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Feature: Louisa May Alcott home 'bugged'

By DAVE HASKELL   |   April 17, 2002 at 11:51 AM   |   Comments

CONCORD, Mass., April 17 (UPI) -- One wonders what American literary classical author and ardent 19th century social reformer Louisa May Alcott might have written had she known her home was bugged.

Literally.

Orchard House, the home in Concord, Mass., where Alcott wrote her famous book, "Little Women," in the mid 1800s, has been attacked by powder post beetles since it was built some 300 years ago.

The creatures literally chew the wood to powder, according to Jan Turnquist, executive director of the Orchard House Museum and overseer of a $1.2 million-plus renovation project to save the historic structure.

"Powder post beetles are a big component of our problem," which Turnquist described as "multi-faceted."

Built probably in the late 1600s, the property was bought about 1857 by Louisa May's father, Bronson Alcott. He combined a "very fine house" in front with the tenant house in the rear, creating one large wood-frame home.

The problem was that while the front house had been built on a solid foundation, the rear portion was sitting on dirt. Over the decades, that caused the rear section to sink, putting extra stress on support posts and beams already being weakened by an infestation of powder post beetles.

"Those little things came in with timbers when the house was built," Turnquist said, "and they chew their way out."

The bug problem was unknown until recently.

When the renovation project began, which includes putting a foundation under the rear section, an architect discovered the beetle problem.

"We have had post after post, major important posts, literally turn to powder before our eyes," Turnquist said. An infested post may look intact, she said, but "when you touch it the whole thing just crumbles into your hand."

Inch by inch, workers are painstakingly rebuilding posts and beams with studs and metal braces, Turnquist said.

The project is supported in part by a grant from the public-private partnership Save America's Treasures.

"We're doing it in stages," Turnquist said. "What they're doing right now is excavating under the back of the house, dirt being dug away, concrete walls being poured, stones on top, to form a foundation."

That phase should be completed in a couple of months. The rest depends on fund-raising, she said.

Because of the historical significance created by Alcott's "Little Women," Orchard House draws an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 visitors a year.

"People absolutely flock to this house, almost like a pilgrimage," Turnquist said. "Some people come every year. People come from all sorts of foreign places."

Why the fascination?

"People find the Alcott family a window into a fascinating time period in our American history," Turnquist said. "It's just interesting to look at that time period through a specific family, because they were all so interesting and active. Louisa used to say 'in the army of reform I never knew less than a general.'"

The Alcotts counted among their friends American literary giants Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who also lived in the town some 30 miles west of Boston.

Concord, in that time period, was the site of an intellectual movement that championed anti-slavery, universal suffrage, the rights of working men and women, social integration and public education.

The Alcotts, staunch abolitionists, were at the center of this movement.

Louisa May, who was the first woman to vote in Concord, actually signed some of her letters, "Yours for reforms of all kinds."

"They were an extremely unusual family," Turnquist said, "and that just captivates people."

She said if visitors start out interested in the book, which often is the case, "they leave interested in not only the book, but individual family members who led lives even richer than the book would have led you to believe, and interested very much in the history of the time period."

During a recent tour of Orchard House, guide Bekki Clay said Louisa May was 25 when she moved into the house. Because the Alcotts were having financial problems, they had moved some 20 times before Bronson Alcott, a transcendental philosopher and abolitionist, bought the property.

At some point he built a wall-mounted writing desk for Louisa May in her bedroom. It was there she wrote about her family members, including her sisters.

In "Little Women," published in 1868, she based her characters on four real sisters. In the book, Louisa May was Jo March, an author, tomboy and advocate for social reform, sister Anna was talented actress Meg, May was artist Amy, and Elizabeth was the "angel in the house," who died young.

The girls' rooms are much as they were when they lived there. One is particularly notable in that Bronson Alcott raised the ceiling to accommodate May who, at 5-foot-9, was an unusually tall woman for her time.

Clay said Louisa May wrote her first book at aged 22, and completed the first half of "Little Women" at 36, earning enough money to allow her family to escape poverty. She is considered an American hero who inspired countless readers with her characters,

Born in 1832, Louisa May died in 1888 at the age of 55.

She never married, Clay said, because she "wanted to be a free spinster and paddle her own canoe."

--

(For more information, see the website louisamayalcott.org)

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