William Cullen Bryant’s Homestead is nestled in the sunlit hills of Cummington, Massachusetts overlooking the Westfield River Valley. A staunch conservationist, Bryant was integrally linked to its farmland, forests, and streams, which inspired the great majority of his poetry. Today, the Homestead is a property of the Trustees of the Reservations, under whose stewardship visitors can see the home life of a man often described as America’s first poet of genius.
The author left his home in 1815 to pursue a career in law. His most famous poem, “Thanatopsis,” was published shortly thereafter when he was only 23. After marrying Frances Fairchild in 1825 he moved to New York City. There he became the renowned editor of several literary publications and later the editor-in-chief and publisher of the New York Evening Post.
Lost and found
The Homestead was sold out of the family, but was repurchased by Bryant in 1865 as a summer residence. At this time, he raised the existing building and built a new first floor that would accommodate higher ceilings and a fine Palladian window. He also recreated his father’s study, which became his library.
The approach to the gambrel-roofed sprawling Victorian cottage is lined with venerable old maples offering a beautifully shaded view of the house and lawns to the right and the fields and valley to the left. Further down the road are barns that were erected by Bryant. This was a working farm with an immense orchard of 1,300 apple trees, 200 pear trees, half dozen cherry trees, and a dozen plum trees. He also planted a great number of berry bushes including blackberries and raspberries.
The house is the hub of this property and is open for guided tours. As part of a master plan for restoration of the Old Homestead, the front hall shows evidence of fresh paint, a reproduction Venetian striped carpet on the stairs, and newly installed hand-painted floorcloth. (To learn more about how floorcloths were made and used, see Lisa Mair’s article on page 42 of this issue.) Fragments of the 1865 gray stripe wall-covering have been used to reproduce the wallpaper, so that the entrance looks much as it did when Bryant lived here.
The parlor is to the right and features a Middle Eastern grease lamp chandelier, probably purchased during an 1852 trip to Europe, Egypt, Greece, and the holy-land. The furnishings, artwork, and accessories in the house survive from the Bryant family with few exceptions and are both eclectic and rich in the Victorian taste. They reflect the varied interests and travels of its owner.
The dining room table is still set with the enormous Minton dinner service of polychrome floral on turquoise ground. The goblets with panel-cut stems are from the late blown wares produced at Sandwich in the 1870s and the flatware still gleams on the crisp linen tablecloth. The northwest light in this room is pleasant on a late Spring day and plays on the fine portrait of one of Bryant’s daughters and the marble bust of his granddaughter. Adjoining this space is the family sitting room, furnished much as it was in period.
Throughout the house are marbleized slate mantelpieces, which are original to the house.
To the front lies William Cullen Bryant’s library, which still retains his collection of books, his original desk, bookcases, and daybed. This room originally had “checked India matting, red and white” ordered from C.W. Mitchell, Esq. on March 19, 1866. Fragments of the original mat were found underneath a bookcase and will be reproduced. The gray and gilt paper wallcovering in this room is original and largely intact; restoration plans include its conservation.
Bryant was an abolitionist, who helped in the election campaign of Abraham Lincoln, and the President’s portrait is still on the wall of this room. Most of Mr. Bryant’s copious correspondence was conducted from this room and it was here that he translated Homer’s Iliad, completed in 1871. Though his early poetry provided him little income, this project realized about $20,000.
The kitchen and pantry area to the north side of the house are in the process of renovation and unavailable for viewing, but the adjoining caretakers’ parlor is comfortably furnished and includes a remarkable painted Windsor rush seat settee. It is in this room that a series of servants’ call bells is still visible. Back stairs lead the second floor caretaker’s and servants’ rooms as well as to the main rooms of the house.
Mr. Bryant’s bedroom is on the southeast side of the second floor. A vigorous man, his gymnasium equipment is still in this room. He did daily chin-ups in the adjoining closet on a bar installed there. He also used a pole to vault across his bed multiple times each morning, and had light dumbbells, which were kept at the foot of the bed. Across the hall is his daughter Julia’s room with its marvelous four-poster canopy bed. Julia became Mr. Bryant’s hostess after the death of her mother in 1866. Most of the remaining sleeping chambers on this floor and the one above were reserved for the use of guests.
Hit the trails
The house was in use as a summer residence from early July through mid-September when the landscape in the lower Berkshires is at it’s best. The property’s 465-acres includes the historic house, caretakers’ cottage, Bryant’s school house, barns, fields, and the Bryant family cemetery.
Hiking trails abound and include a path through the woods to the site of the old sugar house and remnants of Bryant’s orchards. Another path wanders through old-growth forest that includes a 300-year-old white ash, tremedous yellow birch trees, a 300-year-old Eastern Hemlock, and two pines that stand at 150 feet (the tallest in the state). The trail follows the Rivulet stream that inspired Bryant’s famous 1824 poem. The brook was the original water source for the farm and today supports a diversity of animals, insects, and plants. A signpost exhibits a copy of the poem at the site where it was first inspired.
Programs and exhibits
Every year the Bryant Homestead offers a theme on which a seasonal exhibit is based. This year will be dedicated to 225 years of farming in Cummington and will focus on the history of agriculture at the Homestead. Among the season’s programs will be a tour of local barns with historic interpretation including the Homestead barn on September 11 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A complete listing of the programs offered is available on the Trustees website.
Founded in 1891, The Trustees of the Reservations is a member-supported, nonprofit organization that preserves, for public use and enjoyment, landscapes of exceptional scenic, historic, and ecological value in Massachusetts and protects special places across the state. The Trustees of Reservations is the oldest statewide land conservation and historic preservation organization in the country. The William Cullen Bryant Homestead offers guided tours from the last weekend in June through Labor Day, Friday-Sunday and Monday holidays 1 – 5 p.m.; Labor Day through Columbus Day, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday holidays, 1 – 5 p.m., (413) 634-2244, www.thetrustees.org. Contact Ellice Gonzalez, Ph.D., Historic Site Administrator for more information.
Written By: Randall Decoteau
Source: New England Antiques Journal