By Jenifer Frank
In the early 1850s, brothers-in-law John Hooker and Francis Gillette purchased 140 wooded acres just west of Hartford’s last trolley stop on a bend, or nook, of the winding Park River. The men built their homes and parceled out land to family members and friends. What evolved in the years after the Civil War was Nook Farm, a tightly knit community of intellectuals, political leaders, and reformers who together and individually wielded an outsized influence on the country’s intellectual and social development.
The Extended Beecher Family Inhabits Nook Farm
When Harriet Beecher Stowe moved her large family to Hartford and built a home at Nook Farm in 1864, it had been a dozen years since the publication of her nation-changing book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. The powerful anti-slavery novel, published across the globe, was to become the best-selling book of the 19th century. In addition to selling millions of copies, the book inspired frequent dramatizations throughout the United States in the 1850s, making Stowe a household name.
Stowe’s signature work had been written while the family lived in Brunswick, Maine–her husband, the Reverend Calvin Stowe, taught at Bowdoin College there. Stowe proved enormously prolific after moving to Hartford. She published numerous articles, her novels about New England characters and life and, with her sister Catharine, The American Woman’s Home (1869), an influential publication that celebrated domestic life while guiding women on the practical matters of decorating their homes.
Born in Litchfield, Stowe spent her teenage years in Hartford, where she lived at the Hartford Female Seminary, opened by Catharine, the eldest Beecher sibling. In returning to Hartford as an adult, Stowe came home to family, and from the beginning, familial ties fueled much of Nook Farm’s growth and vitality. It started with the community’s very origins. Francis Gillette was married to John Hooker’s sister, Elisabeth. And Hooker’s wife was Harriet’s half-sister, Isabella, one of the most vehement of Nook Farm’s personalities.
A Gathering of Ambitious Talents
A passionate feminist, Isabella Beecher Hooker worked much of her life to secure women the right to vote, a view that many of her day considered outrageous. Women’s suffrage was thought of as so radical that even Isabella’s sisters, Harriet and Catharine, were opposed. But Isabella remained undaunted by their, or anyone else’s, opposition.
As president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association, Isabella organized the 1869 convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association in Hartford, which featured noted women’s right activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton as its keynote speaker. In 1883, Isabella told the International Council of Women in Washington, DC, “I only wish to fasten upon your minds now this thought, that women are included in this word ‘people’ of the [the US Constitution’s] preamble, and were intended to be included as much as men.”
Nook Farm’s other Beecher family connections included Mary Beecher Perkins, married to lawyer Thomas Clap; and Harriet Foote, a cousin to the Beecher sisters, whose husband was Joseph Roswell Hawley. Hawley was a North Carolina native who came north to attend college, became an editor of The Hartford Evening Press and then The Hartford Courant when the two newspapers consolidated. He was a Civil War general in the Union army who returned to Connecticut to serve as governor, congressman, and then, for 24 years, senator.
Charles Dudley Warner, an early Nook Farm resident, was an associate editor of The Evening Press and then editor of The Hartford Courant. An essayist and prolific travel writer, Warner became co-author, with Mark Twain, of The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today published in 1873. The anecdote behind the writing of the only novel Twain co-authored was that, after being teased by their husbands about the quality of books that they read, Susan Warner and Olivia Clemens challenged their spouses to write a better one. The Gilded Age satirized commercialism and corruption in the post-Civil War years and gave the era its moniker.
Mark Twain Comes to Hartford
“I think this is the best built and the handsomest town I have ever seen,” pronounced Samuel Clemens, who moved to Hartford and Nook Farm in 1871. The author, best known as Mark Twain, built his extraordinary, fanciful, 19-room house, designed by noted New York architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, in 1874 on a plot near Stowe’s residence.
In the post-Civil War years, Hartford was home to nearly two dozen book publishers, and Twain first came to the city to meet with Elisha Bliss, Jr., president of American Publishing Company. Bliss had read Twain’s magazine tales of his travels in Europe and the Holy Land aboard the steamer Quaker City. Bliss proposed to Twain that he publish them in book form.
Twain’s first visit to Hartford led not only to the publication of The Innocents Abroad (1869) but to the beginning of his love affair with the city, a banking and insurance center that was one of the wealthiest towns in the United States. The writer stayed with John and Isabella Hooker, whom he had recently met in Brooklyn, New York, along with Beecher siblings, Harriet, Catharine, and Henry Ward, then a nationally regarded preacher. There were other attractions for Twain. In a subsequent visit, he met the Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell, minister of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, who was to become, perhaps, Twain’s closest friend.
Twain’s 20 years in Hartford–he and his wife raised three daughters here–were happy ones and gave fruit to many of his best-known books. These included The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and what many believe to be the greatest American novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Preserving Nook Farm
Just as its individual personalities were unique, so, too, was the Nook Farm neighborhood. Its grand Victorian homes were open and accessible to each other on pathways winding through the broad estate. The residents would often dine together and enjoy fireside discussions until the early hours of the morning. An evening may have starred one of the Clemens girls giving a piano recital or an informal concert by Susan Lee Warner, a superb pianist who helped start the Hartford Philharmonic Orchestra. Whist-playing among couples was frequent, and a “Friday Evening Club” pulled neighborhood pool players to Twain’s billiards room.
Meanwhile, writers and well-known people in other fields enjoyed the hospitality of the Nook Farm experience. President Ulysses S. Grant came through to visit Hawley. Sarah Orne Jewett, Bret Harte, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Matthew Arnold, William Dean Howells, writer and editor for The Atlantic Monthly, and other literary talents from across the country considered Hartford a necessary stopover.
The community’s end came, in large part, with Twain’s departure to Europe in 1891, when financial problems forced him to close the house. Stowe died five years later. Both Twain and Stowe’s homes, and part of the Nook Farm estate, have since become national landmarks. Katharine Seymour Day, Stowe’s grandniece, Isabella Hooker’s granddaughter, and a dedicated preservationist, played a role in saving both homes and founded the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Today, the Katharine Seymour Day House is the site of the Stowe Center’s library and administrative offices.
Jenifer Frank, a longtime journalist in Connecticut, is co-author of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery and editor of the news website, the Connecticut Mirror.