CAMBRIDGE — Panhandlers and street musicians are a pretty common sight in Harvard Square. But on a recent afternoon, two characters stood out from the crowd milling around the information kiosk: a kilt-wearing knife juggler and a young woman in a prim long dress with a pretty bonnet tied with a bow under her chin.
I can’t really explain the knife juggler, but Caitlin Johnston had assumed the character and attire of Alice Longfellow and was about to lead a one-hour walking tour of Cambridge. “Alice is fascinating,” said Johnston. “She was the only child of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who didn’t marry. She spent her life studying and working for historic preservation.”
Johnston’s group of about a dozen included several visitors from Australia and the United Kingdom and a young woman from Memphis. “You know, where Elvis grew up,” she told us as we made our introductions. Elvis is a tough act to follow, but Alice, as we all called her, was determined to show us that Cambridge can hold its own when it comes to characters.
That’s the most engaging thing about the Cambridge Historical Tours, now in their second season. They may cover predictable sites and sketch familiar history, but the emphasis is on the personal, even gossipy, stories about the people behind the events. I had chosen to see Cambridge from Alice’s perspective, but I could have kept company with several other notable figures, including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. or noted hostess and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow landlady Elizabeth Shaw Craigie.
Although she didn’t speak in verse, Alice proved to be as accomplished a tale-teller as her father — a task made all the more difficult as she walked backwards along the brick sidewalks through busy Harvard Square and into some of the quieter residential neighborhoods.
Alice did a fine job sketching Colonial and Revolutionary War history as the group stopped at landmarks such as Winthrop Park, the site of early settlements and the current Red House restaurant on Winthrop Street. “It was built in 1802 and is the oldest surviving example of low-income housing in New England,” said Alice. The building sheltered widows who were down on their luck, including a woman whose husband took part in the Boston Tea Party and was later killed trying to ambush the British regulars as they retreated from Lexington and Concord.
Alice also pointed out the 1727 home of William Brattle, who was in charge of the town’s stores of gunpowder. (The big yellow house on Brattle Street, or as Alice called it, “Tory Row,” is now the headquarters of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.) “Margaret Fuller later lived here,” Alice said. “She was an early feminist and one of the smartest women ever.”
But Alice was at her most animated when Cambridge history and her own life intertwined. At the Dexter Pratt house ( also part of the Adult Education center), Alice reminded us that it was once the home of the village blacksmith immortalized by her father. “If you are a fan of my father’s poetry, you have probably heard the poem,” she said. “After it was written, Pratt became beloved — and so did the chestnut tree he stood under.” A metal sculpture on a brick wall recalls the spot where the tree’s boughs once spread. After it was cut down, the children of Cambridge showed their affection for Longfellow by presenting him with a chair made from its wood. “He was an all-around nice guy,” said Alice of her father.
Cambridge has certainly seen its share of authors and Alice led us past the former home of “Curious George” authors and illustrators H. A. and Margret Rey on Hilliard Street and then to the house once occupied by T. S. Eliot. “He studied philosophy at Harvard and wrote ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ while he was here,” she said, “but he was not as prolific as someone like Longfellow.”
Back on Brattle Street, Alice paused before the Longfellow House — Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. “This is my house, my favorite spot,” she said. Built in 1759, the house was abandoned by its Tory sympathizer owner in the run-up to the American Revolution and served as George Washington’s headquarters when he assumed command of the Continental Army. Longfellow later became a boarder in the house. When he wed Fanny Appleton, her industrialist father bought the house as a wedding present for the couple.
“If these walls could talk,” said Alice, musing about the famous people Martha and George Washington entertained here. Alice was born in the house in 1850 and died there in 1928. “This house was my life’s work,” said Alice’s avatar. “I worked hard to have it put on the historic commission so that you could visit today.”
But Alice seemed most proud of her role in advancing women’s education. “I couldn’t study at Harvard even though my father taught there,” she said as we entered Radcliffe Yard. “So I joined a group of like-minded women and we fought long and hard.” Their efforts eventually paid off with the establishment of Radcliffe College, where women were taught by Harvard professors. Alice attended a lot of classes, hosted the first Radcliffe commencement ceremony in her home, and served on the board of trustees until her death. “I never actually got a degree,” she admitted. “But they did name a building after me.”
That seems a fitting tribute to this Cambridge character.
CAMBRIDGE HISTORICAL TOURS 617-520-4030, www
.cambridgehistoricaltours.org . Tours operate through November, gathering at the Harvard Square information kiosk and including Harvard and Old Cambridge as well as a ghost tour and a pub crawl. Adults $15, students and seniors $12, ages 9-13 $7, pub crawl with refreshments $49.