Research — to look for something over and over again. Often you don’t know what you’re looking for, but when you find it, you’ll know! Then you look again. And again. And again. Then you find more stuff that you didn’t know you were looking for and it’s all fantastic!
When you’re an author, you do a LOT of re-search. It’s fun!
My Alvin Ho books are set in Concord, Massachusetts, which is hard to spell and is a four-hour drive away with many rest stops and snacking opportunities, so I go to Concord several times a year to visit friends and to look for things to put in my books. I never know what I’m looking for, but I always find something that I’m just dying to use. I was there this week and this is what I found:
What? you say, it’s just an ordinary looking house. Why would you want to put such a house in a book?
Well, when you’re an author, you learn that often the most ordinary things contain the biggest stories. And sometimes the most splendid things have nothing to say. You just never know.
So you open your eyes. This is how you look for things — see “research” above.
And this is what I saw.
It’s the Robbins House. A sign says so out front, it’s so big, you can’t miss it:
A smaller sign tells you a little bit about Caesar Robbins:
But it doesn’t tell you everything. Worse, it says you have to wait until 2013 to get the rest of the stories. 2013??? That’s a LONG time to wait!!!
So now you open your mouth. When you’re an author, you have to ask questions.
Such as “CAN I GO INSIDE?” Pause. “NOW???”
“I don’t have the key,” said David Fisher, the site architect, who’s in charge of a lot of important stuff with the project.
Then I waited. When you’re an author, you also have to be patient. And you have to try NOT to ask again and again, just in case.
The next morning — surprise, surprise!
David got the key from someone and opened the door! Woohoo! Hooray! THANK YOU, DAVID!!!
When you’re an author, you should be very grateful for everything people do for you. Very, extremely grateful. It will change your life. I can’t explain it. It will change your work too.
This is what it looks like inside:
Note the ancient wallpaper on the left. And the new wood on the right.
Here’s the west side of the house, which was the side the Robbins family lived in:
The floor boards overhead are original, except for the new one, which was a replacement for a termite-eaten board. Termites had eaten other boards throughout the house, but fortunately, not the whole house.
Here’s the hearth, which was a two-sided fireplace for cooking and heat:
Another family likely lived on the other side and used the opposite hearth.
Here’s the upstairs, where the ceiling is low and it was 100F at 6:30 p.m. on July 17, 2012, and where at least 13 children slept on the Robbins’ side (far end, green wall) in the 1830s and no one complained that there wasn’t any air conditioning, not one word:
David said it’s not clear whether they had beds or slept on hay that was put on the floor. Town tax records showed hoes, rakes, farm equipment and various pieces of furniture belonged to the house. Homeowners were taxed on everything they owned.
Oh no . . . DO WE HAVE TO GO DOWN THERE??? It’s d-d-d-DARK!!!
“C’mon, what are you? An author, or a chicken butt?”
When you’re a chicken butt, you have to pretend you’re an author. And authors, as everyone knows, are very, very brave. Usually they can close one eye and face all sorts of monsters. Maybe.
So here’s a quick look at the creepy basement:
That’s a brand-new stone foundation made to look old and creepy.
And there’s the historically inaccurate sump pump in the corner so that the rest of the basement and house could stay old-looking and historically accurate:
Quick, back up the stairs before the monsters come out!!!
That was a close one.
When you’re an author, you have to know when it’s real and when it’s your imagination. And when it comes to creepy basements, it’s realer than you can ever imagine. Just remember that.
Outside, you can see the new-but-historically accurate square nails as plain as the daylight:
Okay, so what’s the big deal with the house, besides the fact that it’s 300 years old, is yummy to termites, has a million new-but-historically accurate square nails pounded into it, and has a creepy basement full of monsters?
The big deal is that it may have been the first house in Concord to belong to a freed slave.
It is now the ONLY surviving house of a freed slave.
Caesar Robbins built the house but never lived in it. He died before it was finished.
His son, Peter Robbins, and his large family, were the first to live in the house.
In 1881, Caesar’s grandson, Peter Hutchinson, who was the last of the family to live in the house, was the first African American to register to vote in Concord.
It was originally built in nearby Great Meadow, one of the remote and infertile places at the edge of town (Walden Pond was the other) where freed slaves were allowed to settle.
It had been moved TWICE. Once, in 1870, the house was moved to 324 Bedford St., close to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Then in 2010, it was saved from demolition by the Drinking Gourd Project, and last year it was moved to it’s current location in Minute Man State Park. You can see the move here.
The house now sits at the north end of the parking lot across from the Old Manse (which, ironically, was where Caesar Robbins’ wife was a slave and lived on the third floor),
and North Bridge, which is where the fighting began that started the American Revolutionary war:
More than one million visitors come to Concord every year to see North Bridge.
Most of them park in the lot:
Or take the tour buses.
So most of them will also see this house.
It’s THAT important.
Moving the house from obscurity to a place of prominence mirrors African Americans’ “struggle for livelihood, independence and acceptance in Concord society,” David Fisher said. Although the writers and thinkers of 19th Century Concord were outspoken critics of slavery and supported its abolition, and families in town participated in the Underground Railroad, he said that he is “skeptical that African Americans were accepted as much as some people want to think.”
Relocating the house to its current site finally brings the town’s African American history into the mainstream. When it is completed next year, the interior will be an “interpretative center” containing artifacts from, and information about, African American life in Concord.
The house has already been selected by the Toni Morrison Society for its Bench by the Road project. The Bench by the Road commemorates unmarked sites that are important in African American history both in the U.S. and abroad. You can read more about it here.
The Town of Concord Community Preservation Fund has paid $460,000 for the move and the historic renovation, but the funds cannot be used for the interpretative center, which will cost about $100,000 a year to operate and maintain. If you would like to make a donation, please go to The Drinking Gourd Project.
I’ve included bits and pieces of Concord’s African American history in my ALVIN HO series and will likely add this house or something about the Robbins family or about families not making it at Walden Pond, or about freed slaves serving in the Revolutionary War, as a result of this week’s research. I will also be thinking about how to tell the story of the struggle for acceptance.
Did you like coming along on my research?
What did you like most/least about it?
Did it make you want to see the Robbins House for yourself? Or visit Concord?
Do you think that an African American History Center signals acceptance of African Americans in the community?
What makes you feel accepted?