HAVERHILL - John Greenleaf Whittier may be best remembered for “Snow-Bound,’’ his nostalgic ode to New England’s winter wonderland, but fall offers the chance to explore a pair of Merrimack Valley shrines to the 19th-century poet. This year, the Civil War sesquicentennial adds further incentive to visit the homes of the anti-slavery crusader, dubbed the “poet laureate of abolition.’’
The Whittier Birthplace, which still looks like the picture-perfect New England farm that the poet celebrated in verse, draws pilgrims from around the world. (The day I visited, I was joined by an Ohio couple who had driven from Washington, D.C., solely to see the house.)
Visitors to the Haverhill home where Whittier was born in 1807 first enter the enormous back kitchen, 26 feet long and dominated by a giant hearth. With the help of energetic tour guides who offer a master class on Whittier’s life and works, it’s easy to picture the young farm boy huddling around the glowing fire with his family during the childhood blizzard that inspired “Snow-Bound’’ or the disheveled teenager, fresh from working in the fields, listening to the entreaties of famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who had first published Whittier’s verses in a Newburyport newspaper.
Whittier needed little convincing, however. He preferred pens that inked lyrical verses, not those that corraled pigs. The volume of poems by Robert Burns that captivated Whittier as a schoolboy is on display in the birthplace as is the poet’s bassinet, writing desk, and boyhood beaver hat. In fact, most of the items inside the Whittier Birthplace have a direct connection to the poet. “Nine out of 10 pieces of furniture are pieces from when Whittier lived here, so this is a special museum,’’ says curator Gus Reusch.
After viewing the house, visitors can take a self-guided walking tour around the idyllic 69-acre property, including the rippling brook, barn, and other landmarks depicted in Whittier’s stanzas.
In 1836, the poet sold the farm and moved with his mother, sister, and aunt to Amesbury. Today, the large white clapboard Whittier Home, in which the poet lived until his death in 1892, bears little resemblance to the four-room, one-story cottage that he bought for $1,200.
The house grew along with Whittier’s fame and bank account. After the Civil War, it was here that Whittier penned “Snow-Bound,’’ and its commercial success in 1866 literally changed his fortunes. “He went from a poor Quaker to a very rich man,’’ Reusch says.
Just as 5,000 mourners did when they paid their respects upon the poet’s death, guests to the Whittier Home can cross the threshold into the parlor. Guides point out the parlor door peephole used by Whittier’s pet parrot, Charlie, who, like his master, had a way with words. Unfortunately, Charlie’s were often profane. The parrot was known to shatter the Quaker home’s decorum by cursing at churchgoers from the rooftop or stopping horses in their tracks with a mighty “whoa!’’
The garden room, Whittier’s writing sanctuary, is guaranteed to induce envious drools from any wordsmith. Sun pours through the windows overlooking the garden in the summertime, and the solid black stove warms the cozy room in the winter. The poet’s antique book collection stands sentry as images of Whittier acquaintances and literary gods - Thoreau, Emerson, Stowe, Longfellow - gaze down from the walls. The worn carpet and faded wallpaper give the impression that Whittier will be back any minute to retrieve the hat resting on his drop-leaf desk.
The Whittier Home’s Victorian garden is the setting for summertime tea parties and poetry readings. And if you want to experience Whittier with a nip in the air, the Whittier Birthplace will host a “Snow-Bound’’ weekend in January complete with readings of the poem around the kitchen hearth, horse-drawn sleigh rides, and a rekindling of wintertime memories.
If you go...
305 Whittier Road
Adults $5, seniors $3, under 18 $2.
86 Friend St.
Adults $6, seniors $5, students $3, under 6 free.
Christopher Klein can be reached at www.christopherklein.com.