Bidding on History: The Strange Afterlife of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Birthplace

Bidding on History: The Strange Afterlife of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Birthplace

In May 2016, the remains of a dismantled eighteenth century wooden house appeared for sale on eBay. The online listing specified that, “Every single thing has been saved including the original plaster walls.” The seller asked $14.5 million to purchase the structure, claiming that the pieces constituted the “most important Dismantled American House that is available for reconstruction.”[1] In the nineteenth century, the Reverend Lyman Beecher raised his family of activists and abolitionists within these rooms, including reformers Catherine and Henry Ward Beecher, and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the home along North Street in Litchfield, Connecticut, the Beecher family developed an activist ethos, which encouraged Lyman Beecher’s children to advocate for emancipation and women’s rights. Yet despite the family legacy, the building’s neglected remains recently emerged for sale online. The surviving boards and plaster are a stark reminder for students of history about how easily significant sites and historic places are lost.

The Beecher house; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.
The Beecher house. Courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.

Rev. Beecher purchased the North Street house in 1810. His daughter Harriet described the home as a “wide, roomy, windy edifice that seemed to have been built by a succession of afterthoughts.”[2] Soon after Harriet left Litchfield for the Hartford Female Seminary in 1824, Lyman sold the house and moved the family to Boston. Over subsequent decades, the building endured several transformations. (At one point in the twentieth century, one of its rooms housed a young student of the nearby Spring Hill School named Pete Seeger). In 1996 the Forman School, the property’s owners, placed the old Beecher home on the market, beginning a series of noble but failed attempts to preserve the structure. One of the men to acquire the building was Chandler Saint, who proposed to disassemble the structure, located on land now occupied by a school, and reconstruct the building in another spot in town. An antiques dealer, Saint became the face of the Beecher project. He dealt with the press and led public tours, oversaw the property’s disassembly, commissioned forensic studies of the paint, and directed the search for a location to reconstruct the house. While some Litchfield residents resisted Saint’s ideas, the state historical commission endorsed Saint’s proposal.

In August of 2000, two truck trailers carrying the house triumphantly arrived at the proposed reconstruction site adjacent to the Litchfield town hall. By the end of the month, however, a number of events were set in motion that would result in the house’s disappearance. In response to neighbors’ concerns, the state’s attorney general, now senator Richard Blumenthal, ordered the trailers off the property. Chandler Saint refused. Six months later, the Connecticut Historical Commission declared threated to seize the trailers if Saint failed to comply. In response, Saint declared that he wouldn’t move the trailers until a safe place could be secured. But while he was speaking, amidst a raging snowstorm, the trailers were quietly moved away. Saint refused to divulge the remains’ location, remarking only that the house “went on the Underground Railroad. It disappeared. It went to safety.”[3] Despite Saint’s garbled Underground Railroad metaphor, it pays to remember that Stowe stubbornly refused to help real fugitive slaves such as Harriet Jacobs and her daughter. And, of course, the antislavery novelist imagined many futures, but none of them involved blacks and whites living together as equals. While some old Connecticut families might have been shocked to see their history sold on auction block, the descendants of slaves like Jacobs might have instead enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude. But, to get back to our story, had Saint, the man once celebrated as a preservationist visionary, kidnapped Stowe’s house?

A drawing of the Lyman Beecher House from 1929; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.
A drawing of the Lyman Beecher House, 1929. Courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.

Like Harriet Jacobs, who hid in her grandmother’s small attic crawl-space for seven years, wherever Stowe’s house went into hiding, it stayed there—for fifteen years. Until a few weeks ago, when the surviving pieces appeared for sale on eBay. Stowe wrote of her childhood home, “Many a pensive, wondering hour have I sat at our playroom window, watching the glory of the wonderful sunsets that used to burn themselves out, amid voluminous wreathings, or castellated turrets of clouds–vaporous pageantry proper to a mountainous region.”[4] In that house, Stowe found her voice. Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to transform the national conversation and perception of slavery. In the book’s opening pages, in the person of Mr. Shelby, the novel’s “good” slave master, Stowe condemned the selling of human beings as, among other things, depriving enslaved peoples of family and history. The sale and subsequent saga of the Beecher home is a powerful reminder of the stakes of historic preservation, and the need to protect the places where we tell the history of slavery and anti-slavery.

Please share with Muster stories of other endangered Civil War-era properties, objects, and sites by contacting the editor, Blake McGready (bmcgread@villanova.edu).

 

[1] “Elijah Wadsworth Harriet Beecher Stowe House Litchfield Ct Civil war Slavery”, EBay, accessed May 21, 2016, http://www.ebay.com/itm/Elijah-Wadsworth-Harriet-Beecher-stowe-House-Litchfield-Ct-Civil-war-Slavery-/3116055235170?hash=item488d1e8de2:g:oJOAAOSwLs5XKQ-w.

[2] Annie Fields, ed., Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1897), 31.

[3] Joel Lang, “Who is Chandler Saint and Why Did He Hide Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Birthplace?,” The Hartford Courant, April 8, 2001.

[4] Fields, Life and Letters, 31.

Peter Vermilyea

Peter C. Vermilyea teaches history at Housatonic Valley Regional High School (Falls Village, CT) and at Western Connecticut State University. A graduate of Gettysburg College, he is the student scholarship director of his alma mater’s Civil War Institute.

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