Houses full of history

By Jennifer Huberdeau

There are stories waiting to be told in the historic properties overseen by The Trustees of Reservations. The stories aren’t necessarily tales of grandeur, but more anecdotes of everyday life of the former owners. And the narrators are mute objects — a green garden basket that Mabel Choate used to bring in fresh flowers from her Fletcher Steele designed gardens at Naumkeag; a tea cart made by the celebrated designer Vladimir Kagan at Field Farm or a wooden scoop made by the Stockbridge Mohicans found in the collection of Mission House.

A pair of wooden dumbbells with the initials W.C.B. on them sits in a basket at the end of the bed on the second floor of the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, Mass. Almost weightless, it’s hard to imagine, by today’s standards, that they were ever used in a beneficial exercise routine.

But the dumbbells played an important role in the daily routine of William Cullen Bryant, a poet and longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, who summered at his boyhood home from 1865 to 1878.

“We know today that his workout was more aerobic and calisthenics-based,” said Mark Wilson, curator of collections and cultural resources manager for The Trustees of Reservations. “We know from books in his collection that he did things like jumping jacks and touching of the toes, as well.”

Bryant, he said, was also into homeopathic medicine and was considered to be “very forward thinking” when it came to his diet.

“Bryant was a health nut — he had a particular diet he followed and his own exercise routine,” according to Andrea Caluori, engagement manager for The Trustees of Reservations Northwest Region. “That diet was created by Sylvester Graham who advocated vegetarianism and whole grains (he inspired the graham cracker).”

The dumbbells are just one seemingly insignificant item at the homestead that can provide greater insight into the daily life of the household and its owners.

In the kitchen, two simple looking books hold valuable information about two of the women in Bryant’s life — his mother, Sarah Snell Bryant, and his wife, Frances Fairchild Bryant.

The diary, from 1794, is typically open to the week in which Cullen Bryant was born. The entry notes that a son was born and who came to the house to assist in his birth.

“It’s not like the type of diaries we are accustomed to today. It’s much different because the purpose is much different,” Caluori said. “It’s more a historical record in some respects — not written to be read like a story or to share ideas and insights.”

Other entries include the deaths of neighbors, the coming and goings of visitors, chores performed and the weather.

Frances Bryant’s cookbook, known then as a “receipt book,” a handwritten book of recipes she collected between 1831 and the 1850s. It also contains recipes she clipped from papers and packages and a small book of home remedies.

“It’s a primary source and excellent example of the type of cooking and culinary interests had by a middle class 19th century woman,” Caluori said. “There is also a smaller notebook in the receipt book that includes names of grocers and addresses in New York City where Frances purchased certain ingredients and items. Therefore, I would certainly agree that these are places she frequented in order to do household shopping.”

The William Cullen Bryant Homestead is one of 10 historic sites under the care of The Trustees of Reservations that will be open to the public, free of charge, on Saturday, May 19, from 10 to 4, during ‘Home Sweet Home,’ the organization’s annual open house day.

The sites typically charge a general admission fee and a few are only open a few times a year.

Four other Trustees sites in the Berkshires are included in the free day: The Ashley House in Sheffield, Naumkeag and Mission House in Stockbridge, and The Folly at Field Farm in Williamstown.

Visit thetrustees.org/homesweethome for all the details.

Click the images below for a closer look at a few of the items you’ll see at select Trustees sites.

Jennifer Huberdeau is New England Newspapers’ online editor and associate editor of UpCountry magazine. She also pens the column, “The Cottager,” for Berkshires Week and The Shires of Vermont.

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