the Concord Magazinejan'99

Whatever Happened to Thoreau's Hut?

By Deborah Bier, editor and publisher of this ezine. (Part 1)

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Henry David Thoreau lived at Walden Pond in a hut of his own construction for some two years and two months. Much attention has been devoted to that time and the experiment in living it represented. But little is said about what happened to that famous hut - now more familiarly called a cabin (see column at right) - once its builder quit the premises.

Two years and two months isn't very long to use a well-built structure - it could hardly have been worn out in that time. In fact, Henry's good friend, Ellery Channing, noted that it could have lasted a century. Milled lumber and the supplies used to build buildings (nails, etc.) were valuable and it was quite common until earlier this century to move buildings which had outgrown their original purpose. In fact, many buildings in Concord both large and small have been moved (some more than once) during their lifetimes, a practice no longer customary. Moving a small structure like the hut would have been a fairly simple matter.

And that is indeed what happened to it....several times, and all within Concord. However, the available sources on just where and when it was moved are somewhat contradictory. There have over the years been some fanciful tales passed around, many of which are untrue, best as can be substantiated. And as you will see, many interesting questions are still left open.

The land on which it was built at Walden was then owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is not clear whether or not Henry simply abandoned the hut or sold it to Emerson, though no documentation is found stating a sale price. The best documented sources say that it was then sold or given to Hugh Whalen, Emerson's gardener.

Hugh moved it away from the Pond - but not far - into a bean field close to what is now Walden Street. Thoreau notes with great amusement in a letter to Emerson that Hugh, being given to poor judgement born of drink, dug the cellar hole too big. Despite Thoreau's warnings to that effect, the hole collapsed into itself and left Hugh quite dispirited. Not long thereafter, Whalen got drunk and ran away from Concord, eventually turning up in Sterling. Again the hut was empty. It was put up for sale and for a time, it was left unoccupied.

In 1849, it was bought by James Clark, one of the sons at the Brooks Clark Farm on the Old Carlisle Road (now Estabrook Road). He had great admiration for Henry and, according to some sources, fancied himself to be a second Thoreau. He hoped to gain inspiration from the hut. James and his brother Daniel moved it to the farm on September 3rd of that same year. In the process, the plaster cracked.

So, did the hut inspire James? Perhaps, but "[f]inally, the poor fellow became insane and was placed in an asylum," noted Edward Bacon in his 1897 Walks and Rides Around Boston. James died five years after moving the hut.

But that's far from the end of the story of its travels. (Find out what else happened next month in the February, '99 edition.)

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Uncle Henry's Cabin?

Popularly, the house that Henry built at Walden is now referred to as a "cabin." However, this was not always so, and perhaps was never correct.

Through the years, "hut" and "shanty" have also been used. However, Thoreau himself referred to it as a "hut". His contemporary and biographer, Frank Sanborn, as well as subsequent owners of the Brooks Clark Farm have noted and approved of this usage. We therefore have adopted this term here, though it does seem to go against the grain. But this is only because we have always heard it referred to otherwise.

How the popular "cabin" ever got so strongly attached to Henry's little dwelling is not known.



Bacon, Edward M., Walks and Rides About Boston, 1897.

Clark, Daniel Brooks, Daniel Brooks Clark Diary. Special Collections Concord Free Public Library.

D.E.W., 1904, handwritten note, Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library.

Griswold, William E., After Walden: Biography of Thoreau's Hut, 1954. Special Collections Concord Free Public Library.

Wheeler, Ruth Winifred Robinson, John Brooks Clark Farm House, file #Es 3, Special Collections Concord Free Public Library.

Wheeler, Ruth Winifred Robinson, Benjamin Clark Farm House, file #Es 2, Special Collections Concord Free Public Library.

Zimmer, Jeanne M., A History of Thoreau's Hut and Hut Site, Washington State University Press, 1972, Reprinted from ESQ. Vol. 18 (3rd quarter 1972).

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