Watson’s Hillside, or, Thoreau Strolling My Neighborhood

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

I have always admired the Transcendentalist crowd of Concord, Massachusetts. Partly because I grew up in the Concord area. But, from an objective point of view, one has to concede that their writings comprise some of the greatest philosophy and poetry that the United States has ever produced. Some of them crackpots? Perhaps. Bronson Alcott was a little out there, I think. But I have always found much inspiration in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau.

Living now in Plymouth, I feel more distanced from that history and I sometimes miss Concord and its environs. Imagine my satisfaction when I learned that the unassuming, very 20th century part of Plymouth in which I reside has a connection to the Concord Transcendentalists.

Benjamin Marston Watson was born in Plymouth in 1820. He attended Harvard College and there befriended Henry David Thoreau. Although the two did not initially become fast friends, they would eventually reconnect after their college days and would be quite close for many years.

Immediately after college, in 1840, Watson became part of the Brook Farm Experiment, a short-lived effort on the part of several Transcendentalists to establish a Utopian community in Roxbury, Massachusetts. There he met Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller, among other great thinkers and writers. These experiments have a tendency to fall apart, however, and the members of the Brook Farm community, one by one, eventually drifted off and went their separate ways.  Watson returned to his hometown of Plymouth in 1845.

He returned quite changed by the ideals of Transcendentalism. A young man of 25, intelligent and Harvard educated, Marston Watson might have pursued a wide variety of worldly careers. But it was nature that intrigued him most. He envisioned his own little Garden of Eden among the low hills of Plymouth. It would be part arboretum, part experimental garden with rare specimens from all over world, and part commercial farm.

Watson established his Old Colony Nurseries in 1845 on 80 acres of sloping meadow between three hills. In 1846, he had an elegant house built on the estate, designed in the Gothic style by his friend Samuel Longfellow (younger brother of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). Watson called it “Hillside.” In the same year, he married his wife, Mary Russell. Although Watson already had connections with the Transcendentalists, it was his wife who strengthened the ties, making Hillside a special retreat for Concord’s philosophers.

Mary Russell was best friends with another Plymouth girl named Lydia Jackson. It so happened that Ralph Waldo Emerson, during a speaking engagement in Plymouth, met and fell in love with Miss Jackson. They were married in Plymouth in 1835 and lived in Concord. Mary Russell frequently went to visit her best friend, now Lydia Emerson, in Concord. In fact, during one of these visits, she met Henry David Thoreau who apparently tried to woo her by composing a poem for her called, “To the Maiden in the East.” It didn’t work. She married Marston Watson instead.

This strong connection to the Emersons through his wife enabled Watson to realize another ambition. He established a lecture series in 1852 to be held at Leyden Hall on Main Street in Plymouth. These lectures would feature the great names of the Concord circle. And, of course, during their time in Plymouth, many of them stayed with the Watsons at Hillside.

Thus Watson forged strong friendships with Bronson Alcott, Thoreau and poet William Ellery Channing, among others. Apparently, Watson, Alcott and Thoreau were fond of walking the hills and trails for miles surrounding Hillside. As they walked, they freely discussed all manner of philosophy.

Channing wrote a lengthy poem entitled “Hillside” in which he described Watson:

In cities’ throngs might he have haply moved,
And held conspicuous reins in civil crowds,
Had not the charitable God supreme,
With lovelier council given him space to be,
The happiest man of all this earthly state,
A valued scholar, and, addition blest!
Who made his hillside lovely to his friends,
And, loving, was beloved…

Sounds like a great man and a proud legacy.

Fast forward about 120 years to 1971. Hillside, at that time, was owned by Watson’s granddaughter, Christine Watson Bowler and her husband Robert B. Bowler. In that year the Bowlers donated a tremendous collection of Marston Watson’s papers to Pilgrim Hall Museum, preserving for posterity a rich record of the intellectual ties between Concord and Plymouth. In the same year, they developed hundreds of acres of land to the west of Watson’s Hillside, creating a variety of little neighborhoods with cul-de-sac streets named for Pilgrims. I live on one of these streets.

Perhaps my imagination is too active, but I do like to think that this hill on which I live was one of those woodland spots that Thoreau, Alcott and Watson walked from time to time. It really is not much of a stretch. Hillside is but half a mile from here and this one of the more prominent hills in the area. I’m sure they covered it in their wanderings.

Thoreau loved the woods around Hillside.  He once wrote to Watson, “What a prospect you can get every morning from the hilltop east of your house! I think that even the heathen that I am, I could say, or sing or dance morning prayers there of some kind.”

Alas, Watson’s estate has seen some major changes. The hilltop upon which Thoreau felt he could burst into song is now covered by an apartment complex. Route 3, a major highway, roars past Hillside just 150 feet away from the house. I’m not at all an anti-progress kind of historian. But I do find some intense irony in the fact that a highway now bisects Watson’s own Garden of Eden. Trucks thunder literally a stone’s throw from what was an idyllic philosopher’s retreat.

The house itself is still there, at least, although very few know about it or its significance. I only recently discovered it myself. I get the sense that it is biding its time. It will, perhaps, be more widely recognized by and by for the treasure it is.

[Source: Between Concord and Plymouth: The Transcendentalists and the Watsons, L.D. Geller (1973)]

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

9 responses to “Watson’s Hillside, or, Thoreau Strolling My Neighborhood

  • Historicist

    Yep. Right in the front parlor of that house.

  • Paula

    Dear H.D.,
    I wonder, since you are from the Concord area, have you ever had a look in the collection of the Concord Public Library at the 100+ letters written by WEChanning, Jr. to Mary Howland Russell Watson? Seems like quite a trove, and by far the bulk of that collection. I guess she wasn’t just Thoreau’s “Maiden”, but a muse to all… If you have seen them, I’d be interested in your impressions.

    Thanks,
    Paula

  • Paula

    Just curious… well, thanks for the nice piece on Hillside. I gaze at the house every time I drive south on Route 3, and I have to say it makes me very melancholy about what I consider Plymouth’s “greatest generation”. (I’m usually more of a cynic than a romantic, but seeing that house buried between offramps and suburban platitudes makes me pine a bit…and wonder what the Bowlers were thinking!)

  • JFerguson

    My great-grandmother (from Kansas) was a first cousin to Christina Watson Bowler and she, along with my grandparents, stayed at Hillside in the 1950s or 1960s. Thanks for your informative piece – I’ve always been curious about the current residents of the house and its condition. Do you know who currently owns the house? Seems like such a historic location should be preserved.

    • Patrick Browne

      Thanks very much for commenting. Very interesting to hear about your family’s connection to the house. I do know who currently owns the house but have never met them. They have, I believe, owned the house for quite some time. Whenever it should change hands, I do hope the next owners preserve it!
      Patrick

  • Marsha Durham

    I enjoyed your material about Thoreau and Hillside. I’m currently working on a writing & art project about modern issues, with a Thoreau connection. In the first stage of my project, I drew on Thoreau’s ideas and combined these with photos and writings I undertook while living two months on a remote Tasmanian island as artist-in-residence. I exhibited this work in Tasmania, and was interested that after seeing it, some people planned to get a copy of Walden immediately! I’m now going through Harding’s biography of Thoreau and finding it fascinating in terms of what Thoreau did and who he knew.

  • Cal

    I went to see what is left of hillside todat. It’s orchards and pine forests. And cultivated garden utopia.I almost cried when I discovered the little house surrounded by dead brush and weed trees etc with a view of the highway and surrounded by unremarkable dwellings. Such a shame and a travesty

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