Concord, MA: History, Museums, Places to Stay
Even if Concord had not been the epicenter of the Revolution, its next generations would have brought it fame. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and his famous daughter Louisa May, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other writers and philosophers of the mid-19th century made Concord renowned. The connections between all of these luminaries are legion: Hawthorne rented Emerson’s grandfather’s house, Alcott sold his house to Hawthorne, Emerson hired Thoreau as a handyman and surveyor and Alcott as a gardener. And they are all buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, on the high ground called Authors’ Ridge.
Across the road from the Hawthorne Inn is The Wayside, most prominently owned (but only briefly occupied) by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne bought it from Bronson Alcott, who moved his family here after his Fruitlands experiment in transcendentalism collapsed in 1845. For three years, Alcott gardened on the steep hill behind the house and mulled over his lesson in humility before moving his family a bit closer to town on the same road — to Orchard House, perhaps the most visited historic building in Concord.
Orchard House is where Louisa May Alcott wrote most of Little Women, and anyone who loves that book will instantly recognize the rooms and their aura of affection and perseverance. It’s a rambling, cozy house, where at every turn the visitor expects to find plucky Jo buried in a book or eating apples in the garret, or shy Beth at the piano, or creative Amy painting murals on the walls.
Emerson lived nearby, in a large, square white house where the Cambridge Turnpike branches off from Lexington Road. Once, when his house caught fire, the Alcott girls helped to rescue his manuscripts and books, and all of the neighbors pitched in to restore the Emerson House. Although the contents of Emerson’s study have been moved intact across the road to the Concord Museum (built on the site of one of Emerson’s orchards), many other Emerson family furnishings fill the comfortable home where he wrote his greatest books, poems, and essays, and where he died in 1882.
Having visited The Wayside, Orchard House, Emerson House, and the Concord Museum, we walked another five minutes into town and enjoyed a well-deserved late lunch at Helen’s Cafe on Main Street. Tender grilled chicken in a spinach wrap with Thai sauce and peppery coleslaw made for an eclectic and satisfying meal. We spent the remainder of the afternoon strolling through the shops in the village, where we found everything from local antiques and fancy umbrellas to chichi clothing and (our downfall) shoes. Too small for chain stores and grand coffee places, Concord has unique stores staffed by friendly shopkeepers.
Dinner at the Walden Grille, located in a century-old brick firehouse, rounded out our day (and our persons) with pork chops (apparently from a gigantic breed of pig), fresh scallops seared with lemon and ginger, and other gustatory pleasures. We tumbled into bed under the crocheted canopy and didn’t move until we smelled fresh coffee and muffins in the dining room the next morning.
A brisk walk of about a mile took us past the green and the Colonial Inn and out Monument Street, first to The Old Manse (where Emerson lived as a boy and which Nathaniel Hawthorne and his bride, Sophia Peabody, later rented for three blissful years), and then to the famous North Bridge, “where once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard ’round the world.” A National Park Service ranger gave a dramatic and detailed account of the battle, and we walked across the famous bridge, past Daniel Chester French’s iconic Minuteman statue, and up toward the Barrett Farm (where a significant stash of arms and provisions had indeed been hidden in 1775). For those who can never learn enough about history, the North Bridge Visitor Center offers the last word on every detail of the fight.
On our walk back to the inn to gather our belongings, it took us a while to reenter the 21st century, and we were glad to be on foot. In Concord, it’s easy to lose yourself in the past.
P.S. A pleasant side trip after leaving the inn took us across Route 2 (by car — not a crossing to attempt on foot) to West Concord, known as “The Junction.” We were in search of the granola we’d enjoyed at breakfast, which our innkeeper said came from Debra’s Natural Gourmet. We found Maple Almond Granola (made by the Stark Sisters) at Debra’s on Commonwealth Avenue, plus a gathering of charming stores (outdoor clothing, fine gifts, antiques, quilting fabrics, and more) and small restaurants. Concord Teacakes offers excellent coffee, delectable cookies and bars, and other temptations. Well fortified, we recrossed Route 2 and headed home on the Great Road.
LIKE MOST AREAS of New England, a central town such as Concord is a perfect base camp from which to make day trips during a long vacation. Or use Concord as the starting point for a drive through the many towns of the historic Greater Merrimack Valley. Known for its literary legacies and Revolutionary War sites, the valley has a plethora of places worth visiting. It’s easy to tailor your Massachusetts itinerary by mixing and matching activities with great dining and comfortable lodging. Start planning with this roundup of attractions, restaurants, and lodgings from our Editors’ Choice collection.
Day Trip: Home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne often enjoyed a visit to Cambridge to spend time with poet and cultural arbiter Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His home was a favorite gathering place for prominent literary figures and philosophers. Longfellow often hosted weekly Wednesday-evening discussions, followed by supper.
Imagine yourself as part of one of his evenings as you tour the c. 1759 house and gardens. Most of the furnishings are original and date from 1837 to 1882, when Longfellow, his wife, Fanny, and their six children lived here. The library collection holds many of their books as well as papers by Emerson. Fine art is displayed throughout the home, including stunning Japanese art collected by Longfellow’s son Charles.
Longfellow National Historic Site, 617-876-4491. 105 Brattle St., Cambridge.