Some months ago a researcher asked about the location of Noah Webster’s property in Amherst. As many people will know, in September of 1812 the financially-strapped Webster reluctantly left the more cosmopolitan New Haven for a then very rural Amherst to work on his dictionary. While in Amherst, and almost as an occupational hazard of being in the right place at the right time, he helped to found Amherst Academy and then Amherst College. He left the town in 1822, before the first Amherst College class graduated, but he surely left his mark on the town and the College.
That “mark,” however, has not been a physical one for a long time, and over the years there has been some occasional confusion about exactly where he lived, with references to the Strong House (now the Amherst Historical Society) next to the Jones Library as well as to a building in the block called “Phoenix Row.” The latter address is correct, and the researcher’s inquiry seemed like a good opportunity to assemble information about Webster’s house — his “humble cottage in the country”— in one place.
The first reference stop was Carpenter and Morehouse’s “History of the Town of Amherst, Mass.” (1896), which says: “At the east end of Phoenix Row [on Main Street, starting in the center of town and flowing east toward the Dickinson house], on the site of the present Kellogg block, was the house which was owned and occupied by Noah Webster from 1812 until 1822; this house was burned in 1838.” (The volume also provides a handy list of especially disastrous town fires.)
In this detail from an 1873 map, Phoenix Row (named after the 1838 fire) is to the left of the “M” in Main Street, with E.F. Cook’s house at the base of the row:
In her valuable chronicle “Around a Village Green,” Mary Adele Allen fixes Noah Webster’s house “ at the end of Phoenix Row…directly opposite the entrance to Palmer’s Block on Main Street.” Allen attended Miss Emily Upton’s private school in Palmer’s Block many years after Webster left Amherst and recalled as her text what may have been Webster’s “blue-backed speller.”
A search in the Noah Webster Family Papers at Amherst College turned up a floor plan of the Webster house by one of Webster’s daughters. The plan confirms that Webster had 12 acres, some of which he purchased after he moved here.
It must’ve been idyllic. Webster’s garden flowed out the back of the house to the north and toward the prominence where the short-lived Mt. Pleasant Classical Institute would soon be, and from his second-story study window in the front southeast corner of the house (above the living room), he could see the First Congregational Church (at that time near the site of our Woods Cabinet and Observatory) and much of what then constituted the town (some 25-30 houses in the immediate area) and the cow-grazed common.
In “Emily Dickinson’s Home,” Millicent Todd Bingham quotes Lucy Bigelow, whose father bought the Dickinson home on Pleasant Street, marked as “Dr. O.F. Bigelow” on the map above and now the site of the only gas station in town: “My father put in the gable and French windows over the front door and built on the porch and fence, and regraded the yard. Probably the same fruit trees were there. There were two enormous apple trees with trunks as large as elms. We have thought it may have originally been a part of Noah Webster’s orchard…He is said to have had many fruit trees and that was true of our place when my father bought it.”
Webster’s granddaughter Emily Fowler Ford (daughter of William Chauncey Fowler and Harriet Webster) described the orchard in her “Notes on the Life of Noah Webster” (1912): “Webster made a fine garden, and planted an orchard which was up to 1873, ‘the best in town.’ He grafted all the fine kinds of apples and pears he could procure, in sound native stocks, raised peaches and cherries from the stones, and brought a grape-vine of a peculiarly large and rich sort of native growth from his father’s farm in West Hartford.”
E.S. Darling’s rather bare but fascinating 1830 map of Amherst gives a birds-eye view and includes the very new Mt. Pleasant Institute:
A little more searching then turned up an 1834 “sepia sketch” of the town by Mortimer Blake, AC Class of 1835, donated to the College in 1912 by Blake’s son Percy. The drawing was reproduced in a 1917 article in the Amherst Graduates Quarterly, but the quality was poor. A modern digital scan of the image provides a rare detailed view of the town early in the nineteenth century. According to a letter from Percy Blake that accompanied the donation, Mortimer Blake drew the scene from his room in “Old North College,” about where Williston Hall now stands. The perspective is complicated and many of the buildings in the center of town are difficult to distinguish, but in the accompanying detail from the image I’ve indicated which house is likely to have been Webster’s (judging by the four windows across the front of the house) as well as what must have been his orchard. Hezekiah Wright Strong’s property — gambrel-roofed house and store — is to the left (west) of the Webster property.
Webster’s house is most likely this one:
In addition, one can see in the full Blake drawing the Boltwood house and barn in the foreground; the area where the Warner and Merrill houses were on the right (east) side of the wide common, and General Zebina Montague’s property clustered in the area across the street from the Webster house. On the other side of the common, Webster would also have seen the home of Doctor (Reverend) David Parsons of the First Congregational Church, whose house was on the site of our Morgan Hall. As the drawing indicates, the common then extended up the street to include the church site, with the Parsons house on the west side of the common. It would have been across from the Boltwood house, so it’s not visible on Blake’s drawing. A school (one of many over the years) is along that side of the common as well, perhaps the small, one-story building along the row fronting on the common. Emily Fowler Ford’s aunt Eliza Steele Webster Jones described the school to her family: “I remember well the forlorn, unpainted, and unshaded building on one side of the village green. There was an entry way where hats and cloaks were kept and then one large room with an open fire place at each end and in winter full of green logs with sap oozing out of them. Two or three rows of hard benches with desks before them were on each side and a tall desk in the centre of the room was for the teacher. There were no maps or pictures of any kind — no maps or equipments for the assistance of the teacher, but I remember that the children were happy and anxious to learn.”
Another interesting detail on the sketch is the building that must be the Boltwood Tavern on the corner of Pleasant and Amity. According to Carpenter and Morehouse: “About 1821, when Amherst College was established, the [two-story] wooden building was torn down and a large, substantial three-story building of brick erected in its stead. In the rear was a kitchen, built of wood, one story in height.”
After Webster left Amherst, his house was converted to an inn called “the Mansion House” (Susan Dickinson’s father, Thomas Gilbert, was proprietor between 1832 and 1837). It was the Mansion House that burned in 1838 and was then followed on the site by the Hygeian Hotel, and then by the American House Hotel, which itself later gave way to a group of businesses and then to the “Lincoln Building.”
This 1840 view of Phoenix Row — two years after the fire — shows neighbor Hezekiah Wright Strong’s building and a space after it, where the Webster house had been.
Webster’s garden and orchard behind the house were succeeded by, among other things, a popular eatery called the “College Candy Kitchen” and, more recently, a parking lot — the price of progress. Perhaps somewhere in the lot a lonely West Hartford grapevine still grows, last heir to the Webster farm.