A Day in Concord, Massachusetts

I’m trying a new experiment: travelogues for families with book recommendations to read in conjunction with the visits. Over my February school vacation week, I took a day trip to Concord, Massachusetts, a town I’ve been to many times, since I lived for 20 years in neighboring Stow. Despite my familiarity with Concord, I still made some new discoveries. I focused on the transcendentalists rather than the Revolutionary War aspect, partly because of my own interests and partly because I found so many books about them. Here’s my report from that visit.

I started my day with breakfast at The Club Car Cafe in West Concord (note: West Concord is officially part of Concord but has its own downtown). This is a converted railroad depot with a model train running along a track overhead, or if you have a train aficionado in the family it’s a fun place to get breakfast or lunch. The West Concord train station is nearby, so you may see the real thing as well.

The Old Manse

From there I headed to the Old Manse, a historic house owned by the Trustees of Reservations. It was built by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great-grandfather, William, in 1769, and you can see Old North Bridge from at least one of its windows, so it’s a good way to connect the Revolutionary and transcendentalist histories of Concord. Both Ralph and Nathaniel Hawthorne lived there, and there’s a windowpane where Hawthorne’s wife carved a pretty lengthy message with her diamond ring, commemorating the beauty of an ice storm that she shared with her 10-month-old daughter.

I took the “family friendly” tour of the Old Manse, which I’m sure seemed like an odd choice since I was the only one on the tour. I explained what I was doing, and the tour guide, at my request, treated me like an 8-year-old for most of the tour to show me how she interacts with kids. She did a good job of being engaging and focusing on details that would be interesting to kids, and the tour was 30 minutes instead of the standard 50 minutes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house

From there, the logical next step would have been Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, but unfortunately it was closed for the winter. I’ve never given RWE much thought but reading A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley (Scholastic, 2014) got me interested enough in him and his house (which burned to the ground when he lived there) that I was sorry I couldn’t get a tour. The book does a good job describing Emerson’s life, house, and his importance to Concord, and it distills his philosophy into small, easily digestible chunks, which, as near as I can tell, is no easy feat.

Lunch was at Helen’s on Main Street, a family-friendly restaurant that’s been in Concord for almost 90 years and always seems to be hopping. If you’re looking for pancakes, a burger, or ice cream, this is a great choice. After lunch, I walked along Main Street, stopping in The Concord Bookshop, which is just a few years younger than Helen’s and will fill all your Concord-related reading needs. When my kids were little, we used to love visiting The Toy Shop on the corner of Main and Walden. I thought the pandemic had done them in, but it turns out they’ve moved across the street as The Concord Toy Box. It’s smaller and less prominent than the former store, but definitely worth seeking out.

Orchard House
The School of Philosophy

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House is right down the street from Emerson’s, and I had signed up for a tour at 1:45. This was a tour I’d done a few times before, and I was probably a bit jaded going into it. The guide struck me as a bit fawning about the Alcott family, but the young women in my group loved it, and you probably will too. We began the tour by viewing a film in the School of Philosophy started by Louisa’s father Bronson (located behind the main house), then we were split into two groups. The other group included some pretty young kids, and they seemed to move through the house quite a bit more quickly than we did, so it appears that tours can be tailored for the age group.

If you want to learn more about Louisa May Alcott, start with Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott by Yona Zeldis McDonough (Henry Holt, 2009), which is an excellent introduction to Louisa and her family. Another good choice that ties Louisa to another of Concord’s leading lights is Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute by Julie Dunlap and Marybeth Lobiecki, illustrated with striking woodcuts by Caldecott winner Mary Azarian (Dial, 2002). If you share my suspicion that the family succeeded in spite of, not because of, Bronson Alcott, this book will really seal that deal.

For older kids, you can’t beat the original Little Women and/or one of the many film versions. Middle school readers might want to go from there to a modern graphic version of the story like Jo: An Adaptaion of Little Women (Sort of ) by Kathleen Gross (Quill Tree, 2020) or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy by Rey Terciero (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019). It’s fun to see what’s the same and what’s different from the original, and–spoiler alert–both give Beth a happier ending.

A statue of Henry David Thoreau outside his house
The inside of Thoreau’s house

My last stop for the day was Walden Pond. I’ve been there many times, often in the summer when the parking lot gets filled by noon. But on this 20-degree day, the lot was almost completely empty. I parked by the visitor center and traipsed through icy snow to look at the replica of Thoreau’s house, which gives new meaning to “tiny house.” I didn’t venture across the street to the pond, as it was freezing outside and pretty icy under foot. Having visited in all seasons, I’d recommend spring or fall for a good hike around the pond when you won’t have to fight for a parking spot.

I love the idea of Walden (the book, that is), and I’ve attempted to read it multiple times, but there’s a lot to wade through to get to the good stuff. I discovered a graphic version called Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino (Little, Brown Ink 2018) that distills out some of the more memorable lines from the original in an easy-to-read comic version. It’s a great introduction for older elementary school and middle school kids, and honestly could serve as a sort of Cliff’s Notes version for those assigned to read the book in high school or college.

Another title for that age group is I Begin With Spring: The Life and Seasons of Henry David Thoreau by Julie Dunlap (Tilbury House, 2022). Part nature journal, part Thoreau biography, it tells the essentials of Henry’s life in an engaging way with plenty of illustrations.

Younger kids will enjoy the Henry series by D. B. Johnson starting with Henry Climbs a Mountain (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2003). Henry is a bear, but his adventures are drawn from Thoreau’s life and include a lot of his philosophy.

If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond by Robert Burleigh (Christy Ottaviano, 2012) is a beautiful picture book for slightly older readers, imagining a journey through time to see how Henry would have spent the day at Walden.

Finally, I discovered a new book called Of Walden Pond: Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Tudor, and the Pond Between by Lesa Cline-Ransome (Holiday House, 2022) that takes an interesting look at the intersecting lives of Thoreau and Frederic Tudor, an entrepreneur who harvested ice from Walden Pond and figured out how to preserve it and ship it to India. This was featured as a StoryWalk on the Woods Path when I visited.

6 thoughts on “A Day in Concord, Massachusetts

  1. I LOVE this travelogue of Concord. Thank you so much for putting it together. I’m going to do exactly your day! I’m also planning to share with the parents of my class. I’d love to have more travelogues around Massachusetts and neighboring states as you experience them.


  2. This is great! Thanks, Janet. I moved back to MA from a stint in VA in June 2020 in the beginning of the pandemic, so I still have so many things in the area to explore. A little outside of Concord, but Fruitlands is also quite nice. And thanks for reminding me of Lesa’s book–requesting it from our library now!


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