By Fran Folsom
Under the spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
A strong as iron band….
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Village Blacksmith
A visit to the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one
of America’s best loved poets, is like stepping back in time to a gentler
era, one of beautiful poetry, literature and music. Through Longfellow’s
front door passed many great people; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David
Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Sumner, Julia Ward Howe, and Charles
Dickens, to name a few.
Since 1972 Longfellow House, at
105 Brattle Street in Cambridge Massachusetts, has been a National Historic
Site under the management of the National Park Service. Last June the house
reopened for tours after undergoing a three year $1.5 million dollar
rehabilitation that included the installation of a state-of-the-art fire
suppression and geo-thermal heating and cooling systems. These were
necessary to protect Longfellow’s 10,000 book library and 635,000 historical
documents and artifacts that belonged to him and his family.
The house, built in 1759 for John Vassal a British
sympathizer, is of high-Georgian architecture. In
1775 at the start of the American Revolutionary War Vassal took his family
and fled to London, abandoning the property.
From July 1775 to April 1776 General George Washington,
Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army made it his headquarters, living
here with his wife, Martha, and his officers while he planned the siege of
After the war Andrew Craigie, a Boston apothecary and
pharmaceutical officer in Washington’s army purchased the house. Craigie had
tended the wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775. Two years
later he was appointed America’s first Apothecary General.
Originally there were 140-acres with the house, but,
when Andrew Craigie died bankrupt, his widow, Elizabeth, sold off the land
except for three acres and, to be able to keep her home, she took in
In 1837 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who could write in
twelve languages and spoke eight fluently, accepted the position of
Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard College. He came to the Craigie
house, as it was then known, as a lodger, renting the two upstairs front
rooms. At the time, Henry was courting Frances (Fanny) Appleton, the
daughter of Nathan Appleton a prominent Boston merchant. When they married
in 1843 Nathan gave them the house as a wedding present, paying $10,000 for
The Longfellow’s were patriots and proud of their
home’s ties to General Washington. They kept that history alive by placing
Washington artifacts through the house; a copy of a Houdan bust of him in
the front hall, and commissioned Gilbert Stuart to
paint portraits of the General and Martha which they placed in the family
parlor. There are also Stuart portraits of Fanny’s
parents in the dining room.
Henry and Fanny were pioneers of a number of causes;
one of them was the use of ether during childbirth. With the birth of their
third child, Fanny became one of the first women in the country to have
ether, which Henry administered. She is quoted as saying “I did it for the
good of women everywhere as no woman should have to suffer that much pain.”
Six children were born to them in the house; five lived to adulthood, two
sons, Edward and Charles, and four daughters, Edith, Alice (who founded
Radcliffe College), Anne Allegra and Fanny, who died in infancy.
The Longfellows enjoyed eighteen years of happiness.
Tragedy struck in 1861 when Fanny, while sealing a lock of her daughters
hair in candle wax, accidentally set fire to her dress. On hearing her
screams Henry rushed from his study and, wrapping her in a rug, he managed
to extinguish the flames. But, he was to late; Fanny died that night of her
injuries. Henry was so severely burned on his face and forearms that he was
to ill to attend her funeral three days later. He mourned Fanny the rest of
his life, expressing his grief poignantly in his poem “Cross of Snow” and
never remarried, living in the house until his death in 1882.
The room that gives the most profound sense of
Longfellow’s presence is his study. It was in this
room that Longfellow created his most famous works, “The Midnight Ride of
Paul Revere”, “Song of Hiawatha”, and “The Wreck of the Hesperus”. He did
most of his writing standing at the podium desk near the window where he
could see down to the Charles River. The walls are lined with Eastman
Johnson portraits of Fanny and the Longfellow children, a young beardless Longfellow, and friends Emerson, Hawthorne and
By the study fireplace stands a chair made from the
wood of the “spreading chestnut tree” that he immortalized in the poem “The
Village Blacksmith”. It was presented to Longfellow as a birthday gift from
the schoolchildren of Cambridge. He would invite visiting children to sit in
the chair and then record their name and the date in a journal. The National
Park Service has all the journals in their archive of Longfellow documents.
Longfellow loved music almost as much as he loved
poetry. On Sunday afternoons in summer the Longfellow Festival of Music and
Poetry – a series of free concerts and poetry readings – takes place on the
side lawn of his home. You can spread your lawn
chairs and blankets on the same area the Longfellow looked out on
from his study and listen to poetry readings and
musical interludes by twenty-first century artists.
The festival is a fitting tribute to Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow, one of America’s most famous and best loved poets.
1-617-876-4491 or go to
105 Brattle Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
Longfellow National Historic Site is open May 21st to mid-Fall
Wednesday to Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Tours: Guided tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. and
11:30 a.m. and at 1:00 p.m., 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00 p.m.
Admission is $3.00
The Longfellow Festival of Music and Poetry
Sunday afternoons at 4:00 p.m.
July 6th through
September 14th. Admission is free. No
parking is available at the site. The house is a
10-minute walk from the Harvard Square Red Line MBTA
Copyright – Fran Folsom
Images courtesy of National Park Service, Longfellow
National Historic Site