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  • The Porter-Phelps-Huntington House

    Stephen C. Erickson

    Published Date : December 1987
     Historic homes in New England are hardly uncommon, but the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House in Hadley, Massachusetts, is unique.  It is neither a restoration nor a reproduction.  The house has been spared the carefully decorated look of more famous historic homes.  The objects are as they were left and the rooms are as they were lived in. Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard wrote of the place:

    Every year I take my seminar in Colonial History on a tour of some historic houses in eastern Massachusetts. If Forty Acres (the name given to the land on which the house sits) were closer to Cambridge, I would give it preference over all the rest for the beauty of the house and all its furnishings, amenity of the site and the loving care that has been lavished on it for over two centuries.

    More than a collection of artifacts, the museum tells the story of a family.  We know the family because archives record births and deaths, weddings and christenings, commissions of state and war, the freeing of slaves and the indenturing of apprentices, an excommunication from the church, the turning of the house and the raising of a barn, plus much more.  Family records are available for viewing at the Amherst College Library.  Books written on the family and the house include Arria Huntington’s Under a Colonial Roof Tree and Memoirs and Letters of Frederic Dan Huntington, Ruth Huntington Session’s Sixty-Odd, and Dr. James Lincoln Huntington’s Forty Acres.

    The Porters, the Phelpses, and the Huntingtons all arrived in Dorchester, Massachusetts, during the 1630s. From Dorchester, they moved to Connecticut, some migrating up the Connecticut river and settling Hadley in 1659.  Samuel Porter was the first male child born in the garrison town of Hadley.  His family were successful traders, owned the town still, and eventually aquired enough wealth to purchase the land northwest of the town, known as “Forty Acres and its Skirts,” which previously had been farmed communally.  Samuel’s son Moses, who had married Elizabeth Pitkin of Hartford, decided that it was safe to build outside the garrison in 1752 and erected a home on “Forty Acres” in that year.  He left his wife and daughter to fight in the French and Indian War in 1755.

    One night Elizabeth was putting her daughter to bed when she heard a rap upon the bed chamber window. Sliding the shutter open, she found Moses’s Indian servant, who passed her husband’s sword through the window.  With this symbolic act, she knew that Moses had been slain in battle.  He died at the battle of “Bloody Morning Scout” in New York state.  Demonstrating an early sense of family history, the Indian shutter was not replaced when the others were modernized in the 1780s.  Moses Porter’s sword can still be found at the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House.  Poor Elizabeth, left alone to manage the busy estate and raise her daughter, also named Elizabeth, seems to have faired poorly under the strain, turning to opium and living a sickly life thereafter.

    The second Elizabeth Porter was a sturdy young woman.  In her diary she recorded the activities of her busy days, such as rising at dawn to supervise butter making in hot weather, making sausage and cheese, and setting “forty dozen candles to drip.”  On May 13, 1770, Elizabeth Porter married Charles Phelps of Northampton.

    Lawyer, architect, engineer, farmer, and legislator, Charles Phelps personified the 18th-century gentleman of the Enlightenment.  He expanded the family property dramatically between 1770 and 1800 to some six hundred acres, raised a new barn and carriage house, built a new kitchen, added the southern style “stoop” or veranda, turned the house on its axis and remodeled much of the interior.  Phelps began a third story apartment for his son, Charles Porter (born Moses Porter) Phelps, but the son decided to continue his law practice in Boston, and as a result the apartment was never completed.  The imprint of Charles Phelps remains most clearly on the house today.  His drawing board can still be seen there.

    Politically active, Charles Phelps supported the Revolutionary War effort by sending supplies to Washington’s army in Cambridge.  Likewise he aided in the suppression of Danial Shays’s rebellion.  Phelps later became a Town Selectman, Justice of the Peace, and Representative to the General Court of Massachusetts.

    The Phelpses had a daughter, Elizabeth.  She wrote in her diary "January 13, 1799. Mr. Huntington Pastor of Litchfield preached,” and a day or two after, “Mr. Huntington drank tea here.”  On January 1, 1801, Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Dan Huntington were married under the graceful arch [239] of the Long Room. designed and added to the house by her father.

    Residing in Litchfield, Connecticut, the Huntingtons found it difficult to exist on the meager salary of a minister, despite the support of Elizabeth’s parents.  Their family grew rapidly, eventually to number 11 children Charles, Elizabeth, William. Bethia, Edward, John, Theophilus, Theodore, Mary, Catherine, and Frederic Dan.  In 1816, two years after Charles Phelps’s death, Dan and Elizabeth moved into the Porter-Phelps family homestead in Hadley. Elizabeth Phelps died there in 1819.

    The Huntingtons involved themselves in the religious reformist movements of the early 19th century. Elizabeth Huntington came to reject the puritanical preoccupation with the hereafter, believing that good works done on earth were also of great importance.  Elizabeth and Dan became active in Unitarian circles.  She became involved in the temperance and abolitionist movements, and there is reason to believe that the House was part of the underground railroad.  A secret exit in the house could have been used for such purposes.  Elizabeth’s divergent religous views resulted in her excommunication from the Congregational Church of Hadley.  Her husband, who was not a member of the Hadley Congregational Church and therefore not subject to excommunication, continued to preach occasionally in local churches of a more liberal orientation.

    The youngest child, Frederic Dan Huntington, shared his parents’ interest in the critical examination of Christianity.  After studying at Amherst College he went to Harvard Divinity School and became a Unitarian Minister.  He married Hannah Dane Sergeant, daughter of Epes Sergeant and great-grandaughter of General Benjamin Lincoln.  (Articles belonging to General Lincoln can be found at the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House.)  While teaching at Harvard, Frederic Dan underwent a spiritual crisis, finding that the liberalism of the Unitarians had strayed too far from his own beliefs, especially his faith in the Trinity.  He found a home in the Episcopal Church, where he eventually became the first Bishop of central New York State.

    Bishop Huntington loved the family homestead in Hadley and made it his summer home after the death of his parents. What he wrote of the house at the turn of the century still holds true today:

    The outward frame and scene survive still, with nearly unchanged features, in a New England valley; domicile, old-fashioned furniture, open fireplaces and andirons, the clock that has ticked the seconds of a century and closed many a frolic of children with the stroke of nine; garret cellar, Indian relics, elm trees, garden, well, orchard, cornfields; the brook behind the hill, the indoor heirlooms of six generations, all invested and hallowed with traditions and reminiscences that repeople every nook and corner of the place and bring tears to the eye.

    Bishop Frederic Dan Huntington had seven children, George, Aria, Charles, James, William. Ruth, and Mary. The Reverend George Huntington’s son, Dr. James Huntington, opened the family homestead as a museum in 1955.

    One need not be a family member to enjoy and appreciate the timeless Porter-Phelps-Huntington House. The house is open for tours May 15 through October 15, Saturday to Wednesday, from the hours of 1:00 until 4:30 P.M. and by appointment.  “A Perfect Spot of Tea” is served with music on the veranda each Saturday from 2:30 to 4:30 P.M. during the months of July and August.  For further information, telephone 413-586-0742.

    Editor’s Note: The Diary of Elizabeth (Porter) Phelps from 1763 through 1805, edited by Thomas Eliot Andrews and with an introduction by Dr. James Lincoln Huntington, was published in the Register, vols. 118 (1964)-122 (1968).

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