A visit to Fruitlands begins with the view. Perched at the top of Prospect Hill in Harvard, Massachusetts, it’s impossible to resist the miles-wide, postcard-perfect rolling landscape below along the Nashua River. “When people drive in, you can see it on their faces,” says the museum’s marketing manager, Mary Delaney. “Even for us, it’s a sight that never gets old.”
The scenic backdrop is a fitting welcome, since the museum considers the landscape equal to its four main collections, as well as their common thread. Arranged campus-style, a paved path connects the main buildings and visitors’ center, while a gift shop, café, and series of nature trails complete the inside/outside experience. The collections, spanning Native American culture, Transcendentalism, the Shakers, and 19th-century art, aim to illustrate the complete history of the region, and were carefully assembled over several decades by a unique and tireless preservationist, Clara Endicott Sears.
Sears, a wealthy and independent Boston socialite and writer with a passion for art and philosophy, first set her sights on Harvard in 1910, with the sole plan of building a summer estate—but a neglected farmhouse nearby soon proved more enticing. After learning that Bronson Alcott and his family (including 10-year-old daughter Louisa May) had lived in the house briefly in 1843 when it was part of a 90-acre Transcendentalist utopian village known as Fruitlands, Sears recognized its historical value and was determined to save it. In 1914 the restored farmhouse became the museum’s first exhibit, establishing Fruitlands as a museum and “Miss Sears” as its curator, which she remained until her death in 1960.
Similar preservation efforts followed, inspired by the heritage of the verdant Nashua River Valley. When the nearby Harvard Shaker Village disbanded in 1917, Sears purchased the 1796 office building and moved it to Fruitlands, establishing the first independent Shaker museum in the country. In 1928 she built a home for her growing collection of Native American artifacts, well before the preservation of pre-Colonial goods was commonplace; later, in 1941, she added a “Picture Gallery” to house her extensive collection of Hudson River School landscapes and 19th-century portraits.
To visit Fruitlands today is to time-travel, just as Clara Endicott Sears intended in 1914—whether that means taking a deep breath in the attic bedroom where young Louisa May Alcott admired the brilliant mustard hue and clean lines of an 1840 Shaker cupboard while listening to the rain, or testing for yourself the comfort of a wooden dugout canoe. “It is one of my deepest desires,” Sears wrote, “that as each phase of the valley is revealed, it stirs the imagination of those who visit … and transports them for a while to a world of dramatic interest so that the Valley will become for them a Valley of Romance and Inspiration as it has for me.” One can’t help but feel that she’d be pleased to see that a full
century later, Fruitlands is still stirring.