William Cullen Bryant, born November 3, 1794, astonished the literary world with the publication of his first major poem at age 13. Most of his poetry drew inspiration from the Cummington countryside surrounding the Homestead. In 1817, “Thanatopsis,” Bryant’s most famous poem, was published while he practiced law in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
After his marriage to Frances Fairchild, the family moved to New York City in 1825 where the poet and former lawyer began a career as editor, first at literary publications and eventually as editor-in-chief and publisher at the New York Evening Post. He held this position for the rest of his life.
In 1834 Bryant embarked on the first of many lengthy trips, traveling widely in the U.S. and taking seven trips abroad. Many of his exotic travel mementos are now at the Homestead. Famous as a publisher and editor, Bryant’s public life involved him on many fronts as a politician and conservationist, leading to the creation of New York City’s Central Park. Artists of the Hudson River School considered Bryant their muse. At his death in 1878, Bryant was an iconic figure. His fame was so widespread that the centennial of his birth in 1894 drew thousands of people to the Homestead to celebrate his life and accomplishments.
Located on a hillside overlooking the Westfield River Valley, the Homestead is on the site of the original Cummington community founded in 1762. The Town Meetinghouse was constructed in 1782 near what is now the five-corner intersection of the Homestead. Seven years later it was moved and a schoolhouse, which Bryant attended, was erected on the site. Cummington’s center shifted to the valley and as the community grew, Bryant’s father, Dr. Peter Bryant, served as physician and in the state legislature.
Cummington’s population diminished after 1840, since many townspeople, like Bryant’s family, abandoned their farms and moved westward. As Bryant observed “the soil is now exhausted; the fields are turned into pastures/and the land which once sufficed for two farms now barely answers for one.” Woodlands, a source of fuel and building materials, were also depleted.
In 1865, 30 years after the Homestead was sold out of the family, Bryant purchased his former boyhood home and used it as a summer retreat from late July through early September for the remainder of his life. Year-round the house was occupied by a series of caretakers and their families.
Bryant remained deeply committed to his childhood community and made a number of significant contributions to Cummington. He donated $500 to build a new schoolhouse located near the Homestead. A larger gift was a library, complete with book collection and a librarian’s residence. These two structures remain on the south intersection of Routes 9 and 112. To make access easier to the Library from the Homestead, Bryant paid for a road that later became part of Route 112. He also built a road to West Cummington from the Homestead that is still in use today.