Museums in Concord

Concord is a great town for outdoors explorations—Walden Pond, Minute Man National Historical Park, the Concord River, and my Walking Tours—but to really know Concord you should probe its past indoors, where Concordians lived and worked. 

These historical museums, houses and libraries are where to find Concord’s history and culture, especially on rainy days or when you want a break from walking.

The Concord Museum, Lexington Road and Cambridge Turnpike across from the Emerson House, contains numerous period rooms and galleries, and vividly depicts the growth and evolution of Concord, Massachusetts.

The rich collections of documented decorative arts and domestic artifacts were either owned by Concord-area residents or made by Concord-area artisans.

A $13-million renovation and expansion campaign was completed in 2019.

Permanent exhibits include the lantern that hung in the spire of the Old North Church in Boston on the night of Paul Revere’s famous ride; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study, Henry David Thoreau’s belongings used at Walden Pond, and a collection of early powderhorns including the one worn by the model for Daniel Chester French’s Minuteman statue at the Old North Bridge.

There are changing exhibitions throughout the year.

A guided tour lasts about 45 minutes, or you can wander around on your own if you like.

The Concord Free Public Library, Main Street & Sudbury Road, is another of Concord’s top historical repositories. 

Walk into the lofty main room to see the full-size marble statue of a seated Ralph Waldo Emerson by Daniel Chester French. Unlike the French’s stately, serious seated Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial, Emerson bears a knowing, benevolent expression.

Around the great room are busts of other Concord notables: Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Ephraim Wales Bull, inventor of the Concord grape; and Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, congressman, state supreme court judge, and Attorney-General of the United States.

Wander through the reading rooms to see the paintings of New England scenes, including those by N C Wyeth, Washington Allston, Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts and others.

The best way to see the art is by the library’s free Artworks Audio Tour.

Orchard House, 399 Lexington Road, was home to Bronson and Abigail Alcott and their four daughters, Abigail, Anna, Elizabeth and Louisa, from 1858 to 1877.

The house, now a museum, is a must-see for anyone, especially a child, who has read Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, or seen any of the several movies and plays based on the book. It’s a thrill to see the real rooms and artifacts of the author’s life, including the special writing desk at which she worked on the book.

Louisa May Alcott set her novel in a place called Orchard House, even though most of her childhood memories must have come from times and games when Louisa was a teenager (13 to 20 years old) and lived at Hillside, the Alcott home from 1845 to 1852, . 

In 1852 the Alcotts sold Hillside, just down the street from Orchard House, to Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, who renamed it The Wayside. The Alcotts returned to this neighborhood in 1858 with the purchase of Orchard House.

To the west behind Orchard House is Bronson Alcott’s School of Philosophy, where he gave lessons to students of his ideas.

Home to the Alcotts from 1845 to 1852, when they called it Hillside, this historic house was then sold to Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, who lived here with their three young children Una, Julian and Rose until Nathaniel’s death in 1864.

Louisa May Alcott lived here as a teenager. Many of the games and stories she recalled in her novel Little Women may have taken place here.

Today the historic house at 455 Lexington Road, just a few minutes’ stroll from Orchard House, is a property of Minute Man National Historical Park, open to the public.

The Hawthornes changed the house substantially from what the Alcotts knew, adding the large porch and the third-story tower.

In 1870 The Wayside was sold by Hawthorne’s heirs, and in 1883 bought by Boston publisher Daniel Lothrop and his wife Harriet Lothrop, a children’s book author who used the pen name Margaret Sidney and was widely known for her book The Five Little Peppers. In 1963 the house was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Bush, the house of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 28 Cambridge Turnpike at Lexington Road, is across the street from the Concord Museum, a ten-minute walk east of Monument Square.

Built in 1829 as a summer house for the Coolidge family, the house was bought by Emerson as a family residence in July 1835. The house was a center for meetings of Emerson and his friends, and still contains original furniture and Emerson’s memorabilia.

It was here that Emerson wrote his famous essays The American Scholar and Self Reliance, here that he entertained Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, his aunt Mary Moody EmersonMargaret FullerHenry David Thoreau, and many others.

On July 24, 1872, the house caught fire and was heavily damaged. Luckily there was no serious injury, all of the Emersons escaped, and Emerson’s papers were not lost. 

Without consulting Emerson, his neighbors took up a collection to pay for repairs. This allowed Emerson to journey to Europe and to Egypt—as he had always dreamed of doing—while repairs were being made.

In 1873 the Emersons returned to live in the house, surprised by a town-wide celebration of the event.

Ralph Waldo Emerson died here in 1882. In 1890, his wife Lidian Emerson died here, and was buried next to her husband on Authors Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

The Emersons’ daughter Ellen Tucker Emerson, who did not marry, continued to live in the house until her death in 1909. Other friends and relatives lived here until 1948.

Bush is still owned by the Emerson family, which has opened it to visitors as a private museum from late April through late October, Thursday through Sunday.

Today the house is much the same as when the Emerson family lived in it, although Ralph Waldo Emerson’s library is now in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and the furnishings of Emerson’s study are on display across the street in the Concord Museum.

Behind the Emerson house, a footpath called the Emerson-Thoreau Amble leads across a bridge over the Mill Brook and through the Hapgood Wright Town Forest to Walden Pond, following the route Emerson might have followed to visit his protégé Henry David Thoreau in his little house by the shore..

Concord was a way-station on the Underground Railroad during the mid-1800s, when escaped slaves from the southern states sought freedom in the north and in Canada.

The children of Caesar Robbins, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and other previously-enslaved n African-Americans, lived in this house, from 1823 to 1870.

Now restored and relocated to the North Bridge area of Minute Man National Historical Park, the Robbins House features changing exhibits on the African-American experience.

The house is open in summer and autumn.

Thoreau Farm

Thoreau Farm, Birthplace of Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 at what was known as the Wheeler-Minot Farm at 341 Virginia Road, 2.5 miles (4 km) northeast of Monument Square. 

He was christened David Henry Thoreau, after a recently deceased uncle. (The last name is pronounced THOR-rohnot thoh-ROH.) He reversed his first and middle name while at Harvard. He liked it better that way.

Built in 1730 by John Wheeler, the farm and its house passed to Henry Thoreau’s ancestor Jonas Minot on his mother’s side.

The house has been changed in many ways through its long history.

Its historic importance recognized, in 1995 it was acquired by the Thoreau Farm Trust, restored, and opened as a museum and cultural center. It’s usually open to visitors on weekends from May through October.