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Clara Endicott Sears, Founder of Fruitlands Museum
Clara Endicott Sears, a visionary, writer, historian, and preservationist founded Fruitlands Museum between 1914 and 1940.
Clara Endicott Sears seems to regard the past as having been lived chiefly for the benefit of the future. The present she regards as a convenient work season arranged for her by Father Time in which she can make the future still more aware of the past. (New York Sun, 1941)
Clara Endicott Sears, born into prominence and privilege in nineteenth-century Boston, vied for a place in history rather than the parlor. Cosmopolitan, cultivated, and independent, Sears preferred artistic and intellectual pursuits to the conventional roles expected of a lady of her upbringing and social stature. Instead, she chose a life of the mind, nurtured by extensive travel, illustrious friendships, and her own curiosity and spirit.
Born in 1863 of Boston Brahmin lineage, Sears appreciated music, theater, and the arts. She remained single, chose the role of life-long companion to her mother, and wrote several romantic novels and stories, but her gifts overflowed their covers and she had yet to find her true métier. In an historical coincidence that makes one believe in divine intervention, in 1910 Sears built a summer residence known as the “Pergolas” on Prospect Hill in Harvard, Massachusetts. The house (now gone) and property commanded dramatic views of the Nashua River Valley, originally settled by the Nashaway Indians.
This spectacular site, rich in woodlands, fields, and meadows, turned out to have historical associations that dovetailed with Sears’passionate interest in the great minds and spiritual seekers of America’s past. Along with this extraordinary property came the farmhouse site where Bronson Alcott had founded his aspiring Transcendentalist community known as Fruitlands. Alcott’s utopia was short lived, but Sears felt the reverberations of his dream. Drawn to Transcendentalist writings and this uniquely American experiment in communal living, she had the vision to turn the Alcott farmhouse into a house museum. This delightful treasury of original artifacts and furnishings opened to the public in 1914.
It was but the beginning of Sears’ career as a preservationist, historian, writer, and curator of the four distinct collections she built over the next thirty years. Fascination with Alcott led Sears to the Harvard and Shirley Shakers whom she befriended and admired as much as he for their ingenuity, spiritual devotion, and industry. When the Shaker community closed in 1917, Sears brought the eighteenth-century Shaker office to Fruitlands, furnished it with Shaker artwork, implements, and artifacts, many donated by the Shakers themselves.
Subsequently, Sears enlisted the help of the Peabody Museum at Harvard to develop a small but exquisite Native American collection, and later still, she built the Picture Gallery to house her Hudson River School landscapes and nineteenth-century vernacular portraits. Each museum: Fruitlands Farmhouse; the Shaker Museum—the first in this country; the Indian Museum and the Picture Gallery celebrate a unique spiritual encounter with the New England landscape, with the mind, and with the heart.