Emerson was anything but an ordinary citizen of Concord. While many of his rural townsmen did not need to venture often or far beyond the town’s boundaries, Emerson’s ability to travel into the larger world was essential to him. His lecture audiences, his publishers, and literary and intellectual contacts—including, from the 1850s, meetings of the Saturday Club in Boston—all drew him away from home, sometimes for long periods of time. He went to Boston by stagecoach until 1844, when the Fitchburg Railroad opened in Concord, and by train after that.
Nevertheless, throughout his residence here, he played his part in the life of the community. He served on town committees, spoke at municipal celebrations and commemorations, joined local organizations, formed friendships, socialized with neighbors, and raised a family of growing children who, in their turn, reinforced his ties to other town residents.
In Emerson in Concord, Edward Waldo Emerson wrote of his father’s induction into town office: “In the spring following his marriage he was sought out in the garden by one of his townsmen who came to notify him of his first civic honor, namely, that at the March-meeting he had been elected one of the hog-reeves for the ensuing year. It was the ancient custom of the town to consider the newly-married man eligible for this office.”
From this inglorious beginning, Emerson went on to serve repeatedly on Concord’s School Committee. He also served on the Standing Committee of the Concord Social Library (a proprietary library) and subsequently on the Library Committee for the Concord Town Library (the town’s first formally organized public library) and its successor the Concord Free Public Library. He attended town meeting and appreciated the democracy of this traditional New England form of government.
His speech at the bicentennial of Concord’s incorporation in 1835 was the first of Emerson’s many contributions to town ceremonies and celebrations. He was asked to write words for a hymn—now known as the “Concord Hymn”—to be sung at the dedication of the Battle Monument at the site of the old North Bridge on July 4, 1837. He delivered addresses at the consecration of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in 1855, the dedication of the Soldiers’ Monument—erected in memory of Concord’s Civil War dead—in 1867, and the dedication of the Concord Free Public Library in 1873, and spoke briefly at the centennial celebration of the Concord Fight in 1875, when his mental acuity was no longer what it had been.
Although wary of joining organizations, Emerson belonged to two in Concord that particularly suited his interests and social needs. He was a member of and frequent speaker at the Concord Lyceum, which had been formed for the “improvement in knowledge, the advancement of Popular Education, and the diffusion of useful information throughout the community.” In 1839 he was elected to and in 1840 became a member of the Social Circle, a private men’s club limited by constitution to twenty-five members who gathered to “strengthen the social affections and disseminate useful communications among its members.” Emerson described the Social Circle as “much the best society I have ever known,—consisting always of twenty-five of our citizens, doctor, lawyer, farmer, trader, miller, mechanic; solidest men, who yield the solidest gossip.” These solid men included Judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, one of Emerson’s good friends in Concord.
Edward Emerson wrote of his father’s connection to the local church: “He attended church, if at home, during the first part of his life in Concord, certainly during the time that Dr. Ripley officiated there, and occasionally supplied the pulpit … ” As late as 1865, he affirmed in writing his desire to be a member of the First Parish.
Emerson was friendly with his neighbors, among them Sam Staples (Thoreau’s jailer in 1846 for nonpayment of the poll tax) and farmers Edmund Hosmer and George Minot. Edward Emerson recalled that his father “was always sure of finding hearty help in any emergency, great or small” from Sam Staples, the “best of neighbors.” Edmund Hosmer was his father’s “advisor and helper in rustic affairs” as well as a man with whom he could “have a chat on matters of agriculture, politics or philosophy.” George Minot “liked to gossip with Mr. Emerson over the fence about ‘the old bow-arrow times.’ ”
In elemental ways, Emerson’s family life was not remarkably different from that of many other Concord residents. He and Lidian rejoiced in the birth of their children and grieved over the death of their first-born. They provided a comfortable home for Emerson’s mother Ruth, who lived with them from their marriage until her death in 1853. Emerson worried about and arranged for the care of Bulkeley, his mentally impaired brother, whose well-being was a constant concern. The children of the family attended Frank Sanborn’s school on Sudbury Road (established in 1855 with Emerson’s encouragement) and socialized with their own circle of schoolmates and friends—including the Alcott, Hawthorne, Bartlett, and Keyes children, Sam Hoar (son of Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar), and the Mann boys, who moved to Concord with their mother Mary Peabody Mann after Horace Mann’s death in 1859. The young people’s activities linked their home with other Concord households.
By and large, Emerson took life in Concord on its own terms. He accepted his place in the town’s social structure and institutions, performed his civic responsibilities, and did not expect more of town life than it could provide. In turn, Concordians took pride in his uniqueness among them. At the 1853 community Christmas celebration organized in the Town Hall by Caroline Brooks Hoar (Mrs. E.R.), Emerson was presented a holiday gift in recognition of his position as—in the words of Main Street resident Anna Maria Whiting writing for the Boston Commonwealth—one whose name “has long since resounded on European shores, and … which his own town-people never hear without an inward tribute of respect and grateful admiration.” Moreover, the people of Concord helped the Emersons substantially during and after the fire that almost destroyed Bush in 1872, and closed ranks to ensure Emerson’s comfort and dignity in the final decade of his life, when his intellectual powers diminished. Concordians mourned as a community as well as individually at his death on April 27, 1882.
When Emerson moved here in 1834, Concord was an agricultural town with a vigorous commercial, political, intellectual, and social life of its own. It teemed with skilled craftsmen (hatters, clockmakers, and cabinetmakers among them), with general stores, shops, and taverns, with blacksmiths, millers, lawyers, and a variety of other merchants and service providers. The Middlesex Mutual Fire Insurance Company (established in 1826) was located here, as were the Concord Bank (1832) and (from 1835) the Middlesex Institution for Savings.
Textile manufacturer Calvin Damon purchased a West Concord cotton mill in 1834, ran it profitably, and at his death in 1854 passed it on to his son Edward. In 1819, David Loring set up a lead pipe factory on Nashoba Brook in West Concord, later adding a sheet metal works. In the 1850s, Loring’s facilities were bought by Ralph Warner, who converted them into a pail factory. There were several small-scale pencil factories, including those of the Munroe and Thoreau families. Pratt’s Powder Mills opened on the Concord/Acton line in 1835.
Beginning in the 1820s, the downtown Mill Dam area was completely overhauled. The Concord Mill Dam Company—a real estate development corporation—bought up property in the center of Concord, drained the millpond (created in the 17th century by damming the Mill Brook to power Peter Bulkeley’s town mill), took down some of the old buildings, renovated others, and put up new structures that were offered for sale or rent. The Mill Dam Company was responsible for the construction of the pillared Concord Bank building (now 46/48 Main Street).
As host to the courts of Middlesex County from the late 17th century until 1867, Concord drew visitors from a wide area during court sessions. The Middlesex Hotel on Monument Square was filled to capacity at such times, vendors sold food from booths, and something of a carnival atmosphere reigned.
Concord had a vital intellectual and cultural life as well. The Concord Social Library was formed in 1821, the Concord Lyceum in 1828. Newspaper publication began in 1816, when Bettis and Peters produced the first issue of the Middlesex Gazette. For a time, the town had two competing papers, one—the Yeoman’s Gazette—with a distinctly Whig slant, the other—the Concord Freeman—Democratic. There were singing schools and a Mozart Society (founded in 1832). The Concord Academy was founded in 1822, providing a private alternative to public education.
There were opportunities for people to socialize—parties, quilting bees, dances and balls, suppers, club and organizational activities, and public celebrations. Membership in the Social Circle in Concord brought a small, select group of men together on a regular basis. As suggested by Henry Thoreau’s nicknaming the Concord Female Charitable Society the “chattables,” even charitable and reform meetings might encourage social interaction as well as philanthropy.
Over the almost half a century that Emerson lived here, Concord underwent tremendous change. Its population grew from just over 2,000 in 1830 to almost double that in 1880, and changed in composition as well. The immigrant Irish came to build the Fitchburg Railroad in the 1840s and stayed on as day laborers, domestics, and—eventually— farmers. Later in the 19th century, other ethnic groups contributed to the mix of Yankee and new blood.
The orthodox Trinitarian Congregational Church broke off from the Unitarian First Parish in 1826, creating some denominational choice. Although the First Parish was connected to the municipal government until 1856 and therefore remained the officially sanctioned church of Concord, other denominations established themselves here during Emerson’s residence. The First Universalist Society was gathered in 1838 and built a meetinghouse on Monument Square in 1841. The first Catholic Mass was celebrated in Concord in 1844. Regular Catholic services were conducted beginning in the 1850s. In 1863, the former Universalist meetinghouse became St. Bernard’s Church.
With the opening of the Fitchburg Railroad in 1844, Concord lost its commercial self-containment and began its transformation into a bedroom community. The town’s political importance was diminished by the transfer of the county courts to Cambridge and Lowell.
Farming and land use changed tremendously, too. The west was explored and developed, reducing New England’s agricultural importance and draining manpower from the region. The railroad opened up new markets and allowed easy transportation of products—particularly wood—that were difficult to haul in quantity by wagon, or too perishable or delicate for traditional modes of transportation. By the end of the century, new crops had edged out the old staples and new techniques and tools had been introduced.
Farming developed into a specialty rather than a fact of every man’s life. Only those farmers who had some capital to invest in their operations and who were able and willing to adjust to changing market demands thrived. And at a time when it could no longer be assumed that farms would always be passed from father to son and that sons would always be willing to assume their management, hired hands increasingly replaced family help.
In the mid-19th century, there was heavy demand for wood for both personal and commercial use. There were woodlots all over Concord, including the area around Walden Pond. Some Concordians—Abel Moore and John Hosmer, for example—made good money in the wood business. Henry Thoreau, a proficient surveyor, worked for hire preparing plans of a number of local woodlots. Intensive cutting of wood radically reduced the forested portion of the town and resulted in an open landscape.
In these and other ways, Concord changed more rapidly during Emerson’s residence here than it had in the two centuries between its founding and his arrival in 1834.