Trustees aim to entice visitors by enlivening historic sites

Visitors to the Old Manse in Concord can now touch the wallpaper and try on top hats.
Matthew Lovette
Visitors to the Old Manse in Concord can now touch the wallpaper and try on top hats.

CONCORD — Sara and Eric Hettel may have forgotten their high school history lesson on the Revolutionary War, or they might have skipped the chapter on Transcendentalism. But the siblings won’t soon forget the song that burst forth from the lips of a guide Monday afternoon outside a historic home that starred in both the war and the cultural revolution that followed.

On a visit to the Old Manse House reservation with their parents, the 21- and 15-year-olds paused along with their parents as the guide bellowed — a cappella, to the tune of the doxology — the lines of the “Concord Hymn,” a verse by Ralph Waldo Emerson that is inscribed on a monument behind the house.

Just like that, history came to life.


That type of interaction is what the organization that oversees the Old Manse property, and more than a hundred others in the Bay State, wants to happen more often.

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Prompted by a waning number of visitors, the Trustees of Reservations is in the midst of a five-year campaign to increase visits to its more than 100 sites — not only by sprucing them up but making visits more fun. Loosening things up, you might say, and moving out from behind the red velvet rope.

“We have these amazing places that could inspire people, but we really weren’t getting the visitation,” said Jocelyn Forbush, vice president for program leadership with the Trustees.

On tours of the Old Manse, for example, visitors can now touch the wallpaper, try on top hats, and hold a staring contest with Longfellow, the taxidermied owl from 1776.

New programs at other sites include self-guided tours with tablet computers, evening music concerts, and life-size lawn games. All the while, the Trustees are taking visitor surveys to learn more about what people want.


The Hettels, of Rochester, N.Y., are historic site junkies, and for them, this site was nicer than more commercialized meccas like Gettysburg.

“We like the subtleness of this,” said their mother, Lynn.

The house, a calm brown, and the rolling green grounds, are perhaps visually subtle, but their cultural significance is deep.

Emerson’s grandfather built the home in 1769 and the family watched the famous battles that began the Revolutionary War out the back window on April 19, 1775. Sixty years later, Emerson laid the foundation for the Transcendental movement with his pivotal pamphlet “Nature,” penned from the upstairs study.

Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne also lived and wrote in the home, and his wife Sophia’s etching is still in the wavy glass window panes, lines of poetry scratched with her diamond ring as she looked out at icicles hanging like chandeliers from tree branches. On certain days, children can pick vegetables from a garden Henry David Thoreau planted next to the house to celebrate the Hawthornes’ wedding.


Jeff and Jenn Bernier, of Chelmsford, on Monday brought their 4-year-old Justin to the site after they saw it while on a canoe trip down the Concord River, which runs behind the house. Justin, in his mother’s arms, sported a tricorn hat and looked as tired as a Revolutionary soldier after the battle that took place feet from where they stood.

“The older we get it’s more fascinating,” Jenn said.

While some appreciate the history lessons, others seek just to get lost in the peacefulness.

“Today time just seems to slip away” because of technology,” said Chris Felch, visiting with his wife, Jennifer. “They had time to sit and think and wonder.”

Reenactors from the 6th Middlesex Regiment fired their muskets at a 2014 benefit at the Old Manse in Concord.
Bill Brett/Globe Staff
Reenactors from the 6th Middlesex Regiment fired their muskets at a 2014 benefit at the Old Manse in Concord.

In the past three years, the Trustees has raised $22.4 million of the $26.6 million they are seeking for the campaign, known as “Bringing our Stories to Life.” It focuses on well-known properties like Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich and lesser-known locations like Allen C. Haskell Public Gardens in New Bedford, a former nursery that served clients including Martha Stewart and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The changes are already showing results, Forbush said.

“We’re seeing more visits because there are more things to do,” she said. Next week the Trustees are offering free admission to 11 historic homes across the state.

The challenge is to highlight the historic value of the places while overlaying a modern way to connect the past. “How do you really make history part of now?“ as Forbush puts it.

For the Hettels, it was in the song sung by the guide, the words of which seem to hint that the location would be enjoyed for generations.

“On this green bank, by this soft stream, we set today a votive stone,” the verse goes. “That memory may their deed redeem, when, like our sires, our sons are gone.”

Contact Laura Krantz at Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.