History of the Property
Robert Frost moved across the border from Massachusetts in the fall of 1900 to raise poultry and farm his small, picturesque homestead just a twelve-mile drive north from Lawrence, through Methuen and Salem to the township of Derry, New Hampshire.
The uncommonly attractive 30-acre farm known as the "Magoon Place" after a previous owner was located about a quarter of a mile below Webster's Corner on the east side of Route 28, and only two miles from the center of the village.
It was here in this unassuming place that the poet/farmer interacted with his country neighbors and gained the feel of New England farm life. Here he found his poetic voice, wrote a good portion of his first 2-1/2 books of poetry, and found inspiration for his best-loved literary works. The Derry homestead was undisputedly the seed from which Frost's poetic inspiration and literary career grew.
Frost's own assessment of his years on the Derry farm can be found in a letter written to Robert Chase in 1952:
"I might say the core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had there on the farm down the road a mile or two from Derry Village toward Lawrence. The only thing we had was time and seclusion. I couldn't have figured on it in advance. I hadn't that kind of foresight. But it turned out right as a doctor's prescription."
--(From: Selected Letters of Robert Frost, Lawrence Thompson, ed. New York: Holt, 1964)
History and description
Nathaniel G. Head built the unassuming L-shaped farmhouse with its shed and attached barn at the time of his marriage in 1884. A doorway on the porch side of the house opened into a tiny two-doored entrance hall designed to insulate the large kitchen and adjacent dining room from winter drafts. Beyond the dining room at the front of the house, a lovely country parlor featuring a large bay window overlooked the property's two small pastures on the opposite side of the graveled highway. The first floor also contained a cozy little bedroom, a sizable pantry off the kitchen, a laundry room, and a woodshed leading first to an indoor two-holed privy and finally to a sizeable stabled barn. Ample but not overly large, three bedrooms and an unfinished room over the kitchen comprised the second floor.
By 1900, a good-sized apple orchard and several peach, pear and quince trees graced the property on the north side of the house while a long hayfield, behind and slightly to the east of the barn, adjoined a hardwood grove mostly comprised of maple, beech and oak trees. Across the rolling lawn on the south side, a grove of alders obscured a small west-running brook flowing out of a nearby cranberry bog. The property also contained a large vegetable garden, patches of raspberry and blackberry bushes, the pastures on the opposite side of the road, and plenty of room behind the barn for Frost to build coops for his poultry flock.
The Frosts acquire the Homestead
By early September of 1900, Robert and Elinor found themselves in desperate circumstance when their landlady, tired of several months of unpaid rent and appalled by the sight of chickens everywhere on her property, ordered them to vacate by the end of the month.
Already emotionally battered by the recent death of their young son Elliott and guilt-ridden from their inability to personally care for Rob's terminally ill mother, the young couple's burdens were further compounded by Rob's own failing health and breathing problems which he mistakenly believed were early symptoms of tuberculosis. He was also deeply depressed, blaming himself for his son's death because he had not called the doctor sooner, and for having to place his beloved mother in a sanitarium during the last few weeks of her life. His depression and self-abasement rendered him virtually incapable of confronting the multiple problems which his family faced.
Taking matters into her own hands, Elinor paid a quiet visit to her husband's paternal grandfather, asking him to purchase the Derry farm for them. Fortunately, Elinor's plea was bolstered by the fact that even at the turn of the 20th century, the asking price of $1700 was considered very reasonable for a property of that size with house and barn in such good condition. After the property passed a thorough inspection by Frost's great uncle Elihu Colcord, Robert's grandfather purchased the farm for the young couple.
The move to Derry was undertaken around October 1st and briefly noted in the October 5, 1900 edition of the Derry News as follows: "R. Frost has moved upon the Magoon Place which he recently bought. He has a flock of nearly 300 Wyandotte fowls."
Before William Prescott Frost, Sr. died unexpectedly during the summer of 1901, he made provision in his will for his grandson to make free use and occupancy of the farm for and during the first ten years beginning at the time of his (the grandfather's) death…and complete ownership at the end of the ten-year term. The Frosts continued their residence on the farm until 1909 when they moved to a rented apartment on Thornton Street nearer to Pinkerton Academy where the poet was employed as an English teacher. The homestead was rented out during these last two years of Frost's ownership and consequently, suffered from lack of maintenance by either owner or tenant.
Subsequent owners and uses
In 1911, Frost sold the farm for a mere $1100, and used the money to finance his family’s 3-year adventure in England where he finally gained recognition as a major American poet.
The property was subsequently owned by Charles E. Senna, Stillman B. Hall, J. A. Van Dyne, and from the early 1950s to 1964 by Edwin F. Lee, when it ceased to be farmland and became instead an auto graveyard business. During this era, hundreds of junk cars, wrecks and auto parts were strewn over the very pastures and fields that once inspired some of Frost's most beautiful and enduring poems.
Frost's continued interest in the Derry Farm
Frost returned to the homestead in 1938 following Elinor's death. It was her wish to have her ashes scattered along the bank at Hyla Brook in that little grove of pines where she had spent so many pleasant hours with her young children. Robert inquired if the owner would permit him to spread her ashes by the brook, but disturbed to find the house in disrepair and the quiet and solitude of the place destroyed, in the end decided that he simply could not leave her there with strangers.
Passing by the farm again in the early 1950s, the poet was quite offended to see a sign "Frost Acres" on the office building of Mr. Lee's auto graveyard business and to see how his once peaceful and rustic property had been defiled. It was shortly after that Frost spoke to John Pillsbury, a close friend and former student at Amherst College about reclaiming the property and restoring it to its former pastoral state. At Frost's urging, Pillsbury made casual inquiries about purchasing the farm, but there was no interest on the part of the owner to sell.
Following a lecture at Dartmouth in 1962, Frost again met with Mr. Pillsbury and asked if any progress had been made in buying the Derry property. Within a few months of that encounter, Robert Frost died. A day or two later, his secretary contacted Pillsbury to remind him that Frost wanted John to acquire the Derry farm. Pillsbury immediately contacted Eddie Lee and with the help of George Grinnell eventually convinced Lee to sell the place for $40,000 with the stipulation that the junk be removed from the fields, and the garage building on the south side of the farm be torn down. Appointed by Governor John W. King as the Robert Frost Homestead's first chairman, Pillsbury also became the driving force for acquiring funds for the State's purchase of the property and for the restoration process undertaken during the next ten years.
Frost Homestead Restoration
In 1965, the State of New Hampshire purchased the farmhouse buildings situated on 12.6 acres of land. An early board of governor-appointed trustees took immediate steps to secure the place, and decided to rent it out to a reputable family until major renovations could be undertaken. While fundraising efforts to cover the cost of renovations ensued, studies were made of the site and plans for the landmark property slowly took shape over the next few years. In 1969, two adjacent parcels of land were acquired totaling 47.5 acres that served to protect the homestead’s scenic beauty.
With the help of Frost's eldest daughter, Lesley Frost Ballantine and a dedicated group of early trustees and state officials, the restoration process began in earnest in 1974, after the New Hampshire State Legislature appropriated $30,000 by Special Session to help finance the project. All renovations including putting back the pantry, removing a bathroom from under the stairs in the front hall, structural and foundation work, and roof replacement were based on early photographs and other historical and architectural records of the property during the Frost era.