On May 9, Harriet’s Writing Room, the public space in the recently renovated Harriet Beecher Stowe House, where “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was written in the early 1850s, will be open to the public for the first time as part of a celebration of the house’s designation to the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program. The Network to Freedom program documents locations on the Underground Railroad. 

This open house event is the culmination of a long journey for the house, which the College purchased in 2001. For approximately 12 years, the house stood vacant, falling into disrepair, while the College searched for a proper use for Stowe’s former home. Associate Professor of Africana Studies and English Tess Chakkalakal, who studies Stowe, has been invested in the house since she came to the College eight years ago. Two years ago, she asked Katie Randall ’16, who is interested in historic preservation, if she would want to do a research project on the house over the summer. 

Randall’s work that summer produced a digital timeline that details the complete history of the house, dating back all the way to its construction in 1806. Randall described her work that summer as something akin to activism, getting people to pay attention to the old empty house and doing research on the Stowe family. 

In her research, Randall drew primarily from structure reports completed in 2008 and the work of Professor Susanna Ashton of Clemson University. Ashton is writing a biography on John Andrew Jackson, the former slave Stowe hid in her home one night while he was fleeing to Canada after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put his freedom in jeopardy. 

This fall, Randall revisited the house and completed an application to the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom. In order for the house to become part of the Network, Randall submitted a 37-page application that proved the house served as a part of the Underground Railroad and recounted the house’s history since then.

 “In this case, we have Harriet talking about it in a letter and John Andrew Jackson referring to it in his autobiography. The two corroborate each other,” Randall said. “We have definitive evidence that this house was, for one night, a stop on the Underground Railroad and that Harriet Beecher Stowe helped someone there.” 

The house is now one of three places in Maine that are part of the Network to Freedom. The Abyssinian Church in Portland and the Heuston Burying Ground in Brunswick are the other two sites.
“The long term goal is to connect the Portland Network to Freedom with the Boston Network to Freedom to create a New England Freedom Trail and to make Bowdoin College part of the Freedom Trail,” Chakkalakal said.

“The other really important thing about getting this house on the Network is that it links ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ with Harriet Beecher Stowe not only writing a novel, a work of fiction, but also breaking the law, practicing what she preaches,” Chakkalakal said. “That’s an important link because it kind of changes the story of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ It makes the work not only a work of fiction, but also something that she’s doing in her everyday life in Brunswick.” 

After Randall completed the timeline in 2014, the Stowe Committee, which was assembled by former President Barry Mills and former Dean of Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd, managed to secure the necessary funds to renovate the house. The committee, which included members of the administration, representatives from the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, representatives from Hawthorne-Longfellow Library and Assistant Professor of Art History Dana Byrd as well as Chakkalakal, still had two problems to solve—what the renovations should entail and how the house should memorialize Stowe and her work.

 In the 165 years since Stowe lived there, the house had been renovated many times, from aesthetic renovations in 1855 to more major changes when the building was turned into an inn in the latter half of the 20th century. By the time the College bought it, the only similarities between the house and the house Stowe had lived in were the physical location and the layout of the rooms. 

The committee determined that the most cost effective and historically accurate way to renovate the home would be to restore it to its 1855 appearance. Since there is no comprehensive description of what the house looked like then, some aspects of the house, like the color of the shutters, are more representations of what was popular at the time than exact replicas of Stowe’s home. These renovations were completed in 2015. 

As far as remembering Stowe’s life and work there, the committee had to take a less conventional approach. A traditional museum, full of objects from the past, was not an option since so little of what had once belonged to Stowe remained in the house. The committee decided to create Harriet’s Writing Room, which Randall thinks of as “a space where people can think about what Harriet did in that house.”  

The room, which is accessible off the porch, features a large wooden table with benches, a stand-up writing desk, an antique chair and a gorgeous hearth. Pictures of Stowe and information about her life and the house adorn the walls. 

“People can be in this house, where she wrote ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and think about the written word, what that book did, what words they might have, what issues they might care about,” Randall said. “They can be inspired by her story and the thing that she did in that house to maybe write something of their own.” 

Chakkalakal sees the room as both a historical destination and a bridge connecting Brunswick and Bowdoin. “The town gives a lot to Bowdoin and Bowdoin gives a lot to the town. [This room is] a kind of symbolic reciprocity between the town and Bowdoin.”

Groups from the local schools will be able to visit the room, and Chakkalakal hopes the room becomes a center for collaboration where writing groups could meet, conversation could be held and classes could occasionally be taught. 

“One of the amazing things about this room is that a lot of people converged here—Longfellow was here, Chamberlain was here, Stowe’s sister Catharine Beecher was here and of course John Andrew Jackson was here. In this space, literature happens. I think we too often forget that Bowdoin College is the birthplace, in my opinion, of American literature,” Chakkalakal said. “This is a place that has inspired historical collaborations. I would like to see students collaborating with professors the way Katie and I did; that’s what made the house happen—a series of collaborations.”

The open house will run from 2 to 4 p.m. on Monday, with remarks by President Clayton Rose, Chakkalakal and Randall at 3 p.m.

Harriet’s Writing Room will be open to the public from noon to 3 p.m., Thursday to Saturday, following the open house. During these hours, a student will be onsite to talk about Stowe, her book and the house and to answer any questions.