Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole — visiting the NH town where the Alcotts lived from 1855-1857

Ray Boas, Walpole town historian
Ray Boas, Walpole town historian

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.

Photo by Kristi Martin. Used by permission.

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.

Kristi Martin with Lizzie's piano.
Kristi Martin with Lizzie’s piano.

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.

The Alcotts lived on the west side of this home on High Street now known as the Alcott Apartments.
The Alcotts lived on the west side of this home on High Street now known as the Alcott Apartments.

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.”

Family connection

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.

The home of Benjamin Willis where Anna served as a governess.
The home of Benjamin Willis where Anna served as a governess.

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.

This playbill lists the Alcott sisters in their roles. From "Louisa May Alcott's Walpole" by Ray Boas, town historian; used by permission.
This playbill lists the Alcott sisters in their roles. From “Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole” by Ray Boas, town historian; used by permission.

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.

lizzie piano
Houghton Library, MS Am 1130.9 Amos Bronson Alcott journal September 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:

July 29,1855
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.

Map of High and Rodger Streets showing where the Alcotts lived and where the Halls may have lived. (Google Maps)
Map of High and Rogers Streets showing where the Alcotts lived and where the Halls may have lived. (Google Maps — thanks to Ray Boas)

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.

The home of Dr. Kittridge just off the town common.
The home of Dr. Kittredge just off the town common.

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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14 Replies to “Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole — visiting the NH town where the Alcotts lived from 1855-1857”

  1. I am trying to ID the painter of a painting my mother held dearly to her for many years and had it on her dresser for all her life, I once ask her about it and she said it was by a famous person, but that is all I can remember…………foward 40 to 50 years,,,,,,I am at the Orachard House where the book Little woman …..Alcott wrote……….taking the tour with wife the guide starts talking about her sister May the painter………………starts showing us some of her painting….. my mothers painting has a resemblance……. of the ones upstairs over the fireplace in the Orachard House, it is the correct size that May painted 11 inches by 13 inches, on hard board plus was unsigned……….all stuff the Guide said was in character with May Alcott Nieriker I am looking to see if the family had any connection to the Alcott Family can anyone check for me?I will enclose a picture of the painting….on my blog http://mayalcott.blogspot.com/
    My mothers family was Hammond from Galway NY Peter was her father he was rich at one time and had many influential friends but drank it away in the end.

    1. Unfortunately the link is broken and I could not see the painting on your blog. I think you have written to me before and I suggested that you bring the painting to Orchard House and show the staff and see what they think. Certainly any background you can bring with regards to the Syracuse connection would be helpful. Where it is not signed, it will not be possible to have a conclusive ID however. But good luck!

      1. It has been 7 years and may be the technology has changed! I am seeing your email to me and hope your well! I still have my picture but had it framed and still love it! that it thinks of my mother. I guess I may never find out about it and it does’t matter. I want to thank you even if it’s been 7 years and so much has happen.

        your truely


  2. it is not that important seeing I live 3000 miles away and I would being keeping the painting and passing it down…the story of where she got the painting is what I am looking for, I am going to research the family tree to look for a connection that way. I talked to the staff a few years ago and others who are not art experts, and none of them could help and didn’t seem really like helping me. The interesting thing is the colors in the painting, a lot of brown, on board, size and no signature… I may of emailed you back a few years ago but if you would like to look at the painting I can email you the attached painting reply to me at tswheel@gmail.com or look for it on facebook I may have posted the picture there someplace.

  3. Yes! All the reading I’ve been able to do suggests that Walpole was a very important place in the history of the Alcotts. It once was that the only things I could read about the Alcotts said: “In 1855 she (Louisa) went to Walpole, NH, and the family followed”—like it was Louisa’s idea and not an invitation that Mrs. Alcott had received from relatives. Nothing about scarlet fever happening THERE, and not in Concord. Nothing about the whole family being ill (except Louisa, who actually spent a lot of time in Boston during those days.) Nothing about the theatricals taking place THERE, and nothing about Lizzy receiving her little piano THERE. I wonder whether this little piano wasn’t something like the little seraphine that Mrs. Alcott always had, because it looks like it. It looks like these little pianos were the norm until the Beethoven pianos became more ubiquitous, since it had only been about a half a century since Beethoven began “banging the hell” out of the piano. Because Lizzy’s decline was such an important event in the life of Mrs. Alcott in particular, I’m surprised that Eve LaPlante didn’t include more of Mrs. Alcott’s letters about that in “My Heart is Boundless,” especially that letter of January 21, 1858 when the situation was beginning to be accepted as hopeless, and medical science recognized by Abba as just a guessing game.

    On Mon, Oct 3, 2016 at 6:04 AM, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion wrote:

    > susanwbailey posted: ” 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 guid” >

    1. Eve LaPlante seemed to focus more on letters between Abba and Sam. To be fair, there are a LOT of letters and you can’t include everything so I’m guessing she and the publisher decided the letters between her and Sam were best. I do have just about all the letters Abba wrote during Lizzie’s illness and the back and forth between her and Bronson is interesting (and thank goodness his letters are already published!). Many of those details will be included in my book and upcoming posts.

  4. Regarding your book on Lizzie: All the reading I’ve been doing (and I just can’t get enough of Mrs. Alcott!) has revealed that when it was possible financially, Lizzie attended school at Beacon Hill from the time she was 12 and until she was at least 17. What happened to: “Beth was too bashful to go to school; it had been tried, but she suffered so much that it was given up…” Was the real Lizzie as shy as Beth March? Also, during Lizzie’s depression, Mrs. Alcott thought of sending HER for drawing lessons. How would that be possible if Lizzie was so retiring? Also that love affair…sounds like a high school crush. Part of your book might be on comparing her with Beth March, especially in a timeline fashion. Remember that Beth March died at 19 rather than 16 as an earlier comparison says. “The tide can’t be turned so soon, Beth, nineteen is too young” moaned Jo when they were at the seashore in Ch. 36, Beth’s Secret. While we’re at it, you could also do a chapter, or a post, on Mrs. Alcott’s astuteness as far as mental health is concerned. She was so ahead of her time, and just so aware, regarding herself, her husband, Jo, and Beth with their moods and miseries. And always knew what to do. By the way, the podcasts don’t always play on my phone, so it might be nice to have a little recap of them in posts. Just a brief summary. Thanks and keep up all of your excellent work! Love, Elizabeth

    1. Each podcast has a full write-up with pictures on the blog which is referred to in the show notes where the player is.

      I am working up a presentation based on the book which will reveal the driving theories of the book — should be ready before the end of the year and I will reveal that here. Because I am not in academia and can’t take a sabbatical, this book will probably take up to 5 years to complete. I want to get out my theories now to stake my claim, through presentations, this blog and hopefully a published article someday in the NE Quarterly (on that one, we shall see!).

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