Shank’s Mare

My great-great-grandfather’s obituary says: “That Justin Benton came of stock noted for its longevity is shown by the fact that his grandfather lived to be nearly 100 years old, and in his 90th year walked from Tolland to this city and back again.” Tolland, Connecticut, was Jonathan Benton’s hometown, and “this city” was Springfield, Massachusetts, some 22 miles away. Presumably he was walking to visit his son Elisha, who lived there.

I walk for exercise or recreation. Occasionally, but not often, I walk to get from Point A to Point B. My husband does the latter much more frequently, but neither of us would consider walking 20 miles just to get somewhere—at least not by choice.

A century and a half ago, however, many people had no choice. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Louisa May Alcott was living in Concord, Massachusetts, about 20 miles from Boston. Yet she visited Boston frequently. Although stagecoaches and later a rail line (the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad) connected the two cities, it’s unlikely that the Alcotts, always scraping by in relative penury in those days, could have afforded coach or rail fare as a matter of course.

We have evidence in her own words that Louisa did cover this distance on foot, though perhaps the fact that she thought it worth noting indicates that it was not usual. Her journal for May 1859 records: “Walked from C. to B. one day, twenty miles, in five hours, and went to a party in the evening. Not very tired. Well done for a vegetable production!” (This last is a reference to her family’s diet; the Alcotts were vegans before the term was invented.)

Well done indeed! Twenty miles in five hours is 4 mph, while I do well to walk for 40 minutes or so at 3½ mph. Of course, Louisa, who was very tall, would have had a longer stride, and, at 26, she was also much younger! Still, it’s quite a notable accomplishment.

Alcott’s journal for May 1861 records that “Nan and John [her sister Anna and husband John Pratt] walked up from Cambridge for a day, and we all walked back.” This was a distance of about 15 miles. This again suggests that walking such distances was literally taken in stride.

In 1862, Louisa was asked to start a private kindergarten in Boston. “Don’t like to teach,” she wrote in her journal, “but take what comes.” Because her school “did not bring enough to pay board and the assistant I was made to have, though I did n’t want her,” she was “visiting about,” staying with various friends, but she soon became “very tired of this wandering life,” especially the uncomfortable position it put her in, and by April she recorded that she “Went to and from C. every day that I might be at home. Forty miles a day is dull work; but I have my dear people at night and am not a beggar.”

Although it beggars belief that she would actually have made a 40-mile round trip on foot every day, I don’t believe she would have described it as “dull work” if she’d been taking a coach or train.

In May of that year she attended a reception for celebrated authoress Rebecca Harding Davis. Davis records that Louisa, before introducing herself, said, “These people may say pleasant things to you,…but not one of them would have gone to Concord and back to see you, as I did today. I went for this gown. It’s the only decent one I have. I’m very poor.” Davis describes this as “sacrificing a whole day to a tedious work which was to give me pleasure.”

This to me is the crucial point: walking is so time-consuming. When I drive instead of walking, it’s not always out of laziness. In some cases, nearby destinations are just stopping points on my way to a much farther one, and almost always there will be burdens to be carried part of the distance. But often, even for short distances, I just don’t feel I can spare the time to walk, especially if there’s a chance the trip will be unproductive.

This was the case recently when I walked up to City Hall for a meeting of the newly formed Street and Traffic Control Committee, which was to discuss placement of crosswalks and crossing signs on newly resurfaced streets. When I arrived at the meeting room, I found it empty. Ultimately a City employee arrived to post a notice that the meeting had been canceled. So I walked home. I hadn’t intended to count that as my exercise for the day (a round-trip of less than half a mile), but it was certainly an exercise in futility!

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1 Response to Shank’s Mare

  1. As follow-up: In her journal entry for February 1857, Louisa writes: “Ran home as a valentine on the 14th.”

    Clara Gowing, a childhood friend of the Alcott girls in Concord, writing in 1909, recalled: “The Alcotts lived and dressed plainly at this time, ignoring fashion, and thus had much time for outdoor exercise, even while doing their own work. Although they lived a mile from the village, the distance was thought nothing of. I have known the girls to walk three miles after dinner, make a good social call, and return to supper. A walk of five or six miles was just good exercise for them. In later years Louisa walked from Boston home one Sunday, a distance of twenty miles, having missed the train Saturday night, and arrived in Concord about 1 p.m.; and as there were callers that evening, she walked part way to the village with them, ‘for exercise,’ she said.”

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