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The secret life of William Cullen Bryant

  • William Cullen Bryant purchased back his childhood home in Cummington for $3,500 in 1865 so he could farm during the summers. Contributed photo/David Ryan

  • Contributed photo/R.Cheek

  • Contributed photo/R.Cheek

  • Contributed photo/The trustees

  • Contributed photo/Sawyer Farm

  • Contributed photo/Sawyer Farm



For the Gazette
Friday, September 21, 2018

From the top of Manhattan’s Grace Building on 42nd Street, Bryant Park looks like a green throw rug. Tree-lined promenades, meticulous flowerbeds, a pedicured lawn dotted with office workers at lunchtime. It’s a lovely place, but it isn’t Cummington, beloved home of the park’s namesake, poet, editor and 19th century intellectual, William Cullen Bryant.

In 1865, 40 years after leaving Western Massachusetts for New York, Bryant, then 71, re-purchased his boyhood home for $3,500 and returned every summer to farm, plant orchards, rebuild stone walls, and re-connect with the New England agrarian life of his youth.

This urge to flee the metropolis for rural living was fueled by Bryant’s quasi-religious reverence for nature, and his conviction that Americans had a mutually beneficial tie with, and responsibility for, the natural world.

“People know about Bryant the poet and editor, but what about Bryant the farmer?” asks Andrea Caluori, Engagement Manager for The Trustees Northwest Region, which includes The Homestead, as the poet’s property has become known.

Bryant is famous for his role in Lincoln’s ascent to the presidency and for his columns championing liberal causes such as abolition, workers’ and immigrants’ rights, free trade, and land conservation that he published as editor of The New York Evening Post. In his day, his poetry earned him international acclaim. But “Bryant the farmer, hilltowner, and homesteader is someone we hardly know,” says Caluori.

That’s the point of The Homestead’s Harvest Festival this Saturday — to foreground Bryant’s connection to the land.

Though regarded as “the first citizen of New York” — he fiercely advocated for the establishment of Central Park, the paving of city streets, and the founding of The Metropolitan Museum of Art — the fields, woodlands and brooks of Cummington inspired his annual migration, arriving every July and staying through most of September. In a paean to The Homestead, he wrote, “I stand upon my native hills again, / Broad, round, and green, / …Here I have ’scaped the city’s stifling heat, / Its horrid sounds, and its polluted air.”

Bryant intended Central Park to serve the public as a respite from the hurly-burly of urban life; he pressed city leaders to locate the park in the least developed area of the city to remind urbanites of the rural origins of America. The Homestead, however, was imbued with deeply personal meaning for the poet; it was a wellspring of spirituality, memory, and nostalgia. According to Frank Gado, the foremost authority on Bryant’s work, no feature of The Homestead better exemplifies the poet’s love of Cummington than the murmuring brook which traverses a forest at the edge of the property. Dwarfed by old growth trees, the rivulet recurs in many of Bryant’s writings not only as a symbol of “the renewal of the course of life” says Gado, but also a “resolution to hold to boyhood’s imaginative delight.”

Gado notes that Cummington was “carved from the forest scantly a generation before his birth,” so it’s not hard to imagine how a boy with a sternly devout family patriarch, grandfather Rev. Ebenezer Snell, might find refuge, solace and mooring in the wonder and adventure of the primordial forest.

“As soon as I was able to handle the lighter implements of agriculture I was employed in the summer season in farm work,” Bryant once reminisced. His grandfather taught him “to plant and hoe corn and potatoes, rake hay and reap wheat and oats with the sickle.” From his mother, he inherited the practicality and industriousness of homesteading. Her daily journal recounts managing a self-sufficient home: pressing cider, tapping sugar maples, growing flax, slaughtering hogs, making cheese and butter, cultivating vegetables, sewing clothes, weaving fabric, spinning wool.

According to Caluori, “Bryant identified with this New England way of life. In many ways he can be seen as a prototype of the modern homesteader.” Caluori owns two goats, knits her own sweaters, and makes cheese in Ashfield. She moved to New England for college because of her fascination with the history and folkways of early American agrarian life, having interned at Old Sturbridge Village for many summers during high school.

Bryant the farmer was a pragmatist. A founder of the Hillside Agricultural Society (today’s Cummington Fair), he embraced the scientific principles of farming. He renovated the barn with the addition of a professional facility for apple storage and a modern ice house. Rather than milking the cows out in the meadow, he adopted the new practice of using a milking parlor. His library contains books on agricultural chemistry, pomology (the study of apples), viticulture (the study of grapes), and orcharding.

The Homestead “was cutting edge,” says Dennis Picard, a Consulting Historian with a 40-year career working at living museums. Picard will be presenting a talk at the Harvest Festival detailing how the ice industry impacted food preservation at The Homestead.

When he purchased The Homestead, Bryant employed a local friend and farmer, Francis Dawes, as the caretaker. Dawes and his wife resided in the home year-round, but Bryant took an active role in deciding how and what to grow, regularly corresponding with Dawes when he was away. A testament to his devotion to seasonal living and nostalgia for his boyhood, Bryant, with Dawes, planted 1300 apple trees (15 cultivars), 200 pear trees (19 cultivars), plum trees, and various berry bushes.

Bryant’s poetry is often inspired by the rhythms of nature, the passage of time, and the cycle of life, themes that are inherent in agrarian life. In his poems and reflections, the apple is a symbol of the passing seasons, “Fruits that shall swell in sunny June, / And redden in the August noon, / And drop, when gentle airs come by, / That fan the blue September sky, …” He viewed the cider-making season in New England as distinctively American – “somewhat correspondent to the vintage in the wine countries of Europe” – and emblematic of Cummington’s burgeoning local economy. When he was a boy, the town had 10 cider mills. He fondly recalled the month of October when “the whole population was busy” and the “creak of a cider mill turned by horse moving in a circle was heard in every neighborhood as one of those common rural sounds.”

Despite Bryant’s world travels (he spoke French, Spanish, German, and Italian; read Latin; and translated Homer’s Iliad from the Ancient Greek), bucolic Cummington was never far away.

“One of the reasons for the Festival is to make people aware of what’s going on in the hilltowns — the place isn’t mired in nostalgia,” says Picard.

Kay LaViola, Public Programs Assistant at The Homestead and Savoy resident, concurs. “We’re going back to the old days. Everybody up here has their backyard garden or something they do in their back room — making soap, quilting, wood working. People want to get out of this plastic world.”

Jon Applefield recently moved to Northampton from New York City.