by Bob Graham
copyright March 1990
Two decades before Heinrich Schliemann, armed with a fortune in California gold, and a pocket edition of Homer in his breast pocket, went off to dig up Priam's treasure and become the "father of modern archeology," an American original, Henry David Thoreau, carrying his surveyor's instruments, and botanical specimens in his hat, was making a detailed observational inquiry into seventeenth century construction techniques as evidenced in the remains of the earliest domestic structures in the township of Concord, Massachusetts. Schliemann traveled the world; Thoreau had "traveled a good deal in Concord".
"What honest, homely, earth-loving, unaspiring houses they used to live in! Take that on Conantum for instance & so low you can put your hands on the eaves behind. There are few whose pride could stoop to enter such a house today."
Thoreau (1817-1861) was a man of many hats. In 1847, the year of the tenth anniversary of his graduation from Harvard University, he received a letter from the secretary of his class asking the routine questions about his life since graduation for the class book. When he got around to responding, some seven months later, he claimed as his trades "Schoolmaster, a Private Tutor, a Surveyor, a Gardener, a Farmer, a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster." To these, in WALDEN, he added "self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms," "surveyor of forest paths," and "[looking] after the wild stock of the town ." In regard to the latter, though he made important contributions as a naturalist, his observations on nature most often transcended those of trained scientists.
In the fifteen published volumes of his journal, and his six books, there are many mentions of trades and crafts; the hunter, trapper, canoe maker, stone cutter, ditch digger, but not pencil maker -- the family business. Thoreau had invented several improved manufacturing methods, notably, the method by which the graphite was ground to extreme fineness, which were, necessarily, kept quite secret. One craft which is mentioned frequently is that of house carpentry.
Thoreau was an experienced carpenter. By 1840, his catalog of the books in his library included Builder's Companion. One of his duties as a member of the household of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841-42, and again in 1847, was that of handyman. During the latter stay he assisted the orphic Bronson Alcott, recently returned from the ill-fated Fruitlands experiment, in building a "summerhouse" for Emerson -- a whimsical structure of Alcott's design, which the poet Ellery Channing referred to as an "eternal pancake, which not even the all-powerful rays of the Alcott sun have quite baked." During the many months of its building, and for many years after, it was the wonder and amusement of the townsfolk.
Along more practical lines than building to Alcott's "natural curve", Thoreau had built two houses. In 1844 he and his father had built a new family home on Texas (now Belknap) Street near the railroad station. It was a two-story square building with the door off to one side and a lean-to shed to house the family pencil-making business. After starting construction they discovered that Mrs. Thoreau and the carpenter who had drawn the plans had forgotten to provide for stairs.
In the spring of the following year, with an ax borrowed of Alcott, he began construction of a house for himself on Emerson's property in the woods next to Walden Pond. There he would live for the two years during which he wrote A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS, a travelog of an excursion to Maine, and the first of many drafts of WALDEN. It was not merely a hut, or shack, as is popularly thought, but rather a sturdy one-room house, complete with attic, cellar, fireplace, and plastered walls, where a busy writer might live comfortably, but cheaply, and free from interruption. Details of the construction and the carefully itemized cost ($28.12 1/2) of the house appear in WALDEN.
In the spring of 1850, while on an extended trip surveying for Moses Emerson in Haverhill, he visited a garrison house said to have been built about 1690-1700. He described in his journal the form of the bricks used, the size and placement of the windows, the fireplaces and oven, and what were said to be the original doors. This visit apparently sparked an interest which two years later began the first of many visits he made over a period of several years to an empty house three quarters of a mile from Concord Village, just across Hunt's Bridge on the Lowell Road. The Hunt Farm was on property originally granted to Governor Winthrop in 1638.
"April 9,1852. Went into the old Hunt house which Uncle Abel [Hunt] said was built over one hundred and fifty years ago. The second story projects five or six inches over the first, the garret a foot over the second at the gables. There are two large rooms, one above the other, though the walls are low. The fireplace in the lower room large, with a high shelf of wood painted or stained to represent mahogany. The whole side panelled. The main timbers about fifteen inches square of pine or oak, and for the most part the frame exposed. Where cased, in the best rooms, sixteen inches or more in width. The sills of the house appearing in the lower rooms all around the house, and cased, making a low shelf to put your feet on. No weather boards on the corners outside; the raw edges of the clapboards."
Five days later he again talked with the seventy-year old Concord resident.
"Abel Hunt tells me to-night that he remembers that the date of the old Hunt house used to be on the chimney, and it was 1703 or 1704, within a year or two; that Governor Winthrop sold the farm to a Hunt, and they have the deed now. There is one of the old-fashioned diamond squares set in lead still in the back of the house."
On the first of February the following year Thoreau was surveying the Hunt farm, which had just been purchased by Edmond Hosmer, the "long-headed farmer" of WALDEN, and of whom Nathaniel Hawthorne once referred as the "spicy farming sage." On his way to work he met and chatted with Doctor Josiah Bartlett, a familiar figure in Concord throughout his fifty-eight years of practice, who lived on the edge of the village beside the road leading to the farm.
"Dr. Bartlett tells me it was Adam Winthrop, a grandson of the Governor who sold the farm to Hunt in 1701. I saw the old window, some eighteen inches square, of diamond squares, four or five inches across, set in lead, on the back side of the house." [Note: Larger, double-hung windows would have long before replaced most of the small, leaded glass casement windows as old houses were modernized.] One assumes that the old window in question was high up on the house, as Thoreau was never without some means of measuring things, and would only have estimated sizes if he was unable to reach it.
And that fall he recorded,
"September 3, 1853. I saw this afternoon, on the chimney of the old Hunt house, in mortar filling an oblong square cavity apparently made when the chimney was, the date 1703. The rafters in the garret are for the most part oak hewn, and more slender (though sufficiently strong and quite sound) than any sawed ones I ever saw. Oak in the old houses, pine in the new."
It wasn't until almost two years later, on a walk with Ellery Channing and Daniel Ricketson that he made a further journal entry regarding the house&--apparently without referring to the earlier entries, as some of the observations are repeated, but he noted additionally that,
"... between the boards and the plastering, in all the lower story, at least, large-sized bricks are set on their edges in clay. Was it not partly to make it bullet-proof? They had apparently been layed from within after the boarding -- from the fresh marks of the boards on the clay. An Egyptian-shaped fireplace or frame in the chamber and painted or spotted panels to the door. Large old-fashioned latches and bolts, blacksmith-made?"
Note: The following illustrative sketches are by Thoreau from his journal.
A few days later on October 3.1855. a journal entry reads,
"P.M. Rode to see some old houses in Fairhaven, etc., etc.
"The old Woods place, a quarter mile oft the road, looked like this. The end showed the great stone chimney, all stone to top, except the hearth. The upper story overlapped about eighteen inches with the ornamental points of timbers dropping from it. Above this, in front, the shingles were rounded, scale-like. There was one half of a diamond window left in front, set in lead, very thin lead, with a groove in each side for sash, and a narrow slit-window for firing through, also another on the farther end. Chimney mortared. The old latch to the front door was primitive, apparently made by village blacksmith."
"Also an old house in the village of Fairhaven, said to have been standing since Philip's War [1675-76]; a small house, a ten-footer, with one end and the chimney wholly of stone. The chimney quite handsome, of this form, looking down on it."
Late in December of 1856, and early the following January, Thoreau had surveyed the Lee Farm, originally owned by Henry Woodhouse, who came from London to Concord about 1650. It had recently been taken by Captain Elwell as payment of a debt owed by Samuel Wheeler. On the fourteenth of February, when Thoreau had just returned from having delivered his lecture WALKING to the Lyceum in Worcester, he learned that the old Lee house had burned down the previous evening. Believing that it might be the oldest house in town, he immediately set out to view the ruins. When he arrived he found only two chimneys standing and too much smoldering fire to examine anything.
The following morning, after a rain, he returned. Laying boards on bricks he was able to bridge the still very hot ashes and reach the base of the chimney.
"The inscription was on the east side of the east chimney (which had fallen) at the bottom, in a cupboard on the west side of the late parlor, which was on a level with the ground on the east and with the cellar on the extreme west and the cellar kitchen on the north.....It appeared to have been made by a finger or a stick, in the mortar when fresh, which had been spread an inch and a quarter thick over the bricks, and where it was too dry and hard, to have been pecked with the point of a trowel. The first three words and the "16" were perfectly plain, the "5" was tolerable plain, though some took it for a three, but I could feel it yet more distinctly. The mortar was partly knocked off the rest, apparently by the fire, but the top of some capital letter like a "C," and the letters "netty" were about as plain as represented, and the rest looked like "Henry" (Woodhouse?) or "l(t?) Kintry(?)" the "y" at the end crowded for want of room next the side. The last two words quite uncertain.
"This chimney, as well as the more recent westerly one, had been built chiefly with clay mortar, and I brought away a brick, of a soft kind, eight and seven-eighths inches --some nine--long, four and one-fourth plus wide, varying one fourth, and two and one-half thick, though there were some much smaller near it, probably not so old. The clay (for mortar) was about as hard as mortar on it. The mortar in which the inscription was made contained considerable straw(?) and some lumps of clay, now crumbling like sand, with the lime and sand. The outside was white, but the interior ash-colored.
"I discovered that the mortar of the inscription was not so old as the chimney, for the bricks beneath it, over which it was spread, were covered with soot, uniformly to a height of seven or eight feet, and the mortar fell off with an eighth of an inch thickness of this soot adhering to it, as if the recess had been a fireplace boarded over...
"February 16, 8 a.m. To Lee house site again. The old part of the chimney, judging from the clay and the size of the brick, was seven feet wide east and west and about ten feet north and south. There was the back side of an old oven visible on the south side (late the front of the house) under the stairs (that had been), which had been filled up with large bricks in clay.
"The chimney above and behind the oven and this recess had been filled in with great stones, many much bigger than one's head, packed in clay mixed with the coarsest meadow hay. Sometimes there were masses of pure clay and hay a foot in diameter. There was a very great proportion of the hay, consisting of cut-grass, three-sided carex, ferns, and still stouter woody stems, apparently a piece of corn-husk one inch wide and several long. And impressions in the clay of various plants, grasses, ferns, etc., exactly like those in coal in character. These are perhaps the oldest pressed plants in Concord.
"Though the inscription was in a coarse mortar mixed with straw, the sooty bricks over which it was spread were laid in better mortar, without straw and yet the mass of the bricks directly above this recess in the chimney, were all laid in clay. Perhaps they had used plastering there instead of clay because it was a fireplace. A thin coating of whiter and finer mortar or plastering without straw had been laid over the sloping and rounded chimney above the recess and on each side and below it, and this covered many small bricks mingled with the large ones, and though this looked more modern, the straw-mixed mortar of the inscription overlapped at the top about a foot, proving the coarser mortar the more recent.
"The inscription, then, was made after the chimney was built, when some alteration was made, and small brick had come to be used. Yet so long ago that straw was mixed with mortar."
The next day, the seventeenth of February, he returned to the Hunt house to compare bricks and mortar with that of the Lee house.
"P.M. To the old Hunt house. The bricks of the old chimney vary from eight to eight and one-half inches in length, but the oldest in the chimney in the rear part are nine to nine and one-fourth to two and one-half thick. This the size also of the bricks in clay behind the boarding of the house. There is straw in the clay and also in the lime used as plastering in both these chimneys. That on the first has a singular blue color. The house about forty-nine feet on the front by twenty. The middle of door about twenty-five and a half from east end. House from fourteen to fifteen feet high. There was a door at the west end within Abel Hunt's remembrance; you can see where. The rear part has a wholly oak frame, while the front is pine. But I doubt if it is older, because the boards on the main part are feather-edged even within this part, as if they had once been on the outside. E. Hosmer says that his father said that Dr. Lee told him that he put on the whole upper, i.e. third, story of the Lee house. Says his old house where Everett lives was dated 1736."
A few days later, on the twenty-second. he walked to the west side of town to compare the Hunt and Lee houses with yet another house.
"The Tommy Wheeler house, like the Hunt house, has the sills projecting inside. It's bricks are about the same size with those of the Lee chimney. They are eight and three-quarters to nine inches long by four and a half, but not in clay. A part at least of the back side has bricks on their edges in clay, as at the Hunt house, and there are bricks in clay flat on the plate, close under the roof at the eaves. I think that by the size of the bricks you cannot tell the age of an old house within fifty years."
A year later he nearly missed a golden opportunity--to examine the inner structure of the house as it was being torn down.
"March 11, 1859,P.M. To Hunt house. I go to get one more sight of the old house which Hosmer is pulling down, but am too late to see much of it. The chimney is gone and little more than the oblong square frame stands. E. Hosmer and Nathan Hosmer are employed in taking it down. The latter draws all the nails, however crooked, and puts them in his pockets, for, being wrought ones, he says it is worth the while.
"It appears plainly, now that the frame is laid bare, that the eastern two-thirds of the main house is older then the western third, for you can see where the west part has been added on, at the line A B. All joists in the old part are hewn; in the newer sawn. But very extensive repairs had been made in the old part, probably at the same time with the addition. Also the back part had been added on to the new part, merely butted-on at one side without tenant [var. tenon] or mortise. The peculiar cedar laths were confined to the old part. The whole has oak sills and pine timbers. The two Hosmers were confident that the chimney was built at the same time with the new part, because, though there were flues in it from the new part, there were no break in the courses of brick about them. On the chimney was the date 1703 (?), I think that was it, and if this was the date of the chimney, it would appear that the old part belonged to the Winthrops, and it may go back to near the settlement of the town . The laths long and slender of white cedar split. In the old part the ends of the timbers were not merely mortised into the posts, but rested on a shoulder thus: The fireplace measures twelve feet wide by three deep by four and a half high. The mantel tree is log, fourteen feet long and some fifteen to sixteen inches square at the ends, but one half cut away diagonally between the ends and now charred. It would take three men to handle it easily. The timbers of the old part had been cased and the joints plastered over at some time, and you saw many old memorandums and scores in chalk on them, as 'May ye 4th', 'Ephraim Brown' '0-3s-4d', 'oxen', -- so they kept their score or tally, such as the butcher and baker sometimes make. Perhaps the occupant had let his neighbor have the use of his oxen so many days. I asked if they had found any old coins. N. Hosmer answered, Yes, he had, and showed it me, took it out of his pocket. It was about as big as a quarter or a dollar, with 'Britain', etc., legible, 'George II.', and date '1742', but it was of lead. But there was no manuscript, not a copy of verses, only these chalk records of butter and cheese, oxen and bacon, and a counterfeit coin out of the smoky recesses. Very much such relics as you find in the old rat's nests in which these houses abound.
"Mar. 13,1859. The Hunt house to draw from memory, though I have given it's measure within two years in my journal, looked like this. This is only generally correct, without scale.
"Mar. 14 P.M. To Hunt house. I thought from the above drawing that the original door must have been in the middle of the old part and not at one end, and that I should detect it in the manner in which the studs were set in. I really did so and found some other traces of the old door (where I have dotted it ) when I got there. Some of the chalk marks which have been preserved under the casing of the timbers so long have been completely washed off in yesterday's rain, as the frame stood bare. Also read in chalk on a chamber floor joist (which had been plastered over beneath) "enfine ([f representing the archaic long s] Brown.," so many s. and d. [shillings, pence], and what I read for Feb. 1666', but being written over a rough knot, it is doubtful. 'Hides 3.'
"Saw E. Hosmer take up the cellar stairs. They are of white oak, in form like one-half of a squared white oak log sawed diagonally. These lie flat on their broadest sides on the slanting earth, resting near each end on a horse. which is a white oak stick with the bark on. hewed on the upper side and sunk in the earth, and they are fastened to this by two pins of wood placed as I have indicated.
"I judge by my eye that the house is fifteen feet high to the eaves. The posts are remarkably sawn and hewn away on account of the projection of the upper story, so that they are more than twice as large above as below, thus: the corner posts being cut on two sides, or more than half away (six inches off them) below the second story. The chimney was laid in clay. 'T.B.' were perhaps the initials of Thomas Brown: also 'I.(?)H.D.'
"Consider how I discovered where the Winthrop family in this town placed their front door some two hundred years ago, without any verbal or written or ocular evidence. I first suspected (?) and then verified it. I, with others, saw by the frame of the old Hunt house that an addition had been made to its west end in 1703. This brought the front door, which was in the middle of the present, near one end of the original Winthrop house. I, sitting at home, said to myself, having an occult sympathy with the Winthrops of that date, 'The front door must originally have been in the middle of the old house, for symmetry and convenience require it, and if it was, I shall find traces of it; I shall find where the studs have been set into the frame in a different manner from the rest.'
"I went to the house and looked where the door should have been, and I found precisely the evidence I sought, and beside, where the timber above had been cut out just the width of the door. Indeed, if I had found no traces of the old door, I should have known that the present door was placed where it is after the house was built, for at this corner of the house the end of the sill chanced to be nearly round, the stick tapering, and the post was fitted upon [it] in a remarkable manner, thus: Oak wood had been thus laboriously fitted to it, but within three feet of the corner this sill had been wholly cut away under the door to make room for it, for they certainly had not put in a piece of sill only three feet long of that form there originally."
Was Thoreau an archeologist? Certainly. But did the word archeology enter his mind? Probably not. Though his methods were those of the archeologists of today, they were nothing more than the same methods he used in investigating any mystery of science or philosophy. In GODS, GRAVES, AND SCHOLARS, a best-selling book of the 1950's on the history of archeology, C. W. Ceram tells us in regard to the "grandiose task" of the archeologist, that it is,
"to make dried-up wellsprings bubble forth again, to make the forgotten known again, the dead alive, and to cause to flow once more that historic stream in which we are all encompassed . . . . On this account archeology is everybody's concern and is not the least an esoteric special branch of science. When we busy ourselves with archeology, life as a whole has become our subject. For life is not an occasional, partial affair, but a constant balancing on the point of intersection where past and future meet."
An interesting parallel is Thoreau's statement in WALDEN that,
"In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternity's, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line."
A final mention of the site of the house is a later journal entry of the same year -- this time it's Thoreau in his naturalist hat. He had been examining the cellar hole, which was all that remained of the Hunt house. A version of the journal entry appears in THE SUCCESSION OF FOREST TREES, an address read before the Middlesex Agricultural Society in September 1860 and published a month later in the New-York Daily Tribune:
"Searching there on the 22nd of September, I found, among other rank weeds, a species of nettle (Uritca urens), which I had not found before; dill, which I had not seen growing spontaneously; Jerusalem oak (Chenopodium botrys), which I had seen wild in but one place; black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), which is quite rare hereabouts, and common tobacco, which though it was cultivated here in the last century, has for fifty years been an unknown plant in this town . . . I have no doubt that some or all of the plants sprang from seeds long buried under or about that house, and that that tobacco is an additional evidence that the plant was formerly cultivated here. The cellar hole has been filled up this year. and four of those plants. including the tobacco, are now again extinct in that locality."
Read THE SUCCESSION OF FOREST TREES online
I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe.And that way the nation is moving,
And I may say that mankind progress from east to west. Thoreau, Walking
Thoreau followed the newspaper accounts of western expeditions of explorer John Charles Frémont.
Visit my John C. Fremont Website.
Alcott, A. Bronson, Concord Days, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1872.
Alcott, A. Bronson, Tablets, Roberts
Brothers, Boston, 1879.
See particularly the chapter The Garden for Alcott's theories on landscaping.
Swayne, Josaphine Latham, The Story of Concord, E. F. Worcester Press, Boston, 1906.
Harding, Walter and Bode, Carl, The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, New York University Press, 1958.
Marble, Annie Russell, Thoreau, His Home, Friends, and Books, Thomas Y. Crowell & Co, New York, 1902.
McAlester, Virginia and Lee, A Field Guide to American Houses, Alfred A Knoph, New York, 1986.
Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, or Life in the Woods, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1854.
Thoreau, Henry David, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 14 volumes, Houghton Mifflin & Co., Boston, 1906.
Ticknor, Caroline, Classic Concord, Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston, 1926.