On Saturday, Oct. 1
I had the distinct pleasure of touring the town of Walpole NH where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived in Walpole, NH from 1855 through 1857. I was accompanied by my sister Chris and friend Kristi Martin, a certified tour guide of the various Concord historical homes. The historical society has an exhibit known as “Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole” which ends October 22 but will start up again next spring. Town historian Ray Boas, author of a booklet by the same title, gave us the grand tour. Walpole has not changed all that much since the mid 1850’s so it was truly a journey back in time.
A precious artifact
The exhibit included the piano given to Lizzie by Dr. Henry Bellows (more on this later) and needless to say, Kristi and I could not resist touching the keys and communing with the spirit of Lizzie. There are precious few places and artifacts associated with Lizzie so each to us is sacred.
The Alcotts in Walpole
After ten sometimes tumultuous and often dreary years moving from one basement flat to the next (with some summertime reprises in homes of relatives to escape disease outbreaks), Bronson and Abba accepted a home free of rent from cousin Benjamin Willis. It proved to be a lifeline. The home on High Street was a duplex, just off the center of town.
Walpole is the setting of giddy triumphs and the beginning of a family tragedy. It is the back story of Chapter 6 of Little Women, “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful.”
At first the Alcotts found Walpole to be much to their liking. In comparison with the noise and dirt of the city, bucolic Walpole with its rolling farmlands and charming homesteads was a relief. Anna Alcott had served as a governess here back when the family lived at Hillside in Concord, in the home of Benjamin Willis.
Lights, drama, action!
Walpole is close to the Vermont border and Bellows Falls where people often took their summer vacations. This made Walpole a tourist spot as well.. A great many young people populated the town during the summer and a semi-professional theatrical group was formed as a result (which still exists today). Louisa and Anna took part in many productions. Louisa took the character/comedic roles while Anna took the romantic leads. They were both accomplished actresses who relished their time on the stage. World-famous actress Fanny Kemble even visited Walpole one summer.
A generous gift
Dr. Henry Bellows, “the gayest of the gay” according to Louisa, summered in Walpole. He was the pastor of the prominent First Congregational (Unitarian) church in New York City (afterwards All Souls church) for forty-three years, until his death in 1882. He hit it off with entire Alcott family beginning with Bronson. He was also taken by the shy Lizzie, offering his piano for her use when he went back to New York for the winter. This is the basis of Beth and Mr. Laurence and his generous gift which makes for “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful” in Little Women. Bronson recorded the gift in his journal in 1855.
The start of Lizzie’s decline
Walpole also served as the beginning of the first family tragedy. In July of 1855, Abba writes to brother Sam:
My dear brother . .. You may have heard how very sick my Lizzy has been. Scarlet fever took us all down in its various stages of virulence, but it fixed on Lizzy most tenaciously and her father and I watch her night and day with an anxiety most painful and intense, but she is [gaining] strength .. . .(page 192, My Heart is Boundless, edited by Eve LaPlante)
The story goes that Abba took care of a family who lived over a pig farm. Their children had caught scarlet fever. Lizzie, Abba and Anna would all catch it but Lizzie would nearly die from the disease. As we know, this was the beginning of a brutal decline which ended in death in March of 1858.
We only know that the property was owned by a deacon and the family in question were the Halls (pg. pg. 245, Amos Bronson Alcott by Frederick Dahlstrand’s biography of Bronson Alcott. Town historian Ray Boas, while unable to firmly identified where the family lived, surmised that they were nearby in a cluster of smaller homes.
Site of theatrical performances
Mr. Boas took us to the various homes where the theater group performed its plays. One of those homes was owned by a Dr. Kittredge who treated Lizzie and recommended she be taken to the seashore. Plays were often performed in the attic of his home which could hold some two hundred people.
I highly recommend a visit to the Walpole Historical Society exhibit. If you purchase Mr. Boas’ booklet, you will have a map showing the various sights in town. You can get a copy at www.rayboasbookseller.com.
With the foliage about to peak, you will find it a magical visit.
Here is a slideshow of the entire visit:
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