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Heading outdoors for home-school history lessons

There is a kind of magic about standing right in the spot where something momentous happened — even when you are 6 feet apart

The walking trail around Walden Pond is clear and well-maintained.
The walking trail around Walden Pond is clear and well-maintained.David Lyon for The Boston Globe

Are your kids so hyper with cabin fever that they can’t even focus on those home-schooling lessons? Are you? (Need we even ask?)

The good news is that Massachusetts is filled with sites where your reluctant scholars can soak up a little history while getting some well-needed exercise. You will most likely find all visitor centers — normally great sources of information — closed, but outdoor areas and trails are open. So check the websites first for some facts to impress your children, along with the latest information about closures and usage guidelines. There is a kind of magic about standing right in the spot where something momentous happened — even when you are 6 feet apart.

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The obvious place to start is with historical events of the American Revolution. With both the Boston Marathon and the Red Sox home game on hold on Patriots Day (April 20 this year), it’s a good opportunity to focus attention on the historic origins of this local holiday. Although the reenactments of the encounters between British redcoats and colonial militiamen have also been called off, the spots themselves still resonate with history.

Henry Hudson Kitson's Lexington Minuteman stands on one corner of Lexington Battle Green.
Henry Hudson Kitson's Lexington Minuteman stands on one corner of Lexington Battle Green.David Lyon

If you follow the historical timeline, the place to begin is Lexington Battle Green where Henry Hudson Kitson’s 1900 statue known as the Lexington Minuteman marks the spot. Around dawn on April 19, 1775, 700 redcoats encountered about 70 minutemen who had gathered here after being alerted by riders from Boston. No one knows who fired the first shot, but eight colonials were killed in the ensuing melee. The British continued marching toward Concord, where they intended to seize a secret cache of arms and ammunition.

Daniel Chester French's Minute Man statue was unveiled on April 19, 1875, on the east end of North Bridge in Concord.
Daniel Chester French's Minute Man statue was unveiled on April 19, 1875, on the east end of North Bridge in Concord.David Lyon

But at North Bridge, where Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue stands on the east end of the reconstructed bridge, they were met by well-armed and organized resistance. For the first time, American forces fired a volley into the British ranks. As the British turned and fled down the pathway now known as Battle Road, colonial irregulars pursued them all the way back to Boston, sniping at the redcoats from behind trees and shrubs. At the end of the day, the British suffered 73 dead, 174 wounded, and 26 missing. Among the Americans, 49 lay dead, 40 were wounded, and five were missing. The American Revolution had begun.

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The National Park Service website (nps.gov/mima) includes an excellent PDF map of Minute Man National Historical Park with details about parking areas around both battle sites and along the roughly 5-mile Battle Road Trail for walkers and cyclists.

A young person reads one of the many plaques surrounding the Bunker Hill Monument.
A young person reads one of the many plaques surrounding the Bunker Hill Monument.David Lyon

If your offspring won’t be too disappointed at not being able to climb the steps inside Bunker Hill Monument (nps.gov/bost), you can continue your exploration of American Revolutionary history by walking around the obelisk. (To help them get their exercise, park on the flat below the hill and let them imagine that they are British soldiers rattling their sabers and muskets before they begin their assault up the hill.) Granite markers around the periphery identify the limits of the fortification that American soldiers managed to erect overnight at the top of Breed’s Hill. (The original plan called for Bunker Hill but Breed’s Hill proved easier to fortify.) Even so, the British took the position, albeit at great cost. The June 17, 1775, military defeat for the Americans turned out to be a moral and strategic victory.

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Follow up with a drive down to South Boston to visit Dorchester Heights (nps.gov/bost). On the night of March 4, 1776, American troops hauled several tons of cannons up the hill and erected a fortress and cannon placements. They wrapped the wheels of their wagons with straw to muffle the sound so the British would be taken unaware. British General William Howe determined that the cannon could destroy his fleet in the harbor below and that his army could not take the hill. On March 17, Howe evacuated all British troops and more than 1,000 civilian Loyalists from Boston. Since 1901, ‶Evacuation Day″ has been a holiday in Suffolk County. The 1902 Dorchester Heights Monument in Thomas Park marks the remains of the site. History (or perhaps folklore) records that General Howe remarked, ‶The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.″

The massive granite Fort Independence is the eighth fort erected on the site to guard the entrance to Boston Harbor.
The massive granite Fort Independence is the eighth fort erected on the site to guard the entrance to Boston Harbor.David Lyon

While you’re in South Boston, you can indulge in a scenic walk around Castle Island and Fort Independence (castleisland8.com/fort-independence). The fort is closed, but it’s pretty impressive from the exterior and the stroll around Pleasure Bay can’t be beat. It’s the eighth fort on the site built to protect the entrance to Boston Harbor. This version was constructed in 1851 with massive granite blocks quarried in Rockport to replace an 1801–03 brick fortification.

The Cape Ann granite quarries yielded much of the stone that built the cities of the East Coast. Again, the buildings are closed, but the outdoor signage and an excellent online guide bring the rough and ready work of quarrying vividly to life at Halibut Point State Park in Rockport (mass.gov/locations/halibut-point-state-park). Don’t forget to bring binoculars to watch the sea birds.

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This statue celebrates the women who staffed the early mills in Lowell.
This statue celebrates the women who staffed the early mills in Lowell.David Lyon

You can also teach the kids about American industrial history and the labor movement with a visit to Lowell National Historical Park (nps.gov/lowe). You can’t enter the Boott Cotton Mills Museum to see the thundering looms or the Mogan Cultural Center, which chronicles the daily life of the mill girls. But you can still explore the network of canals that channeled the mighty Merrimack River through the heart of the city to power machinery. All those massive red-brick mill buildings spelled the blossoming of the American Industrial Revolution. Note that the Northern Canal Walkway is closed this time of year due to the danger posed by high water in the spring.

The canal walkways of Lowell National Historical Park are open for exploration.
The canal walkways of Lowell National Historical Park are open for exploration.David Lyon

For older teens, couple the Lowell sojourn with a reading ofDoctor Sax” by Jack Kerouac. The canals (and storm sewers) of Lowell play important roles in this bizarre fantasy that rivals the most extreme video game. For a less intense brush with the writer, visit the Jack Kerouac Commemorative in Kerouac Park on Bridge Street. The pathway is delineated with head-high upright granite slabs inscribed with evocative selections from the author’s works.

These granite posts delineate the original site of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond in Concord.
These granite posts delineate the original site of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond in Concord.David Lyon

In few places do landscape and American literary history so entwine as Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord (mass.gov/locations/walden-pond-state-reservation). You’ll pass but won’t be able to enter the re-created cabin of Henry David Thoreau. But a great walking trail around the perimeter of the pond leads past the actual site of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods. Frankly, it is more evocative than the re-creation, if only because it lets your imagination fill in the details.

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And Thoreau himself was a big proponent of being outdoors. “We need the tonic of wildness,″ he opined in “Walden.” ‶At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

That's a good lesson for us all.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.



David Lyon can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com. Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.