All photos/art by Greg Premru
We all know Concord, Massachusetts, as the hometown of the American Revolution and the birthplace of American literature. But are you aware that it also had something to do with the peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
Well, to explain Concord’s connection to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you must go back to the year 1849. That was when Boston-born Ephraim Wales Bull, after extensive experimentation utilizing native species, developed the world-famous “Concord grape.” He made history not in a remote laboratory but outside his house, just steps away from the homes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, and next to the famed Battle Road, leading to the “rude bridge” where in 1775, the “embattled farmers” whipped the British, firing the “shot heard round the world.” That house, built in 1706, and named by the Concord Historical Commission as “one of the most significant homes in Concord,” is known today as Grapevine Cottage—and Concord grapes still grow on the original vines on a trellis outside a lovely screened-in porch just off the family room.
Thanks to husband-and-wife owners Sky Lance and Linda Merwin, caring and civic-minded Concord citizens, Grapevine Cottage has been brought back to life from almost certain oblivion, with every square inch of its now-gorgeous nine rooms (including four bedrooms) subjected to a massive two-year restoration project. It’s available now, with just under one acre, for $1,299,000.
With Sky and Linda as our hosts, along with Gregory Burch and Marilyn Mudry—the married couple who have owned the nationally renowned Hawthorne Inn, across the street, for the past 37 years and who are also the real-estate agents for Sky and Linda— we paid a visit to Grapevine Cottage. (Incidentally, Gregory’s ancestors helped found Concord, but that’s another story for another time.)
We were very impressed. The restoration included major work such as raising ceilings, lowering floors, and opening walls to expose beams; replacing all wiring, plumbing, septic, and heating systems; and, of course, the 2½ bathrooms are brand-new, as is the kitchen. And yet, much of the fine detail work of long-ago craftsmen has been retained—such as hand-turned balusters, ornate fan windows, brass hardware, raised paneling, and a restored central chimney with opposing fireplaces.
Even the grounds received a lot of attention. Thirty-seven trees were removed to open the house to light, and a serpentine stone retaining wall was built to accent the newly graded slope behind the house. The gardens were revived, too, with outdoor patio spaces created and walkways laid. And, yes, the ancestral vines of the original Concord grapes dating back to 1849 are right there. (We even picked a few!)
So, you might be wondering, what about the peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Well, as we’ve mentioned, Ephraim Wales Bull produced the ideal grape here on his property in Concord—a grape with a particularly rich, full-bodied flavor and yet hardy enough to thrive where European cuttings had failed to survive—and the fame of this special new grape spread throughout the world. At one point, Ephraim Bull was receiving as much as $1,000 for a single cutting. But, alas, he never bothered to take out a patent. Big mistake.
Now skip ahead 20 years, when the first Concord grape juice was processed by Dr. Thomas Welch, a Vineland, New Jersey, dentist, who took out all the patents for the Concord grape (after all, they were just there for the taking) and went into bigtime production in, for a while, Westfield, New York. There, in 1918, the Welch family created Concord grape jelly, or jam, which they called “Grapelade.” (The headquarters of Welch’s Food Inc. is in Concord today, although most of the company’s Concord grapes are grown in Washington State.)
Skip ahead another 10 years, to 1928, when bagged, presliced bread was first created, and then on to the World War II years, when included in soldiers’ rations as desirable protein were ground peanuts, plus sliced bread and, always, a jar or two of Grapelade. Obviously, one fine day a soldier slathered Grapelade over his ground peanuts on sliced bread and voilà—the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was born!
Later on the day of our visit to Grapevine Cottage, we drove down the Battle Road to the famous Old North Bridge and contemplated the always-moving first stanza of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, inscribed on the obelisk across the bridge from the Minute Man statue there. We could still remember it from our long-ago school days:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Then, on a whim, we decided to visit the grave of Ephraim Wales Bull in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery nearby. We’d been told that his gravestone has an unusual inscription. We found it easily, just down from Authors’ Ridge, where the graves of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Alcotts, the Thoreaus, and the Hawthornes are located. And, sure enough, the inscription reads, “He sowed—others reaped.” Poor Ephraim. Apparently the father of the Concord grape died a relatively poor man; never received credit for his part in the creation of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, either. But at least, in Concord’s newly juvenated Grapevine Cottage, his place in the history of American food will remain secure forever.
To see more work by Platt Buiilders of Groton, MA — the talented craftsmen who transformed this beautiful house — go to: www.plattbuilders.com