Fruitlands: Landscape as Lens on the Past

by Ellen K. Rothman

Drive across Massachusetts, and you will see only an occasional open vista. Today 62 percent of the state is forested—more than twice as much as in 1870. Yet the forest cover is deceiving. The Commonwealth's open space is disappearing at an alarming rate; more land has been developed since 1950 than in all of the three previous centuries. Most of this development has taken place inside Route 495, but the prosperity of the past few years is putting intense pressure on parts of the state that were only recently rural.

One such place is the town of Harvard, where Interstate 495 meets Route 2. Minutes from the highway exit is a country road marked with signs for Fruitlands. A mile or two up the aptly named Prospect Hill is the entrance. From here one has a spectacular view west to Mt. Wachusett and north to Mt. Monadnock. On the hillside below is one of New England's most unusual and beautifully sited history museums, created by Clara Endicott Sears almost a century ago.

Sears was a Bostonian with great wealth and wide-ranging interests; in 1910, she bought this land and built the Pergolas, an Italianate mansion and columned gardens overlooking the Nashua River Valley. On an adjacent parcel sat the abandoned farmhouse where in l843 Concord philosopher Bronson Alcott brought his family—including daughter Louisa May—to "live off the fruit of the land." Although the utopian experiment ended in failure in less than a year's time, in 1914 Clara Sears bought and restored the house in an effort to celebrate and revive the ideals of the Transcendentalists she so admired.*

From the beginning, Sears allowed limited public visits to the museum she called Fruitlands. Over the next 30 years, she added three exhibit buildings. First, when Harvard's 140-year-old Shaker community dissolved in 1920, Sears moved the structure that had served as the business office to Prospect Hill. Furnished with objects the surviving Shakers donated or sold to Sears, it became the world's first Shaker museum. In the late l920s, Clara Sears became fascinated with Native American artifacts found in the area; she augmented local finds with purchases from tribes in other parts of North America and in 1928 erected a building to display her collection. Ten years later, she built a Picture Gallery for the nineteenth-century folk portraits she bought in her travels around New England, amassing a nationally renowned collection, and a few years later she added a wing to house her collection of Hudson River School landscape paintings.

Over the next 50 years, little changed at Fruitlands. Even after Clara Sears's death in 1960, at the age of 97, the museum remained a cluster of remarkably rich but disparate collections. Most of the 210-acre property lay unexplored. Market research undertaken in l996 confirmed that this largely untouched landscape was in fact the museum's greatest asset. It had a powerful attraction for people living in an increasingly suburban environment, and archaeological and archival research suggested that the view from Prospect Hill encompassed not just natural beauty but significant ecological and historical stories. Once divided between naturally treeless meadows and mixed hardwood forests, the property had been a Native American hunting/gathering ground. Several generations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century families had farmed there. Recent research has revealed that a turnpike was built through the site in 1805, a sign that the outside world had intruded on the once-isolated valley 40 years before the coming of the Worcester and Nashua Railroad in 1844. On the far corner of the property are the remains of a brick factory, water works system, and workers' housing, visible evidence of the site's hitherto unknown industrial history.

The desire to pursue these findings and interpret them to an ever-wider public prompted the board to redefine the museum's thematic focus; Fruitlands would become "a museum of the New England landscape." Under the leadership of Maud Ayson, who assumed the directorship in September, Fruitlands has expanded its mission: to use the site's woods and wetlands, as well as its collections and buildings, to tell the story of how human beings have shaped, and been shaped by, this piece of Massachusetts countryside.

In the summer of 1999 the museum created new walking trails designed to show visitors how land management practices have changed over hundreds of years. An excavation of the cellar hole of an eighteenth-century farmhouse yielded abundant archaeological evidence, which was used to enrich the experience of visitors during the 1999 season. This year, with a major grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, Curator Michael Volmar has begun to analyze and interpret the 1000 artifacts uncovered in two seasons of fieldwork. Historian Mary Fuhrer is conducting intensive documentary research on the house and the family that occupied it during the years when Harvard was on the frontier of colonial settlement. All-weather wayside exhibits will be created to interpret the recent findings to visitors; information on the new work has been added to the museum's website, and planning has begun for an exhibit that will document the transformation underway at Fruitlands.

The culminating event of the 2000 season will be a panel discussion open to the public on Friday evening, October 13, 2000. Prizewinning writer and Yale historian John Demos and Harvard Forest researcher John O'Keefe will join members of the museum staff to explore the process of "Uncovering an 18th Century Farm Family." For more information or to reserve tickets at $10 each ($8 for members), please call (978) 456-3924.

*A new edition of Louisa May Alcott's satirical memoir of her family's stay at Fruitlands, Transcendental Wild Oats, is available in paperback.


If you go…

Fruitlands is located in Harvard, MA, 40 miles west of Boston. It is open from 10 to 5 daily, from mid-May through October 31. Admission is $8.00 for adults, $6 for seniors, and $4 for children 4-17. Members are admitted free. The Tea Room serves lunch Monday through Saturday, from 11am to 3pm, drinks and dessert from 3pm to 4pm, and brunch on Sundays from 10am to 3pm. Ticket-holders are welcome to picnic on the grounds. Some, but not all, buildings are handicapped accessible. For detailed directions, a schedule of children's programs and other special events, call (978) 456-3924 or go to www.fruitlands.org.

©2000 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2000