TOWNSEND — It is believed that the Reed Homestead, located on the corner of Route 119 and South Street, was built somewhere around 1809, within the first century of the town’s existence.
The house passed through five generations of the Reed family before being sold to the Townsend Historical Society in 1972. And though the society has added a few items to the interior décor, most of the artifacts within came with the home, a veritable treasure trove of Townsend history, as well as mural and decorative artwork attributed to itinerant folk artist Rufus Porter.
On May 18, the society opened the yellow homestead’s red doors for a series of public tours, with costumed locals playing the roles of the Reed family. Beginning with the kitchen, guests were shown just how much things have remained the same in the federal-style house since it was first built. It also gave a reminder of just how much things have changed since 1809.
“You can tell how old a house is by the planks,” explained society member Jeanne Bartovics, site administrator, pointing to the wide floorboards. She estimated each to be 16-18 inches wide.
The building’s main heat source is a chimney located in the center of the building. Each room has a fireplace and various compartments around it to warm food items and stones to place in beds to chase away the chill. In the kitchen, the fireplace often served as a stove, though there is also a beehive oven adjacent to it, “for rice and breads,” according to Bartovics.
To the left of the main kitchen is the “summer kitchen,” a popular addition in the federal era, for days when the weather was too warm to stay near the fireplace. The summer kitchen is much smaller but has more apertures to the outside and a cast-iron stove, also an original feature, for food preparation. At the far end of the room is the door that leads into Bartovics’s office, the official end of the original house.
“The charred outer door indicates that fire destroyed part of the house,” she explained, pointing to the blackened wood. She added that the cause of the fire is believed to be sparks from a passing train, given the building’s close proximity to the old railroad tracks.
To the right of the kitchen is the dining room, and it is there that the first signs of Porter’s contributions to the homestead can be found: ornate, hand-painted wood grain on the doors. Upstairs, in the bedrooms, his pastoral New England landscape murals cover the walls. Porter is credited with making the rolling hills and simple farm houses acceptable subjects for landscape paintings, Bartovics said.
Porter traveled throughout much of New England and surrounding areas in the early 1800s and left his artwork behind in many of his stops. He was always more interested in machines and inventions, however, and eventually founded the Scientific American journal in 1845 before inventing a few things himself. He doesn’t receive much credit for those successes, however, as he sold the journal within a year of its inception and many of his more useful inventions.
“He was a terrible businessman,” Bartovics said wistfully. “He invented the revolving chamber for a gun and sold it to Samuel Colt for 100 dollars.”
Despite his eventual fate in the machine industry, Porter’s fascination with them was always apparent in his artwork. In a mural in one room upstairs, a steamboat can be seen moving down one nameless New England river. Even his artistic style was all about saving time and energy (the main purpose of machines), by using stencils for his houses and sponges or cork to paint the leaves on the trees, including those in the homestead.
Across the hall from the mural room is the master bedroom, where some of the home’s most wondrous artifacts can be found: actual clothing, including nightgowns, dresses, and more, some well over 100 years old and still in excellent condition.
The parlor, across from the dining room downstairs and the last stop of the tour, showed the most signs of owner changes. Its third owner closed off the chimney and installed a stove, as well as a grate in the ceiling, leading into the master bedroom to heat the room — and the bed — before retiring for the evening. There are also signs of Porter’s works on the walls, though they are faint due to the application and removal of at least one layer of wallpaper.
“It’s gone through, comparatively, few changes,” Bartovics said, noting that the electricity and plumbing (and corresponding bathroom) were not installed until the 1920s.
“To this day, there has never been central heat installed here,” she said.