Orchard House -- as Louisa May Alcott's home in Concord, Massachusetts is known -- is remarkable for many reasons. Most notably it is a historic site dedicated to a woman who is not only beloved today but who was famous in her own day.
While there are a good number of places on the National Register of Historic Places where historic women's events took place, Orchard House is one of a relatively few homes that are chosen simply because a famous woman was in residence.
In addition, this house is extraordinarily old. As early as the late 1600s, a colonist named John Hoar (1622-1704) occupied it. Hoar was among the early settlers of Concord, and during King Philip's War, he was a militia leader and Indian liaison. For the era, Hoar's house was quite large; it consisted of four rooms -- two rooms above and two rooms below. The kitchen was in a separate building as was the custom of the day because of fire danger.
House Also Important in Revolutionary War
The house figured into an important part of American history by virtue of being in the town where the initial conflict of the Revolutionary War took place. Concord had been selected by the Patriots as the site where supplies for a possible battle would be stockpiled.
When the Redcoats heard this, they set off for Concord. An early morning skirmish between colonists and the British regiment occurred in Lexington, but the British kept moving along the Lexington Road toward Concord. There, colonists from Concord and surrounding towns (who had been notified by Paul Revere) rebuffed the British troops at the Old North Bridge and gave them no choice but to retreat. As a result, the house, which is located on Lexington Road, would have witnessed the arrival and the departure of the Redcoats. Its occupants at that time were undoubtedly part of the battle.
House Falls Into Disrepair
From the early days of the country's founding, the house that was to become the Alcotts was usually occupied. However, by the mid-19th century it was showing its age and had been very much neglected. (Had the property not been run down, it would have been priced beyond the Alcotts' range. Over thirty years, they had moved 22 times, always with financial reasons a part of why they had to move on.)
When Amos Bronson Alcott saw the big house surrounded by 12 acres, including an apple orchard, he made an offer. The women of the family must have been thrilled at the thought of settling down, but when Louisa and her mother first saw the dilapidated house, they jokingly referred to it as "Apple Slump."
Bronson Alcott spent a year fixing up the house. He and some local men moved the smaller tenant farmhouse to link to the manor house so that Bronson would have room for his school. By 1858, the house was habitable, and the family moved in. They named it "Orchard House" for the apple orchard on the property.
The Alcotts lived at Orchard House from 1858 through 1877. For Louisa, who was already selling magazine pieces, Bronson built a small, half-moon shaped desk in her bedroom. She wrote Little Women there (1868). And of course, not only was Little Women written at Orchard House, but the story was loosely based on life there as well.
"We are extremely fortunate that Louisa's books made her famous during her lifetime," says executive director Jan Turnquist."This meant that the house was significant enough that within fifteen to twenty years of the family's departure, community members took an interest in saving it."
Louisa herself would have voiced a slightly different opinion of her new fame. Because the book was an almost immediate success, people began coming to the house and knocking on the door in order to meet her. Reporters and illustrators were often camped outside (early paparazzi) so that they could write stories about the famous author. Louisa, who suffered from poor health that sometimes kept her from writing, found it all very distracting.
Importance of Alcott's Work
Little Women might be considered one of the early works of American feminist literature. Though Louisa herself remained on the sidelines of social movements, her style was to create strong female characters who spoke their mind.
Yet from reading Eve LaPlante's dual biography, Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother, we learn that Abigail (Marmee) was very active in causes for both civil rights and for gaining the vote for women. And La Plante writes: "Louisa dreamed of a world in which women would have the same public rights as men--to vote, travel, speak out, and run governments."
And perhaps that is part of what provides the books with their endurance.
In a phone interview, Turnquist reported there there is no diminishment of interest in the lives of the four sisters and Marmee. The book has never been out of print, and it has been published in over 50 languages.
"We still have young girls coming with their mothers or their families, clutching the book and wanting to know more about the Alcotts."
Turnquist also says that many of the visitors are traveling to the United States from other countries, and Orchard House figures prominently in their trip plans.
Saving Louisa May Alcott's House
In 1911 the house was slated for demolition, and this got the attention of a group of local women who made it their mission to save the home. Even before it was a museum, people reportedly visited the house and would peer in the windows as if hoping for a sign of the author.
The preservation group was running out of time to raise enough money. A neighbor, Margaret Sidney, author of the successful Five Little Peppers book series, purchased the house so that it would be in safe hands until the group raised the needed funds.
By 1912 the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association owned the house, and in the process, they had created one of the first literary house museums in the country.
According to Turnquist, about 80 percent of the furnishings actually belonged to the Alcotts. Because the preservation group began so early, some of the family's descendants were still nearby so they donated many pieces and could be consulted on furnishings and placement.
The Power of Place
While there is no true substitute for a visit to the house and personally experiencing the "power of place," the board of directors and staff are undertaking a film project to expand Orchard House's reach and keep the story alive for years to come.
The film will largely focus on the Alcotts time at Orchard House and show life there through the eyes of its most famous occupants, the "Little Women," Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March (based on the real Alcott girls Anna, Louisa, Beth and May).
But Turnquist says that the film will take the house from the beginning when John Hoar owned it, carry through the story of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and keep right on going until the house belonged to the Alcotts and then was ultimately preserved.
The house receives no state or local funding so Orchard House is entirely supported by a nonprofit organization that raises funds for everything from major repairs to keeping the house staffed for tours.
To accomplish this new undertaking, they are in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to gather funds for the film. To learn more about the campaign and hear more about the film, click Orchard House Kickstarter.
To read more stories of notable American women, visit www.americacomesalive.com.