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Fruitlands recalls 19th-century utopian experiment

HARVARD, Mass. -- Down a rolling slope in this pastoral setting, 38 miles northwest of the famous, university bearing the same name, sits a red clapboard farmhouse.

The rustic building is the centerpiece of a restored museum today. But back in 1843, the Fruitlands farmhouse - on 100 acres overlooking Nashua River Valley, the Nashua River, Mount Monadnock to the north and Mount Wachusetts to the west -- was home to one of the country's earliest utopian experiments in communal living.

Fruitlands occurred long before the last big wave of interest in communes in the U.S. -- the hippie-ish back-to-the-land living experiments that sprouted across the country in the late 1960s and '70s.

Fruitlands lasted only seven months, but visitors still come to the Fruitlands Museum to see the farmhouse and learn about what happened there 174 years ago. Three other historic buildings connected to the Fruitlands farmhouse by a paved path engage visitors in history, art, nature and by extension, spirituality.

The Shaker Museum offers a collection of Shaker furniture from the defunct Harvard Shaker Village. The Native American Gallery presents artifacts from tribes around New England and the United States. And the Art Gallery contains Hudson River School landscape paintings and a large collection of 19th century vernacular portraits in oil.

Five nature trail loops, which span two miles over 210 miles of meadows and woods, allow visitors to explore the Fruitlands tranquil landscape.

At the top of Prospect Hill are the visitor's center, gift shop and cafe.

Fruitlands, a community of 14 people, was started by Bronson Alcott and Englishman Charles Lane. The philosophy was based on Transcendentalism -- monastic spiritual ideas mixed with a strong tenet of individualism and a belief in freedom. They rejected institutionalized religion, industrialization and material possessions, and exploitation of labor, man or animal. They wore linen clothes while rejecting cotton, the product of slave labor, and animal products.

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, centered around Concord, 16 miles east of Harvard, were key writers and philosophers of this American movement. The Transcendentalists were also involved in social experiments at Brook Farm in Boston, which started two years earlier in 1841, and at Walden Pond two years after Fruitlands.

The name "Fruitlands" was chosen because the inhabitants hoped to live off "the fruit of the land," including fruit they planted. The residents, which for ethical reasons didn't raise animals for food or use work animals, ultimately proved to be poor farmers, with some men more interested in philosophizing than farming. The community's rigid structure also contributed to its collapse.

Louisa May Alcott, one of Bronson's daughters, 10 at the time, slept in the attic bedroom. She would later draw on her experience for "Little Women" and more pointedly, "Transcendental Wild Oats," about Fruitlands' commune experiment.

Alcott's small wooden bed can be seen in the farmhouse's attic. A small collection of mid-1800 toys and a giant wooden tub for bathing are also there. A drawing by Alcott of her father hangs on a wall downstairs.

The first floor of the farmhouse includes the "philosopher's room," intended for people to congregate and discuss the topics of the day. The study is said to have once contained 1,000 books. A long kitchen covers the backside of the farmhouse. And a room recalls Joseph Palmer, a Fruitlands participant who bought the property and later attempted another communal living situation and refuge for reformers.The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974.

The Shaker furniture displays the symmetry and simple lines so important to the functionality of the Shakers' work. Chairs, tables, delicately woven pin cushions and baskets and cabinetry, and a rocking chair from the 1700s, are among the hundreds of objects on display.

The Native American Gallery uses artifacts to help tell the story of the Native peoples who lived in New England including the Wampanoag and Nipmuck, and other parts of the country. The tribes' cultural history includes how they were forced to lose their cultural traditions.

Among the objects is the King Philip's war club displayed in a diorama of a hillside. With a ball carved at the end, made from the root of a tree, it was used for warfare when war clubs were a weapon of choice. Two life-size mannequins in full plains costume feature life casts of the face of Chief Kicking Bear, a cousin to Crazy Horse. Another mannequin is of Rosa White Thunder, a Lakota Sioux woman.

"A New View of Landscape from the Permanent Collection," on exhibit for a year, features 50 Hudson River landscape painters exhibited in salon style. Included are paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Church, Alvan Fisher and Transcendalist Christopher Cranch.

Also exhibited through November is the "Literary Spirit of Fruitlands Museum and the Old Manse," with paintings and writings by Transcendentalists, including Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Clara Endicott Sears, a Boston socialite and preservationist who summered in a Harvard estate, bought Fruitlands in 1910. She restored the farmhouse, and reopened it as a museum in 1914. The Shaker building, built in 1796, was relocated in 1918. The Native American history collection, housed in a 1928 building, was introduced after interest in Native culture was sparked by Nipmuck arrowheads found nearby.

At 103 years old, the Fruitlands Museum -- which grew out of an ill-fated,, short-lived social experiment -- is now one of the country's oldest museums. That's something attempted in this peaceful area of eastern Massachusetts that, it turns out, did stand the test of time.


The Fruitlands Museum, 102 Prospect Hill Road, Harvard, Mass., is 450 miles from Buffalo.

The museum is open April 15 to Nov. 5.

Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays -- 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 10 a .m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.

Main season -- $14, seniors and students $12; children 5 to 13, $6, under age 5, free. Winter season -- $5, children under 5 free.

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