Friday, May 22, 1998

Going back down the road

by Phyllis Zinicola

As shown by the following fiction, which is based on information contained in Old Houses and Families of Carlisle, Massachusetts, by Martha Fifield Wilkins, and Carlisle, Its History and Heritage, by Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins, anyone can create a story grounded in historical facts because the past belongs to everyone.

The driver sounds his horn as the stage coach from Concord approaches the mill pond in Carlisle on the main road to Lowell. The four horses stop in front of the colonial style farmhouse on the right closest to the pond, number 879 Concord Street. A passenger alights.

It is a warm, sunny day in late spring, 1864, and the leaves of the grand elm standing just to the right of the front door give a pleasant shady coolness for the resident of the house, Martha Heald Taylor, to greet her visitor, there being no overhang covering the front entry.

The side porch overlooking the pond would have been cooler, but that half of the house, the half looking toward Carlisle center, belonged to William Henry Harrison Hood. William H. H. Hood had married Lois Augusta Green Buttrick, who had been living across the road with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Buttrick, and had recently set up a household in part of the Taylor home. Hood operated a mill on the brook near the Buttrick house. In any event, thought Mrs. Taylor, it was more proper to be at the front door for company.

The two women cross the stone threshold and the traveler removes her hat in the front foyer, a small space enlivened by a grand curving bridal staircase at the top of which stands a “praying Samuel.” They walk across the wide pine floorboards to the kitchen, a warm space which seems cozier by virtue of the seven-foot ceilings.

In the right-hand corner of the kitchen, looking toward Carlisle center, stands a remarkable grandfather’s clock, said to have been given by Queen Anne to one of the Massachusetts Bay governors. Next to that stands a Hepplewhite secretary, formerly owned by Jonathan Heald II who had been the town clerk of Carlisle. Not far away stands a cradle where a baby sleeps. The cradle is long, like a settee, probably a Windsor. A lovely rag carpet lies on the floor near the fireplace.

After checking the baby, the hostess escorts her guest to the front room. Through the back window of the front room Mrs. Taylor and her friend watch several children gather pussy willows which are hanging over the pond. Mrs. Taylor calls her friend’s attention to a collection of Indian arrowheads the children have found on the banks of the pond. As they gaze over the pond, Mrs. Taylor recalls the unforgettable sight of Donati’s Comet which glowed in amazing splendor for six months over the northwest part of the pond six years earlier.

The ladies sit down by the Franklin stove to have a “wild tea” (ceanothus americanus) which Mrs. Taylor has gathered for use because of the inordinately high prices of regular tea during the Civil War. The sound of hammering reaches their ears from the ell connecting the main part of the house with the barn. A cobbler’s bench has been set up in that area, and one of the men is finishing a boot.

A house with history

The house at 879 Concord Street was built by Marshall Heald in the 1840s. According to current owner Linda Taylor (no relation to the 19th century Taylors of the story), the house has had only 11 owners since that time. In the 1940s, the house was known as the Whittemore House because it was then owned by Dexter C. Whittemore, a man active in town affairs. Taylor bought the house in 1993 from Charles and Barbara Evans who had lived there for 40 years.

Historical renovation

Like history itself, renovation of an old house, especially a visible one like this home on Concord Street, arouses the same feelings of communal ownership and concerns about historical renovation.

In her 1940s history, Martha Wilkins noted that the Heald-Whittemore House had been changed quite a bit, including the addition of piazzas and a hood over the front door. Calling these improvements “disguises,” Wilkins suggested that, should the new features be removed, “the original building would doubtless be visible and add greatly to its general interest.”

The planned renovations to 879 Concord Street will not return the house to its original 1840s design, but the improvements appear to be in keeping with the historic period. The renovations also suit the owners’ need for a more modern living space. While everyone can’t own a piece of the house, everyone can own a piece of its history—if only in their imagination.