Sunday, March 12, 2017

Thoreau "The Old Marlborough Road"

Old Marlboro Road in Maynard, MA. Click to enlarge.
This entry is about connecting Henry David Thoreau's poem "The Old Marlborough Road" to the factual people and places named. See below for final version of the poem. Marlborough is a Massachusetts town 16.5 miles from Concord.  Both towns date to the 1600s, so a road could be 'old' in 1850.

Thoreau created a lecture entitled "Walking," first delivered at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851. He spoke on the topic close to a dozen times, revising the presentation as years passed, so it is referred to in some descriptions has having been written 1851-1860. As a published work, which includes the poem, "Walking" first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1862, shortly after his death. The entire essay is available at several websites, including: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1862/06/walking/304674/
https://www.walden.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Walking-1.pdf 

What is unknown is whether the poem was ever part of the lecture presentations, or only added to the essay for publication. Research on this would require locating and transcribing lecture manuscripts. The Concord Public Library Special Collections does have Thoreau's handwritten manuscript of "Walking" as submitted for publication. The poem - in his sister's handwriting - has no mark-ups or amendments. (Thoreau was ill/dying from tuberculosis as he worked on this and other writings that were published posthumously. His sister helped by making clean copy for some parts of his marked up drafts). The manuscript does differ in a minor way from what was actually published: the poem's title and spelling throughout were "Old Marlboro Road."

An earlier version of the poem can be found as an 1850 journal entry with the title already set, but missing the first eight lines, and with extra lines, later cut. What in the final version are the important last four lines instead were located in the middle, just before "Nobody repairs it." The journal version of the poem can be found on line at various sites, including pages 54-56 of the Bradford Torrey edition of the journals, covering 1850 thru September 1851. See:
https://archive.org/details/writingsofhenryd08thorrich

Elsewhere, as recorded in Thoreau's journal on September 4, 1851, he and William Ellery Channing walked on parts of the old road to Marlborough as part of their trek to Boon's Pond. Thoreau mentions that he had walked in this general direction many times - he described it as a tendency to head west or southwest once stepping out his door - but not as far as the destination of that specific trek. He described the road to Marlborough as "little-frequented," and no more than a woodman's cart path. [Torrey edition, pp.452-462]

The road exists again, paved, and named Old Marlboro Road. It wends west from near Emerson Hospital, cuts across the north corner of Sudbury as Powers Road, continues as Old Marlboro Road in Maynard, where it ends at the east border of the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. Within the Refuge, it continues as a trail named Winterberry Way; then out the west site yclept Bruen Road, White Pond Road and finally Concord Road all the way to the center of Marlborough.

As to how old the road was, and why it had fallen into disuse, Marlborough officially became a town in 1660. By 1663, Sudbury records describe an intent to create a road to "Marlbrow." The road from Concord to Marlborough, across the northern part of Sudbury, became a major route for stagecoaches transporting farm produce, freight and people. From 1685 to 1815, Rice Tavern, Sudbury, was at the crossroads of the Concord-Marlborough and the Sudbury-Lancaster roads. But by Thoreau's time a new road had been built farther south. Rice Tavern had reverted to a farmhouse, torn down in 1942.  

This "C" for Concord marker (not on Old
Marlborough Road) bears evidence of repeated
visits. The "M" stands for town of Maynard, not as
diligent. The letters are carved into the stone.
While the theme of the poem is that by stepping out on disused/abandoned roads - as was already true of the old road to Marlborough in his day - you are in effect traveling on any road and every road, the poem also contains factual references specific to Thoreau's time and place. Martial Miles owned land near the road (Martial Mile's Swamp mentioned elsewhere in Journals). Elijah Wood (1790-1861) was a life-long resident of Concord, descendant of one of the founding families; his son, Elijah Wood, Jr. (1816-1882), was a contemporary of Thoreau. Why Thoreau wrote "And Elijah Wood/I fear for no good" is a mystery. Perhaps aware of Wood's pending death.

Elisha Dugan was a free Negro, never married, son of Thomas Dugan, an escaped slave who had become a landowner in Concord. The Dugan family history is described at length in Black Walden, by Elise Lemire. In the poem's context, "Close to the bone" would have meant in poverty/destitute.

"Not many there be/Who enter therein/Only the guests of the/Irishman Quin," Sudbury archives show James and Zana Quin on various town records (qualified voter, taxes). James, born in Ireland, died 1848. His wife died 1866. The house, on the old road to Marlborough may have gone to a son or relative, as an 1856 Middlesex county map shows Riley Quinn.

Granite markers: Thoreau's "Great guide-boards of stone" - were common then, and many still stand to this day. Some of these indicated town borders. Many Massachusetts towns have by-laws that require the Selectmen or their representatives to periodically confirm such stones' locations and status. Other reasons for a stone post would be to have directional arrows pointing toward towns, and perhaps mileage. One stone could serve both purposes.    

Esther Howe Wheeler's book, Nature - A Thoreau Country, (1965) has her circa 1940s photo of a large granite marker post besides the dirt road. The Concord Public Library Special Collections has a photo dated November 7, 1899, showing the same stone and calling it an Old Marlborough Road guide post. And yet more! The second (1892) edition of Old Concord: Her Highways and Byways, by Margaret Sidney (pen name of Harriet M. Stone), tells of visiting Martial Mile's House, passing by the remnants of the house of Irishman Quin, and taking her horse and carriage on the Old Marlborough Road, which she described as in poor repair. An artist's rendering in the book (pp. 176-178: https://archive.org/details/oldconcordherhig00sidn_0) shows the same stone marker as in the photographs. With a magnifying glass it is possible to discern "← 12 MARLBORO" and "→ 4 CONCORD" on one face of the stone. A recent drive-by found no stone marker at the road's boundary between Concord and Sudbury, four miles distant from the center of Concord.

Possible that Thoreau passed this stone on his way from Concord to the start of
Old Marlborough Road. This is facing west, as the intersection of Route 62 and
and Old Road to Nine Acre Corner. Follow ORNAC across Route 2, then turn
right onto Old Marlboro before getting to  Emerson Hospital. The faint grooves
on the left face indicate this piece of granite was split and shaped by hand.


The poem mentions Gourgas, Lee, Clark and Darby as Selectmen. Massachusetts towns elect men and women (only men back then) as Selectmen rather than electing a mayor. Francis Richard Gourgas was part of Concord government as Postmaster, Selectman and Town Clerk, also a Senator in the Massachusetts Legislature. Thoreau had surveyed land for him. Daniel Clark, Joseph Darby and Isaac S. Lee were identified in town annual reports as Selectmen serving prior to 1850 (first known date of poem, their names already included in that version).

The first two lines of the poem as published in 1862: 
       Where they once dug for money,
       But never found any;

Some interpreters took this as meaning people used to travel the road on business, which takes aim at the first line but elides the second. There is another interpretation that was possibly known to Thoreau and his audience at the time. There was a story back then, still well known now, that one spring, circa 1720, a group of men came and briefly stayed at the Thomas Smith family farm in what was then Sudbury, now Maynard. The house was close to the road to Marlborough.

As the story goes, the men one morning borrowed shovels and digging tools, went off into the woods heavily burdened, returned empty handed, paid for their lodging and fare in gold coins, and left. Months later Smith received a letter that his mysterious lodgers were now in prison in Boston, to all be hung as pirates, and that it would be of value for him to come to the city. Depending on the story's version, either he decided not to go, or went, too late. Either way, the story of lost pirates' treasure carries down to the present, i.e., people wandering about Maynard with metal detectors.

The earliest known source for the buried treasure story is Annals of Sudbury, Wayland and Maynard, (1891) by Alfred S. Hudson (p.70 of the Maynard section). So it is intriguing that Thoreau's couplet, predating the book by at least 30 years, may be telling the same myth. https://archive.org/details/annalsofsudburyw00huds

Added 4/13/17More likely Thoreau was referring to a 
Concord version of a buried treasure story.

In an 1856 journal entry, there is a sentence "On Money-Diggers’ Shore, much large yellow lily root washed up; that white root with white fibres and yellowish leaf buds." The text has no location, but the 1906 Gleason map of things Thoreau puts Money Diggers' Shore as squarely within Concord, on the west shore of the Sudbury River, near the start of Old Marlboro Road. Three other journal entries (1856, 1858, 1859) make mention of plants found growing on Money-Diggers' Hill without any clues as to location.

Thoreau's Nov 5, 1854 journal entry has a description of the legend of pirate treasure buried near John Hosmer's hollow. That would be near the west shore of the Sudbury River, in Concord. Hosmer and a friend had come across a pit some six by six feet, and as deep. They explained to Thoreau that there were old stories of pirate treasure, and that people had been digging near the river for a hundred years. Thoreau revisited the treasure story in a December 1856 journal entry: "Am pleased to see the holes where men have dug for money, since they remind me that some are dreaming still like children, though of impracticable things - dreaming of finding money, and trying to put their dream into practice. It proves that men live Arabian nights and days still. I would they should have that kind of faith than none at all."

THE OLD MARLBOROUGH ROAD (as published, 1862)
Where they once dug for money,
But never found any;
Where sometimes Martial Miles
Singly files,
And Elijah Wood,
I fear for no good:
No other man,
Save Elisha Dugan,—
O man of wild habits,
Partridges and rabbits,
Who hast no cares
Only to set snares,
Who liv'st all alone,
Close to the bone,
And where life is sweetest
Constantly eatest.
When the spring stirs my blood
With the instinct to travel,
I can get enough gravel
On the Old Marlborough Road.
Nobody repairs it,
For nobody wears it;
It is a living way,
As the Christians say.
Not many there be
Who enter therein,
Only the guests of the
Irishman Quin.
What is it, what is it,
But a direction out there,
And the bare possibility
Of going somewhere?
Great guide-boards of stone,
But travellers none;
Cenotaphs of the towns
Named on their crowns.
It is worth going to see
Where you might be.
What king
Did the thing,
I am still wondering;
Set up how or when,
By what selectmen,
Gourgas or Lee,
Clark or Darby?
They 're a great endeavor
To be something forever;
Blank tablets of stone,
Where a traveller might groan,
And in one sentence
Grave all that is known;
Which another might read,
In his extreme need.
I know one or two
Lines that would do,
Literature that might stand
All over the land,
Which a man could remember
Till next December,
And read again in the spring,
After the thawing.
If with fancy unfurled
You leave your abode,
You may go round the world
By the Old Marlborough Road.

No comments:

Post a Comment