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