu…so unlike what we usually hear about Louisa/Jo – that she didn’t like sitting around with fashionable well bred women and idiling her time away gossiping…lol…But this shows her to be much more complex than that…great stuff!

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