Fabulous, Disappearing Utopia

May 6th, 2009 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Brook Farm is gone, mostly. The tour is still worth it though.

The pre-Civil War utopian community in West Roxbury left fewer than one building and little trace of its noble effort. Yet, it’s right there off Baker Street. You can walk the grounds trod by such Transcendentalists as Horace Greeley, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Moreover, the huge piece of puddingstone probably used as a pulpit in the 17th Century by Rev. John Eliot to convert the Native Americans is very much there.

The sure-it-was-here thing is much more common in Manhattan than Boston. In the former, you are more likely to find a plaque commemorating was used to be there than the actual building or artifact, if any trace at all. Boston is much better at keeping the real thing for the literal among us who’d like to see and touch the original.

Brook Farm though is shade with mere glimpses and hints of what was. There’s the barest foundation of the Margaret Fuller cottage (she visited frequently but was never a member of the farm) and some rubble. Mostly though, the unkind farmland that yielded poor crops remains.

It is a National Historic Landmark, the commonwealth preserves it for its wetland and other physical value, the Roxbury Historical Society (no website) owns the Pulpit Rock portion, and the West Roxbury Historical Society has worked for 25 years to protect and restore it. You can visit on your own and there are occasional tours. We just joined about 100 others for one as part of the WR library’s series of food-related events.

There And Not

You won’t find reenactors dressed as 1842 Unitarian ministers holding forth. You won’t find a gift shop. Importantly, you won’t find much evidence of the six-plus year effort to establish an agrarian utopia there.

print shopThe one building that remains was from three decades later. It’s in bad shape, although it apparently will get a rehab.

It is fascinating in itself, while having only a geographical link to Brook Farm. After the 1847 closing of the utopian community, Boston bought the land and set up an alms house for the poor. Six years later, another Unitarian, James Freeman Clark bought the land, but he ended up turning it over to the commonwealth as a Civil War training ground. Then a couple bought it after the war as a boarding house.

What finally took was when German-American brewer Gottlieb Burkhardt opened an orphanage for Lutheran kids. He sold part of the land to found the Gethsemane Cemetery (still perking) and had the print shop built. It trained the children in a marketable trade, churing out Bibles and tracts. That ran from 1872 through 1943.

Roaming the Grounds

bftour1.jpgOur tour heard first from the contract architect working on reconstructing the shop, while the WR historical folk keep trying to shake loose the long promised funds for the job. J. Michael Sullivan (shown with our tour guide from the historical society, Bob Murphy) figures the foundation is savable, as is much of the vertical wood inside. The windows and floors will need replacement. The roof has already been changed into wood shingles.

Oversights, miscalculations, misfortunes and blunders killed the social experiment, it became obvious as we walked and listened. The ideals and fancy buildings were grand enough, but the mundane details were too much.

The central idea was why this was part of the library’s food series. The Transcendentalists were to develop their whole selves in the endeavor. They would all share hard work, intellectual and philosophical pursuits and communal recreation. The plow, psalms and poems would balance.

The realities were harsher. No one was a farmer and it showed. The land was typical rocky, loamy Boston ground and so-so for crops. They really had no idea coming in how hard farm work was. Moreover, as ministers and relatively well-to-do swells, they didn’t have the business sense required to make a profit from their veggies, fruits and animal products.

There were the predictable conflicts in personalities and family cultures. However, fire really did them in. The buildings, one by one, burned. The largest, the Phalanstery burned totally when it was just about finished. They had not insured it and were ruined as a corporation.

Wikipedia has a complete rundown of the brief glories and deep fall of Brook Farm.

Our tour guide, Bob Murphy, noted that while many historians call the experiment a failure, it had lasting positive aspects. Other similar agrarian communities took their lead from it. Some of the Transcendentalists continued with the ideals, personally, from the pulpit and in their writings. One of the members, Isaac Heckler, was inspired to found the Paulist Fathers. In short, their crops were of the intellectual rather than the edible variety.

Today, the grounds make a splendid walk. You can continue all the way to Millennium Park (what my family calls Mt. Menino for its trash heap foundation) on trails. The area near the entrance (670 Baker) has parking and is a better starting point.

The president of the Gardens at Gethsemane, Alan MacKinnon, seems to love his affiliation with Brook Farm. He even barbecued for the dozens of us that day. His office has maps of the park area (and restrooms). The print shop is across the path.

bbirdhouse.jpgIt’s a good walk and a grand place for a picnic. Walk the main path a few hundred yards to find the meadows to the left. Coincidentally, we learned that a group promoting bluebirds has installed several houses for them around this meadow. We saw bluebirds there.

On the right of the path, shortly before the meadow is an odd brick structure built into the hill. Murphy noted that he used to tell people it was an armory from the Civil War period. He subsequently found that it was winter storage for corpses until the ground thawed.

Up the hill from the meadow are trails that lead to Pulpit Rock and the Greek-cross shaped Fuller House foundation. You pass through a section of the cemetery on the way to the unmistakable (15-feet high or more) rock Eliot used.

If you don’t head to Mt. Menino, it’s a short but pleasant walk. Bring a picnic basket and perhaps some Hawthorne or Emerson.

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4 Responses

  1. Rhea says:

    I went there for the first time last fall. I think a bit more could be done there. It’s a nice spot with a cool history.

  2. Bob says:

    Remember the children of Brook Farm, As I’am one. Was a great place like a home to us.

  3. maureen cronin says:

    I was appalled a year or so ago at the status of the site. Alan MacKinnon is wonderful but no one is assisting him in his efforts which he is not hired to do. Could we ask Harvard to use the site for a student-led project? UMass? Boston College? Other?

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