Whittier in Amesbury

Amesbury was the ideal place for Whittier to settle. It had an active Friends Society and Meeting House on the same street as Whittier's house, and Amesbury welcomed reformers. Its temperance society had been formed in 1829. An Anti--Slavery Society held monthly "concerts of Prayer for the Slaves" alternately in the Baptist and Congregational vestries, and the town came to be known as a "Hotbed of Abolition." (Woodwell, 85)

Amesbury also had the nature that inspired some of Whittier's best poems. Straight across from the house was an open field extending to the Powow River, the falls, and Powow Hill. The Powow River ran into the Merrimac River, and he wrote about both in his poetry. Amesbury allowed Whittier a "rural" setting but still had a train to Boston, which was important to him as an Abolitionist and a poet.

From 1836 to the end of the Civil War Whittier's life was divided between his travels in the cause of anti-slavery and life with his family in Amesbury. His weak constitution and his closeness to his family meant he frequently returned to Amesbury.Whittier became involved in his new town. In 1850 when a new Friends Meeting House was being built, Whittier was chairman of the committee in charge. He allowed a Quaker minister and two elders to draw up the plans, thus assuring it would remain simple. The building is still standing with very few changes in the 157 years since its completion. He also served as the corresponding secretary for the Amesbury and Salisbury Agricultural Society. He won prizes for his pears in the annual fairs and wrote “A Song of Harvest” and “Autumn Festival” for the Agricultural and Horticultural Exhibitions in 1858 and 1859.

The Amesbury Public Library was another of Whittier’s interests. He served on the Board of Trustees for the Amesbury and Salisbury Library Association at the establishment of the Amesbury Public Library which opened in June of 1856. Whittier remained a Trustee of the Library as long as he lived, for many years choosing and buying books for it, some of which he got through his publisher at a reduced price. Some of the books he presented to the library are still on its shelves. (Woodwell 258)

Of greater importance to his readers are the people and places of Amesbury that Whittier immortalized in his work. The most famous people included Thomas Macy, who was driven from his home for sheltering a Quaker (see Whittier as Quaker), Joshua Bartlett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Mabel Martin, whose mother was hanged as a witch, Valentine Bagley, who had constructed a well for the public, and William Lloyd Garrison, a Newburyport native, who conducted his Abolition activities of Amesbury. Although he was born in Haverhill and died while visiting friends in Hampton Falls, NH, Whittier was waked and buried in Amesbury.

When Whittier died, Sept. 7, 1892, the demonstrations of public mourning made it impossible to have the simple funeral and burial he had requested. In Amesbury the flags were at half mast, public buildings were draped in black, and pictures of Whittier were in store and house windows surrounded by flowers. Whittier’s body was in an open casket in the parlor of his home, under his mother’s portrait. A mass of flowers reached to the ceiling.  It is estimated that five thousand mourners, trooped through for a last look. (Woodwell 528)

About one thousand people crowded into the garden of Whittier’s home for the funeral service, which was a simple Quaker affair. Among the 8 speakers was Edmund C. Stedman, who said,

[Whittier] will be his own successor, and belongs to our time as well as to that earlier time to which he is linked by his work. We may say of him that the chariot swung low and he was translated, dividing the waters of truth, beauty, and religion with his mantle.”
(quoted in Woodwell 528-9)

The next day two thousand mourners visited his grave at Union Cemetery in Amesbury.

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