Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Well, where are you? Celebrating Noah Webster's Birthday and Searching for Remains of His Property

Noah Webster (rear)

October 16 marks the birthday of Noah Webster (left, background; 1758-1843).  The big celebrations were in 2008, on the 250th anniversary of that occasion, and it's worth reminding ourselves now, as we did then, that he has strong connections to Amherst as well as the Hartford and New Haven regions.

Webster's residency in Amherst from 1812 to 1822 is best and justly associated with his lexicographical and pedagogical legacy. He worked here on the famous 1828 dictionary (one manuscript entry is preserved in the Jones Library Special Collections) and played a crucial role in the founding of both Amherst Academy and Amherst College, The connections don't end there.  One of his partners in the creation of the College was Samuel Fowler Dickinson.  In 1844, the latter's eldest son, Edward (left, foreground),  who had served as the College's Treasurer from 1835 to 1837, purchased a new reprint of the 1841 edition of the dictionary, published in Amherst by J. S. and C. Adams for the family library (that copy is preserved in the Houghton Library at Harvard).  It was, by the standards of the time, an expensive acquisition.  It was also much appreciated.  His daughter, Emily, more than once described it as her only or sole "companion."  According to her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet read it as "a priest his breviary." Scholars have in the meantime come to see it as crucial to an understanding of Dickinson's poetry, and especially, any attempts at translation.

Still, as I noted in my 250th anniversary post, Webster was also involved with his local and Massachusetts surroundings through agricultural, scientific, and political pursuits.  I alluded there to his extensive, 12-acre farm in what is now the center of town, and to anecdotal and archaeological evidence for the site of a well on his property. I thought I would therefore add a few more details on those excavations, which took place 12 years ago this week (Oct. 21-27, 1998)—all the more appropriately because this is Archaeology Month.

The University of Massachusetts Archaeological Services (UMAS) undertook that survey in conjunction with preliminary plans for the Boltwood Walk Parking Garage.  (Nice coincidence:  Only when I read the original report for the first time several years ago did I realize that friend and fellow cultural historian and blogger Jan Whitaker did the editorial work on the document. Check out her award-winning writing on food and restaurant culture.)

The story is actually fairly simple, but the evidence is ambiguous (not uncommon in such preservation cases). We know that Webster lived at this site, the former "Phoenix Row"—now on Main Street, in the area of the "Amherst Block" (the late nineteenth-century multi-unit structures were called "blocks" and given names: thus, "Cook's Block," "Carpenter Block," etc.). The Lincoln Building (below) occupies approximately the site of the former Amherst Block.

Because the area was the site of periodic demolition and renewal, any visible trace of Webster's home vanished long ago. Writing in the local newspaper in 1962, however, local historian Lincoln Barnes recalled seeing a surviving fragment amidst the remnants of an 1880s building:
When this building was torn down (in the early 1940s, but really in 1938) . . . the ancient well which was used by the Noah Webster family was uncovered . . . . (arrow in photo shows location of well)
It therefore became a prime target of the archaeological investigation.  "Trench #1" explored the site of that late nineteenth-century "industrial structure" "known as Carpenter's Hall or the Carpenter Block (earlier known as the Amherst Record Printing office, a tin/stove shop, and Red Men's Hall)."  The excavations uncovered the expected 1882 foundations and layers of fill from the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In addition, however,
Within the eastern half of the foundation a well was identified (Feature 2).  The well consisted of a circular shaft, lined with brick, extending below the concrete floor.  Above the concrete floor, a semi-circle of brick remains, approximately 2 ft in height.  One side of the well was apparently removed in order to cover it with concrete, leaving an opening only for a small pipe, which extends vertically out of the well, and runs to the north to the exterior cistern.  A jackhammer was used to remove the concrete floor and observe the well below.  The well had been filled prior to covering it with concrete.

The layers of historic fill from Strata 14 and 15, from the exterior and interior of the structure, respectively, contained promising traces of early ceramics—1 fragment each of tin-glazed earthenware (Delftware;1640-1800), 6 sherds each of creamware (1762-1820) and pearlware (1780-1840)—but because they were found in association with later items, the best one could do was to date these fill levels to the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, the photograph of the well itself that Barnes claims to have taken cannot be located.  He did not mention the location in a cellar (though this does not rule out the more recently excavated site as identical, for this would have fit the practice of the day). More curious, perhaps, the well appears on none of the historic maps (including the famous Sanborn fire insurance maps so valuable to historians and preservationists, nor even on the detailed sketch of the farm that one of Webster's daughters left behind.
 The mystery thus remains.  As the archaeological report puts it,
If the well found in the archaeological trench was not the well observed by Barnes, this raises the possibility that another well may lie on the property.  However, beyond the reference by Barnes, no other documentation of any wells known to exist. The well is not recorded on a nineteenth-century map of the Noah Webster property made by one of his children, even though other outbuildings are recorded (Figure 6).  Nor is the well detailed on any of the Sanborn fire insurance maps, or any other historic maps that have been found to date.
With the underground garage now in place and the plaza paved, it seems unlikely that we will get a chance to explore any alternative sites anytime soon. That's one of the prices of change.

In any event, we do know for certain that Webster's farm occupied this entire area.  So, next time you station your car in the parking lot and visit one of the many restaurants that border it, pause for a moment to remember that it was from the ground under your feet that Noah Webster derived at least some of his food and drink.

The Historical Commission wants to make sure that no one forgets.  In 2005, we commemorated Webster's significance for the town on the community history mural created by artist David Fichter in the historic West Cemetery (the image at the top of this page, from the education panel of the painting).  In 2009, on the occasion of the town's 250th anniversary, Town Meeting appropriated Community Preservation Act funds for our Amherst Writer's Walk project, markers to be placed at the residences of the town's major authors, among them, Webster.  The request for proposals for fabrication of the markers is now in the works, and with any luck, the Writer's Walk will become a reality sometime next year.

Jones Library Special Collections: one of my students enthusiastically researching Noah Webster for the Amherst Historical Commission's "Writer's Walk" project in 2008.  She is holding a copy of the 1844 Amherst edition of the dictionary, published by J S. and C. Adams.

In the meantime, don't forget that it's archaeology month.  Webster's famous 1828 dictionary defined the term as

ARCHEOL'OGY, n. [Gr. ancient, and discourse.]

    A discourse an antiquity; learning or knowledge which respects ancient times.

It's a definition that could apply to historic preservation—and good advice for us all.


Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary
• September 24, 1847: "First 'Merriam-Webster Dictonary' Published in Springfield (from Mass Moments)
• Joshua Kendall, "Poets and Their Passion for Lexicographers: Plath and Roget, Dickinson and Webster" (from Psychology Today, 26 October)
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