From the time John Hooker and Francis Gillette purchased the 140-acre tract of land in Hartford, Connecticut, long known as Nook Farm, in 1853, a remarkably able group of their relatives and friends established homes there, the best known of whom are Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Because the distinctive homes of these two writers have been restored and scrupulously maintained, and because a nearby site has been developed as a research center for the study of them and their neighborhood, Nook Farm is an invaluable destination for all those interested in Twain, Stowe, and the area’s other prominent nineteenth century residents.
The Stowe-Day Foundation
77 Forest Street
Hartford, CT 06105
ph.: (860) 522-9258
fax: (860) 522-9259
Nook Farm was part of a tract of land granted to John Haynes, the first governor of Connecticut Colony, as his woodlot. The city of Hartford grew up around this tract, but the rolling 140 acres which two prominent Hartford brothers-in-law, John Hooker and Francis Gillette, purchased in 1853 remained largely tree-covered. Hooker opened Forest Street and built his home there in that year. Over the next twenty years, most of the people who made Nook Farm famous built or purchased houses nearby.
John Hooker had married Isabella, one of the remarkable children of Lyman Beecher, a minister in Litchfield, Connecticut. Isabella, a tireless battler for woman suffrage, is the earliest of the Nook Farm residents to become known beyond the Hartford area. She served for nearly two decades as the president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. Also in 1853 was born the first Nook Farm native to attain fame. William, the sixth and last child of Francis and Elizabeth Gillette, would go on to a long career as an actor and playwright. William Gillette performed his most famous role, Sherlock Holmes, over thirteen hundred times, and in fact wrote the stage play based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective stories. Not well remembered today, Gillette was highly enough regarded in his time to be awarded the gold medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the previous recipient being Eugene O’Neill.
The best known of Isabella Hooker’s siblings had been living in Brunswick, Maine, when she wrote the book that took America by storm in the decade before the outbreak of the Civil War. When Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband Calvin built a house near, though not precisely within, the Nook Farm acreage in 1864, she was world-famous for Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). She had gone on to write well-regarded novels with New England settings, such as The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862). After moving to Hartford, she published another New England novel, Oldtown Folks (1869), its setting patterned upon her husband’s hometown of Natick, Massachusetts, while Calvin, a biblical scholar, brought out Origin and History of the Books of the Bible (1867). In 1871, the Stowes moved to Nook Farm proper, and it is this house that thousands of tourists visit each year.
One of the attractions of this house is its adherence to Catharine Beecher’s principles of home functionality and decoration. Harriet’s elder sister was never a Nook Farm resident, but she had a long association with Hartford, having established the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823, which earned a reputation as one of the best schools in the country for young women. Catharine Beecher was not a feminist like her half sister Isabella, but believing that young women needed more than a mere finishing school, she stressed domestic economy, the rearing of children, and women’s role in improving the moral tone of society. After eight years at the school, Beecher moved to Cincinnati and spent much of her time lecturing and promoting thetraining of female teachers. After Harriet established a home in the Nook Farm neighborhood, Beecher was a frequent visitor there.
Yet another of the Beecher women, Mary, lived at Nook Farm. The house that she and her husband Thomas Clap Perkins occupied on Hawthorn Street from 1855 to 1866 later became the home of other prominent families. Charles Dudley Warner, a young newspaper editor when he arrived in Hartford in 1860, moved into the Perkins House in 1866 with his wife Susan. She was an accomplished woman: a concert pianist, a patron of music, and a skilled hostess. He began to write weekly newspaper pieces about his hobby, gardening. These articles became the basis of his first book, My Summer in a Garden (1870). There followed a succession of travel books and novels, one of which earned for him a small but secure place in literary history.
Susan Warner lived for twenty-one years after her husband’s death in 1900. For twenty years she served as vice president of the Hartford Philharmonic Orchestra, and in her seventy-third year gave a piano concert at Carnegie Hall. At the outbreak of World War I, she performed benefit concerts for Polish and French relief funds. Neighbors, piano students, and illustrious guests–among them the grand old man of American letters in the early twentieth century, William Dean Howells, and the young Helen Keller–enjoyed the Warner hospitality.
The most illustrious of all the Nook Farmers, though, was the man who began his career as a novelist by coauthoring with Charles Dudley Warner The Gilded Age (1873); its title furnished a lasting sobriquet for the last third of the nineteenth century in the United States. Warner’s collaborator had already achieved major successes in the literary world for his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” (1865) and his own travel book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or as the world better recognizes him, Mark Twain, was by far the greatest of the Nook Farm writers, and the only non-New Englander among them.
The first notable American writer to be born west of the Mississippi (in Florida, Missouri, in 1835), Twain had spent his early life in the West, but after the European trip which provoked The Innocents Abroad, he married Olivia Langdon of Elmira, New York, and settled in Hartford, temporarily renting the Hooker House. He employed Edward Tuckerman Potter, the designer of Twain’s friend Warner’s house, to design one for him on Farmington Avenue, just around the corner from the Stowes’ home. Twain was Nook Farm’s most spectacular personality, and his house became the area’s most spectacular house. It had gables, turrets, and an extensive first-floor porch–in Twain’s mind a deck (long before the word came into vogue as an outdoor attachment to a house)–and another smaller third-floor porch simulating a Mississippi riverboat pilot’s bridge. Inside were nineteen rooms of Victorian extravagance, including a bedroom featuring a bed with elaborate carvings, which he had purchased in Venice, and a third-floor billiard room that eventually became his writing room as well. There he penned such works as the immortal Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
In the 1890’s, Mark Twain left Hartford and Harriet Beecher Stowe died. By the turn of the century, most of the noted Nook Farm residents were gone, but one family who later lived in the Perkins-Warner House deserves mention. In 1908, Dr. Thomas Hepburn and his young family moved in. He was the first New England doctor to specialize in urology. His wife, the former Katharine Houghton, assumed a role similar to that played earlier by Isabella Hooker. Shortly before the family settled on Hawthorn Street, Katharine had attended a lecture by the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst. Inspired by what she heard, she organized the Hartford Equal Franchise League, which became one of the strongest of the organizations whose relentless activity resulted eventually in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment conferring voting rights to women in national elections. In 1916, she became associated with Margaret Sanger, the great advocate of birth control. She spoke at rallies of the American Birth Control League and before the United States Senate.
One of the six Hepburn children, born the year after the family settled on Hawthorn Street, grew up with the reputation of a tomboy. She graduated from Bryn Mawr like her mother, but her career path led in the direction of the stage. After a successful Broadway debut in 1932, the younger Katharine Hepburn went on to even greater fame as a Hollywood actor.
Being close to the city’s center, the Nook Farm area became increasingly commercial as the twentieth century wore on. This was particularly true of the street where Twain had lived, Farmington Avenue. On Forest Street, where the Stowes had resided, a public high school and apartment buildings replaced the older homes. Nook Farm was fast becoming unrecognizable.
One of its rescuers was Katharine S. Day, a grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe and granddaughter of John and Isabella Hooker, who purchased the Stowe House in 1927 and then joined with others to save the Twain House. She served for several years thereafter on the Hartford City Planning Commission and in 1937 established her own foundation. When she died in 1964, her will provided for the restoration of the Stowe House. Simulations of porches, fireplaces, and moldings that a previous owner had removed returned the house to its nineteenth century appearance, and Stowe furniture was retrieved from various places. By 1968, it was open to the public.
The restoration of the Twain house also took many years. The Mark Twain Memorial Commission purchased the building and its grounds in 1929 for $155,000, but lack of further funds slowed work on the project to a standstill until the 1950’s, when restoration had proceeded far enough to permit an influx of visitors. Not until 1974, the centennial of the house’s construction, did it return to its full splendor. Along with his bed and billiard room, Twain’s printing machine, one of his many failed business ventures, is a highlight. Working together, the Stowe-Day Foundation and the Mark Twain Memorial established a visitors’ center in the carriage house between the Twain house on Farmington Avenue and the Stowe house, around the corner on Forest Street. For a single admission charge, visitors may explore each of these two sharply contrasting but fascinating houses.
The nearby Stowe-Day Foundation welcomes visitors who wish to use its extensive library of materials relating to Nook Farm, its architecture and history, and the achievements of its residents, with emphasis on Stowe and Twain.
Andrews, Kenneth R. Nook Farm: Mark Twain’s Hartford Circle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950. The best source of information on the relationships of the writers who lived in the neighborhood. DeLana, Alice, and Cynthia Reik. On Common Ground: A Selection of Hartford Writers. Hartford, Conn.: Stowe-Day Foundation, 1975. One of the most useful of the publications of a foundation dedicated to the preservation of Nook Farm and the study of its literary heritage. Faude, Wilson H. The Renaissance of Mark Twain’s House: A Handbook for Restoration. Larchmont, N.Y.: Queens House, 1978. An account of the development of a long-neglected mansion into one of the most popular of all American literary sites. “In the City.” www.hartnet.org. This portion of the Web site of Trinity College in Hartford furnishes pictures and historical background on the houses of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain, as well as information for prospective visitors. Salisbury, Edith. Mark Twain’s House in Hartford. Hartford, Conn.: Mark Twain Library and Memorial Commission, n.d. Describes the results of the intersection of Victorian architectural principles and Mark Twain’s whimsical domestic ambitions. Van Why, Joseph S. Nook Farm. Hartford, Conn.: Stowe-Day Foundation, 1975. Traces the history of Nook Farm, profiles its most notable residents, and contains excellent photographs of them and their houses, as well as a map of the area.