Phebe Ham
80 Musterfield Road

Saving the Harrington House

Age: 72

Interviewed February 22, 2005

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

Thirty years ago a warrant article was being prepared to have the town acquire the Harrington House. The efforts to save the house from demolition was very much a grass roots one.

It was wonderful. The Harrington House was acquired in 1975 by the town on a piece of land by the Natural Resources Commission. The Natural Resources Commission mainly Dan Monahan, who was head at that time, felt the old house there was incompatible with the natural resources, that there shouldn't be a house there. He just wanted the land open. They were ready to bulldoze the house. So a group of us, myself and Mary Shorey to begin with, felt they shouldn't bulldoze the house. This was one of the few remaining pre-Revolutionary farmhouses in the whole county. The house was in very bad shape. You might say it was derelict. It was boarded up and all the window panes had been broken. It was a sight. But it had great potential.

So we decided we would like to save that house. We said to the Historical Commission who was also interested in the house, we'll do the work, we'll bring it up to code, and we want a family to live in it. So the Historical Commission said okay. They went before town meeting in the spring of 1975 and asked for a sum of $6,800 to do all the work in that house. I got up in town meeting and spoke in favor of that, and Mary Shorey remembered an organization called LAWS which stood for Louisa Alcott Women's Society, which was sort of a feminism group that had started a few months earlier. So we said we wanted the restoration of the Harrington house to be a bicentennial community project. We also had been lining up people to work on the house over the summer. When I spoke at town meeting, I said we have pledges of 55 individuals who have pledged to work a day, or two days, or three days, and we'll get the work done over the summer. And what's more I said, these people didn't just make a promise, they signed on the dotted line. I held up the 55 blanks with people's names on them saying I will work so many hours. So that made a big hit. The vote was taken and we got the $6,800. That house was within a month or two of being demolished. That vote at town meeting saved it.

Town meeting was in April, so June 14 we started work. I kept a dairy all summer of the work that we'd done on the house. Volunteers assembled, and every day that people worked there, I was there. I was the clerk of the works. I kept an account every day that we worked there, who was there and who did what. So on June 14 this is just part of what I wrote that day. "The shed on the left as you approach the house was torn down by Mary and Frank Shorey, Bob Trappus and Lou Hills. It was in very bad condition and not even attached to the house. About 3/4 of the wood was rotten and could not be salvaged. The good wood was piled up neatly beside the house. The nails have yet to be removed. The other wood was put into two piles to be taken to the dump." That was day one. And at that time we had a dump.

We continued to work. The first important thing we had to do was to sweep up all the glass and neaten things up a little bit. But we had to scrape that house. If you've ever scraped a house, it's really hard work. It's no fun. It's hard, hard work. So on June 211 wrote, "The house had not been properly painted or scraped for many years, and the work was very slow going. Up under the roof where the men worked, the paint was 1/8 of an inch thick and extremely difficult to remove. As we went along, we hammered the nails which were protruding from the clapboards and put in new ones where needed to tighten them up. Cracks and crevices were caulked." That scraping was a hard job, but it was all leading up to the time when we would prime and paint it. That was one of the big jobs.

We had at least 50 volunteers in total. In those days people had time. If you asked people to do something, they'd say, "Oh, I'd love to work on that." Or, "I can come next weekend." These days when you ask people to do something, they almost always say they're too busy. I hate that word busy now, I hear it so often. But in those days, people really did want to help.

On June 22, "Mrs. Manion (that was Anna Manion who was selectman then) arrived shortly and took a tour of the house. Work went smoothly all afternoon with musical intervals by members of the Old Coyote Band." The Old Coyote Band included Rob McCall, who worked on the house a lot and later became a tenant and who was a marvelous fiddle player. So he'd be up on a ladder painting away or scraping away, and then he would come down and play his fiddle. Everybody would feel refreshed and then he would go up the ladder and back to scraping. "One by one a dozen or more of his guests drifted across the road to listen to the music and ask questions about the house. All were given guided tours by Phebe, me of course."

You know it was summertime and it seemed like a wonderful summer. I don't remember that it rained much and the house is up on a hill, and it was just wonderful working there with a group of people. So we went on working and everybody had a good time.

June 27 in my dairy - "Scraping was the order of the day. The end of the house was even in worse condition than the front. The paint is very thick and caked and very difficult to remove. Almost the entire day was devoted to this work. Jean (Hills) brought over sandwiches, potato chips, and pink lemonade for the workers at lunch time which was most welcome."

And here we have June 29 - "It should be noted here that since the work started, younger members of the community have been very helpful and cooperative and have worked along with us. Even Brian Greenlaw who's only three did a good job with a dustpan and brush."

We got the whole house scraped and now it was time to prime. I assigned positions to people all around the house and we had people who were qualified to do the peak, the peak and high people. They were the ones that were going to put the primer on up high. So we had "peak and high people" who included Lou Hills, Rob McCall, Frank Shorey and probably a couple of others. They didn't mind going up these ladders. Then we had the "medium to low people" and they did the bottom half of the house. Then we had "ground control". Ground control directed all those painters. We put ladders up all around the house and each person had an assigned ladder. We told them it had to be done just right. We gave instructions. The peak and high people were to paint along the front of the house horizontally until they met the next person, and the paint was to blend right in so we didn't have lap marks. Then they'd get the whole top of the front of the house right across. We maybe had four ladders. Then they'd all go down a step and do four more clapboards straight across, and four more, and four more, so that it didn't look patchy. All the paint worked right into each other.

That was on July 12. On the next Saturday, July 19, we all came back and we worked in the same way and we put the first coat of paint on. So immediately that house which had looked so badly for so long began to look like something. A coat of paint does wonders for any old thing. So we kept at it all summer. People would come up and visit and talk and work a while. The scraping and the painting were the big things to do, but there were other things that had to be done. All the wiring in the house had to be redone. The septic tank was in terrible shape because the house hadn't been occupied for so long.

August 1 - "We were surprised to find the MacLeod electricians had worked in the house but distressed to hear that they had entered through the window on the west end." We hadn't worked on the windows yet, but they came in and worked on the wiring. For some things we had to hire professionals. We couldn't do it all ourselves, but that was kept to a minimum. We had a lot of talented people, carpenters who came and gave their time.

So on we went for the whole summer working on this house. I have the whole diary here which makes interesting reading. On the last day, September 7, 1975, we finished our work. The house was done complete and just about ready for occupancy. At town meeting we announced pledges of 77 %2 days, and we did the work we said we'd do and we did it in the time we said we would do it. We got it done. Rob McCall and his wife and their two young children were chosen in the fall to be tenants. They paid some rent, but they also gave work in kind. They kept working on the house and that was considered part of the rent. That was a very good arrangement. It was an excellent arrangement for everybody. He was already a carpenter and doing that kind of work. And what a fiddler!

So on November 20, 1975 we had a fund raiser for the Harrington house. We had flyers that went up that said, "Olde Time String Band Jamboree" with Roaring Jelly and the Old Coyote String Band and several other local string bands to cheer your heart and set your feet tapping. Banjos, fiddles, guitars, dulcimers and mandolins for the whole family and refreshments too. Children could come for 75 cents, adults $1.50 or the whole family for $4.00. That raised additional funds for repairs as they would be needed. That was great fun and a big success.

Then in March 1976 we had another fundraiser called "Cabin Fever Follies" and we again had music. It was held at the Harvey Wheeler Community Center. Rob was there of course playing his fiddle again and he wrote a song. That winter had been cold and we had trouble with the pipes because the basement wasn't heated. It was a very cold winter. And, Rob wrote a song about that winter and the only line I remember was, "it was so cold that the fire froze."

The vote at town meeting was an easy vote. There were really only a few people that thought the house should be demolished. But that was not most of the community. Most everybody thought it was a wonderful idea and here they were being offered three months of free work and only having to pay $6,800. I think people really caught the spirit up. That's the only house in West Concord that's surrounded by land, so you get the house and the land around it which is so valuable to understand what a farmhouse is like. There is the farmhouse on the hill and there's the land all around it. We had 15 acres with that house. Later on, the present tenants, Peter and Jane Benes, did a lot of research into farmhouses. He really is an expert on farmhouses and he lectures on farmhouses and he has people up to the house and tells them how an 18t century farmhouse works, and there we have the house to show them what it was like. They've been wonderful tenants too. They've been there over 20 years. Rob McCall was the first tenant and then there was another tenant for a short time, and then the Beneses.

The selectmen and the town manager were not so much the force behind the vote, it was the Historical Commission and the people of the town. Committees are one thing but we really had the people behind this. Of course there were a lot of West Concord people who worked on it, so I'd say it was grassroots. It wasn't some committee doing something. It was definitely grassroots. We called ourselves, the Harrington House volunteers. It was a large community project, but we were the Harrington House volunteers. We were not committee people. The neighborhood was definitely behind us. There was one person prior to town meeting who lived across the road, and it was really one person who was not in favor and thought the house should be demolished, and wanted sandboxes and some sort of recreational equipment up there. She spoke at town meeting but that was not the feeling of town meeting. The feeling was here's a house, the town owns it, we're going to get it into shape again. People liked to hear about that. How could you be against something like that? People were really enthusiastic and with all the time people contributed it wasn't just a momentary idea. It was an idea that people liked and worked to bring to fruition.

Then in 1977 we went back to town meeting with the issue of how to finance the house. We wanted something called a revolving fund. It's a very simple concept. How we figured it would work is that all the rent money would go into a fund and stay in that fund and then the money from the rent that the tenant paid would then be used to do the necessary repairs on the house. It wasn't going to cost the taxpayers anything. I don't think it's cost the taxpayers a penny since that $6,800, I don't think the town has paid for anything because the revolving fund was set up. That was voted for at town meeting in 1977. Every month since then the monthly rent has gone into the revolving fund. What that does, it makes the preservation of the house independent of town meeting. Because in town meeting you can only appropriate money for that year. So if we didn't have the revolving fund, you would have to go back every year and say we need so much for the Harrington House. It wouldn't be a very good way of doing things because every year you couldn't plan more than a year ahead. But with the revolving fund you can just say there's the fund and here's the bank account and this is how much money it has in it this year and so forth. So it makes it independent of town meeting which in this case is really good and it's not costing the taxpayers anything. So we liked the idea of the revolving fund and that went through easily.

I spoke at town meeting in 1977, "Article 39 has the unanimous support of the Historical Commission and the Finance Committee." It's very rare to get support from the Finance Committee, but they thought it was fine because it wasn't going to cost the town anything. So we had good support from both of those organizations.

So that revolving fund is what keeps the house going today. We now have our little pocket of money and when we need repairs, there it is. I think it has been extremely successful. In fact it has been mentioned that it could be a model for other projects. Maybe it was the state Historical Commission or the state Recreational Committee said this is a model. Here it is compatible use for open land and it has worked very well.

I'd like to mention having a 30th anniversary for the Harrington House which would be this June. I would like to take that idea and get in touch with everybody who worked on that house and ask them to come for the day. Maybe we could do a little work and maybe get Rob back with his fiddle, and have work and a celebration and music. It should be lots of fun. I think anyone who worked on that house would like to come. I think I can probably find most of them.

I've been involved in town politics for 35 years or so and the Harrington House was one of the first things I did. But of all that time, the Harrington House and Vanderhoofs 100th anniversary, which I organized last year in September, was the most fun. When I went to all the stores and said it was Vanderhoof's 100th anniversary, the same family business in the same building for 100 years, we got wonderful food from all sorts of establishments in Concord, and we got a bluegrass band. It was a beautiful day. It was so nice. Everybody thought it was a good idea. So it really is the same way with the Harrington House. Everybody thought it was a good idea. When you do that, it is just so much fun. Nobody's complaining and nobody's saying we don't have time, we can't do this, we can't do that, everybody's saying yes. The Harrington House is a wonderful site. It sets up on a hill and that house looks the same way as it did when it was built. It was built sometime in the 1760s. So it's priceless. You don't have that everywhere.

I'd like to put all this material including my whole diary in some sort of resource. I think people would like to read about all the people who helped work on the house, and I have the flyers for the fundraisers. I'd like to put that all together in one book. People can listen to this tape and then they can go to Special Collections in the library and read it in greater detail if they're interested. I think there is such a strong interest in history that this is just as important as an Emerson or Thoreau. It's Concord and it's an earlier time.

I'd also like to add that Ralph Waldo Emerson notes in his journal of June 7, 1852, "We had a good walk, Ellery Channing and I, along the bank of the north branch of the swamp and to the Harrington estate." In 1863, the selectmen published a list in the town report of those people who had refused to pay their war tax, presumably they were not in favor of the Civil War, and Joseph Harrington paid his tax but he flew the Confederate flag outside the Harrington House, and he was attacked by a mob but there was no serious damage.

Text mounted 29th September 2012. RCWH.