Four more renowned writers who once lived in Amherst

This is the third in a series of posts about the Amherst Writers Walk, a self-guided tour of the houses where 12 renowned writers lived. Here are links to Part One and Part Two.

By Nick Grabbe

When they moved to Amherst in 1950, they were the most popular and prolific writers of children’s books in the U.S.

Howard Garis

So when Howard Garis left his house at 97 Spring Street and walked around town, groups of children would often follow him and ask him to tell them a story, or just stare at him. That’s because he was the famous author of more than 15,000 Uncle Wiggily stories between 1910 and 1962. They were collected in 79 books and had sold over 15 million copies by then.

The books are still available and have been translated into many languages. Uncle Wiggily Longears is an engaging elderly rabbit who wears a top hat, uses a cane, and gives children a sense of optimism and adventure. Howard Garis (1873-1962) was so famous in 1950 that his arrival merited an announcement in the local newspaper.

There were 79 Uncle Wiggily books.

Uncle Wiggily board games and toys sold in the millions, and the name entered popular culture. An Uncle Wiggily book is featured in “Forrest Gump,” and the familiar name has been used by a rock band and a chain of Baltimore ice cream shops.

Garis’s earlier publishing achievements were broad and astounding, but didn’t gain him the fame and fortune of the Uncle Wiggily stories. That’s because he and his wife Lilian Garis (1873-1954) were ghostwriters for a syndicate that gave them measly compensation, considering the popularity of their books.

Garis wrote the popular Tom Swift books about a boy scientist and tinkerer; Apple Computers co-founder Steve Wozniak called Tom Swift his role model. He also wrote the Baseball Joe and Camp Fire Girls books and many others, using a variety of pseudonyms. It is said that he worked every day but Sunday and could turn out a book in six to eight days. He wrote over 300 books for the syndicate.

Howard and Lilian Garis both wrote books about the Bobbsey Twins under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope. The books feature an upper-middle-class family with two sets of twins, ages 12 and 6. There have been 72 books in this series over 75 years (1904-1979), and the Garises wrote the first 27 of them.

Lilian, a former suffragette, met Howard when they both wrote for the Newark Evening News. Lilian wrote hundreds of books between 1915 and the early 1940s, about girls named Judy Jordan, Nancy Brandon and others. She also wrote books under her own name, as did Howard.

But Lilian Garis fancied herself an expert on stocks, and she invested their savings in the market, which crashed in 1929. The Uncle Wiggily books secured their financial security.

Lilian Garis

Their son Roger was also a writer, and had some success in magazines and scripts for early television. But he struggled with mental illness and difficulty getting out of the shadow of his famous parents. His daughter, Leslie Garis, wrote a poignant memoir in 2007 called “House of Happy Endings” about growing up in the house on Spring Street in the 1950s with her parents and grandparents amid her father’s mental disintegration. It shows how deep sadness can lie behind a facade of idyllic serenity.

The Garis house on Spring Street is now the headquarters of Five Colleges, Inc.

The house, on the corner of Spring and Dickinson Streets, was known as “The Dell” and was frequently visited by poet Robert Frost, a close friend of Howard Garis. It was built in the Craftsman and Revival styles. It is now the headquarters of Five Colleges Inc.

Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977), who married W.E.B. Du Bois when he was 83 and she was 54, was a notable writer and activist also. When her husband died in 1963, she gave his papers to the University of Massachusetts and was a visiting lecturer there. She lived at 30 Boltwood Avenue, now the Lord Jeffery Inn, in the 1970s.

Shirley Graham Du Bois

While a student at Oberlin College, Du Bois wrote and produced an opera in 1932 called “Tom Toms: An Epic Story of Music and the Negro.” It attracted 10,000 people to the first performance, 15,000 to the second, including the Ohio governor. She is said to be the first African American to write and produce an opera with an all-black cast. The score was lost but was rediscovered in 2001.

Between 1932 and 1975, Du Bois wrote six plays and 14 books, including biographies for young adults of botanist George Washington Carver, poet Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington. She wrote a play called “It’s Morning” about an enslaved mother contemplating infanticide. She used theater to tell black women’s story from their perspective.

Du Bois was also one of the first field secretaries of the NAACP and organized branches all over the country. She defended people protesting racial injustice on a military base. Because she was a member of the Communist Party, her work didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. She ultimately emigrated to Africa, dying in Beijing, as a citizen of Tanzania.

One of her last novels, “Zulu Heart,” included a sympathetic portrait of whites in South Africa despite racial conflict there.

The third house on this part of the Amherst Writers Walk isn’t there anymore. Noah Webster, the dictionary pioneer and standardizer of the American version of English, lived at 46 Main Street from 1812 to 1822.

Dictionary pioneer Noah Webster

Webster wanted Americans to have a national identity separate from England’s, but that was difficult because in the late 18th century there were many regional dialects.

In 1783 he published what became known as “The Blue-Backed Speller.” It taught children spelling rules and simplified words. He took the “u” out of English words like “colour” and “honour,” removed a “g” from “waggon, kicked off the “k” in “musick” and reversed the final letters of “theatre” and “centre.”

Webster spent almost 30 years compiling his dictionary. He introduced distinctly American words, many derived from native languages, such as skunk, squash, hickory, opossum, lengthy, Congress and caucus. In all, he added about 5,000 words to the language. He died in 1843 without having sold many copies, in part because it cost $15 to $20, which was then an enormous amount.

Webster also was an advisor to George Washington, wrote his own edition of the Bible, and counted houses in major cities, leading to the first census. There’s a statue of him on the Amherst College campus.

The Amherst Writers Walk began in a course at the University of Massachusetts on public history. It was realized by the Amherst Historical Commission, funded by Community Preservation Act funds, and installed by the Department of Public Works in 2021,

Live-music site opens this week

By Nick Grabbe

The Drake, the music and performance space making its debut this week, received 2,000 entries in a lottery for 200 tickets to one of its first shows.

Organizers of The Drake predict an enormous benefit to downtown businesses from customers coming to Amherst for the music (see the end of this post for changes in restaurants and other businesses).

And The Drake will host numerous free concerts, open mic nights, a variety of musical styles, and monthly fundraisers for local charitable organizations.

It’s the biggest splash on the downtown scene since the rebirth 16 years ago of the Amherst Cinema, a community effort led by Meg Gage and Barry Roberts. For The Drake, Roberts has teamed up with Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Business Improvement District (BID), and architect John Kuhn.

Gabrielle Gould and Barry Roberts in front of the graffiti that inspired The Drake’s name.

Located at 44 North Pleasant St., the rebuilt site of High Horse, The Drake will have a “soft opening” this Tuesday with a free jazz concert at 7:30. Here’s a link to The Drake’s scheduled performances.

When the BID was forming 10 years ago, community outreach revealed that many people wanted a downtown music venue, Roberts told me in an email. They said they’d like to stay on this side of the river and enjoy entertainment if it were available.

“We understood that if they were to stay here that they would spend money on food and drinks as well,” Roberts said. “After the BID was formed, we always kept this in mind as something that was missing in our downtown. I think this is one of the many things going on in the downtown that will be a real game changer to make our downtown more vibrant.”

The Drake’s web site has posted videos of musicians performing there during the construction.

Big names. The first major concert at The Drake will be this Wednesday, when Dinosaur Jr. performs. The rock/punk group, formed in Amherst in 1985, has produced 13 albums and is “one of the formative influences on American alternative rock,” according to Wikipedia.

Dinosaur Jr., an influential rock band that started out in Amherst, will be at The Drake this Wednesday.

Founder J Mascis will perform in his home town. The appearance has merited a mention in the popular online magazine Brooklyn Vegan, and Gould anticipates a blurb in Rolling Stone. “This tiny venue is getting exciting national press,” she said. But don’t try to get in; this is the concert that necessitated a lottery for the privilege of buying $40 tickets.

Other big names coming to The Drake during the opening week will be jazz violinist Regina Carter this Thursday and singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III on Saturday.

Economic driver. Many people who come to shows at The Drake will also patronize restaurants, bookstores and other businesses, Gould said. The majority of people coming to the music series on the town common last summer got takeout from an Amherst restaurant.

“This town has a lot more to offer than just the Five Colleges,” Gould said. “These concerts are things that will bring people to Amherst. We want people to come here for the leaves and stay for the music.”

With The Drake opening, work on an enhanced North Common starting this summer, and ultimately a renovated and expanded Jones Library, pressure on downtown parking is likely to increase. Gould said she’d like the Town Council to issue a request for proposals for a new parking garage in the town-owned lot between CVS and North Prospect Street, now that it has made the zoning appropriate.

Free/charitable events. Tuesday’s free concert, featuring the Northampton Jazz Workshop with sax player Gary Smulyan, will include an open jam session afterwards. On May 9, the Amherst College Music Department will present chamber music from 5 to 7 p.m. and jazz from 8 to 10, also for free, and on May 18, ARHS students will perform jazz. On June 5, pianist Jee Won Park and cellist Eddie Aaron will give a free concert. On the second Tuesday of each month, there will be an open mike night.

On May 24, The Drake will hold the first of its monthly “FEED BACK LIVE” nights, raising money for the Amherst Survival Center. Tickets are $35 and include a dinner catered by a local restaurant (Mexcalito on May 24, music by the No-Nos). Future beneficiaries include the Mobile Food Market, Not Bread Alone and the Food Bank of Western Mass.

Architect John Kuhn said it has always confounded him that Amherst has never had a live-music venue, and has ceded that role to Northampton for many years.

“This is about to change with the opening of The Drake, and it’s about time,” Kuhn said. “The energy and excitement behind this venture is palpable, and is finally a project that has universal support and little, if any, controversy, so rare for this town. We hope to be a venue for all ages and all musical tastes. We are opening at the tail end of a pandemic, at a time when people are clamoring to attend live shows again.”

Gould outlined some other changes in restaurants and other downtown businesses:

  • The Humble Peach, a vegan bakery, will open at the former Henion’s space in about a month;
  • Coronation Cafe, a breakfast-and-lunch place, is due to open at the former Bart’s location;
  • The Amherst Oyster Bar will take over the spot formerly occupied by Judie’s;
  • Ricelicious has opened on Boltwood Walk, and a “speakeasy” called Archive is due to open at the former Pruddy’s/Twisters site near Sweetser Park;
  • Gould is seeking a meat and fish market and an Irish pub for the first floor under The Drake;
  • A major brewery located next to Miss Saigon will be announced this Saturday;
  • La Veracruzana has added Hawaiian food called “poke” (POH-kay) in back;
  • Amethyst Jewelry has opened next to Art of Intimates on Main Street;
  • Archipelago has bought the former Pub, with its future use uncertain, and the housing development on Spring Street is due to be ready by the fall;
  • With The Pub, Rafters and Charlie’s gone, The Spoke has doubled its space;
  • A restaurant called Protocol is due to open at 1 East Pleasant;
  • A Chinese restaurant is due to go in the Lone Wolf spot;
  • Here’s a link to a post from last September about downtown business changes.

Amherst’s new live performance venue, the Drake, opens April 28

By Sarah Marshall

In case you missed it – the Drake announced that its grand opening will be Thursday, April 28. Celebrated jazz violinist Regina Carter will kick off the first series with performances at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. The following evening, Israeli artist Gili Yalo will combine Ethiopian, soul, funk psychedelic, and jazz styles, also in two shows. On Saturday, April 30, famed signer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III headlines. Fever-pop duo Home Body and Nova One will electrify the room on Sunday, May 1. Tickets available at www.thedrakeamherst.org.

Courtesy the Drake

On Tuesday, April 26, the Northampton Jazz Workshop will feature Gary Smulyan with the Green Street Trio at the Drake’s soft opening, a free event. The Jazz Workshop will be at the Drake every first and third Tuesday of the month, featuring a guest artist and an open jam session.

Located on the second floor of the Amherst Bank Building at 44 N Pleasant (formerly home to the High Horse), the Drake’s space has been completely transformed with state-of-the-art lighting and audio installed by Klondike Sound, and a Steinway Grand piano courtesy of Amherst College. The venue is open to all ages. For 21+ patrons there is a full service bar featuring craft cocktails, wine and beer. The venue will feature both seated and dance floor configurations and will be available to rent for private events.

Courtesy the Drake

The Downtown Amherst Foundation (DAF), a 501(c)3 nonprofit, is the driving force behind this venture, whose mission is to bring arts and culture to Downtown Amherst. The Drake will present nightly entertainment from nationally and internationally recognized performers under the purview of Laudable Productions, known for presenting successful music festivals, concerts, and other cultural events across the Pioneer Valley.

Envisioned as a true community based venture, The DAF is collaborating with the Art and Music departments of Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Amherst-Pelham Regional High School to offer students, faculty, and alumni musicians the opportunity to perform live in an intimate space. Once a month, proceeds from the new “FEED BACK LIVE” series will be donated to a local nonprofit. Many community and education forward series will be announced soon.

Founded on a vision of diversity and inclusivity for both performers and audience, and adopting its name from the original Drake, a storied Amherst bar which closed in 1985, the Drake will welcome local residents of all ages and attract visitors coming to hear top talent in an intimate and familiar space.

Houses of five famous writers visible on brief walking tour

By Nick Grabbe

Many famous writers have called Amherst home, and the Amherst Writers Walk is a self-directed tour of 12 houses they lived in. This post is about five of these writers, who lived in four houses that can be seen in a 30-minute walk. A later post will be about other writers whose houses are on the tour.

Photo credit Betsy Krogh

118 Sunset Avenue

When Ray Stannard Baker moved to Amherst in 1910, he was 40 and already a famous writer, with a reputation for exposing corruption and inspiring reform through his magazine articles. He had also published a book that was the first examination of America’s racial divide written by a prominent White journalist.

Baker came to Amherst with a secret identity. Starting in 1906, he published a series of articles and books, using the pseudonym “David Grayson,” that became very popular and were translated into many languages. The narrator of these books is an educated man who lives on a farm and likes to walk around preaching a gospel of kindness and hospitality. There was intense speculation about who wrote the “David Grayson” books, and in 1916 Baker admitted that it he was the author. At the time, these books were much more widely read than the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost.

Baker was close to Woodrow Wilson and traveled in Europe during World War I as an unofficial envoy of the President. In 1919, he headed the American press bureau at the Versailles peace conference, and later wrote a multi-volume biography of Wilson that won the Pulitzer Prize. He wrote most of it in the Jones Library.

Baker was a library trustee from 1929 until his death in 1946. The library has 300 books and 9,000 manuscripts in its Baker collection. At UMass, there is both a Baker Hall and a Grayson Hall. The house at 118 Sunset Avenue is now Alpha Tau Gamma fraternity.

Here’s Baker, writing as David Grayson:

The great point of advantage in the life of the country is that if a man is in reality simple, if he love true contentment, it is the place of all places where he can live his life most freely and fully, where he can grow. The city affords no such opportunity; indeed, it often destroys, by the seductiveness with which it flaunts its carnal graces.”

Photo credit Betsy Krogh

43 Sunset Avenue

In 1916, the same year Baker revealed that he had written the David Grayson books, Robert Frost (1874-1963) came to Amherst College to give a reading of his poems. He joined the faculty in 1917 and lived in Amherst off and on until 1938. He lived in this house on Sunset Avenue from 1931 to 1938. Earlier, he lived in a house on Main Street that was moved to make way for construction of the police station.

The cantankerous Frost quit his teaching job at the college in 1920 after a dispute with the president, but returned in 1923. From 1926 to 1938 and from 1949 to 1963 he had a more informal relationship with Amherst College. Frost regarded teaching as a distraction from writing his poetry, which gained world renown for portraying the New England landscape and people in ways that evoked universal themes.

Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes, and in 1961 read a poem at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

The Amherst College library is named for Frost, and there is a statue of him on the campus. The Jones Library has 12,000 letters, manuscripts, photos and audio recordings in its Frost collection. You can listen to a reading Frost gave at UMass in 1961 here. The 47-mile Robert Frost Trail runs between South Hadley and Wendell.

The house where Frost lived at 43 Sunset Avenue is now privately owned. Here is the final stanza of Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

“But yield who will to their separation,/My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight./Only where love and need are one,/And the work is play for mortal stakes,/Is the deed ever really done/For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”

Photo credit Betsy Krogh

219 Amity Street

A childhood spent in the intellectual ferment of Amherst can inspire future writers. Eugene Field (1850-1895) and Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966) were journalists who spent parts of their young years in this 24-room house on the corner of Lincoln Avenue. The house is now divided into apartments.

Field wrote for newspapers in Kansas City, Denver, St. Louis and Chicago. He was known for his light, humorous articles, which were reprinted in papers all around the country.

But he is best known for writing poetry for children, including “Wynken, Blinken and Nod,” a lullaby-like poem that has inspired marble statues, paintings and a Disney short film. He was so beloved in the Midwest that there are more than 30 elementary schools named after him. There’s a statue of him in Denver. Called the “Poet of Childhood,” Field also wrote (anonymously) a book about a 12-year-old boy who was seduced by a woman in her thirties.

The Jones Library houses articles, correspondence and manuscripts written by Field.

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night/Sailed off in a wooden shoe,/Sailed on a river of crystal light/Into a sea of dew./’Where are you going, and what do you wish?’/The old moon asked the three./
‘We have come to fish for the herring-fish/That live in this beautiful sea;/Nets of silver and gold have we,’/Said Wynken, Blynken and Nod.”

Mary Heaton Vorse, who spent part of her youth in the same house (at a different time), was a child of wealth who traveled extensively with her family. As an adult, she became a journalist who advocated for women’s suffrage, civil rights and pacifism.

She covered numerous strikes, including by textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., Passaic, N.J. and Gastonia, N.C., auto workers in Flint, Mich. and coal miners in Kentucky. She also participated in labor protests and was put under surveillance by the FBI. She was a war correspondent in Europe in 1918-19.

In 1962, she was the first recipient of the United Auto Workers’ Social Justice Award. She was widowed twice and lived her later years in Provincetown, where she continued her advocacy of progressive causes.

Vorse described herself as “a woman who in early life got angry because many children lived miserably and died needlessly.” Here’s something she wrote in her 80s:

When I was young, Life said to me, ‘Here are two ways – a world running to mighty cities full of the spectacle of bloody adventure, and here is home and children. Which will you take, the adventurous life or a quiet life?’ ‘I will take both,’ I said.”

Photo credit Betsy Krogh

259 Lincoln Avenue

Norton Juster (1929-2021) was fighting boredom while serving in the Navy in 1954, so he started writing stories for children. In 1961, he wrote “The Phantom Tollbooth,” with illustrations by Jules Feiffer, about a boy named Milo who is bored with the world and drives his car through an imaginary tollbooth and experiences a series of adventures. Feiffer, who later became a famous cartoonist, described his friend as “mischievous.”

Juster said he was inspired by a conversation he had with a boy about infinity while waiting in line at a restaurant. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has sold over five million copies and been adapted into a stage musical.

Juster was also an architect, like his immigrant father, and was a professor of architecture and environmental design at Hampshire College from 1970 to 1992.

Unlike these other writers, many current Amherst residents have had personal interactions with Juster. When he signed my son’s copy, he didn’t just write his name but also wrote “To Alex.” Juster also wrote “The Dot and the Line,” which is commonly used in schools and, like “Tollbooth,” has been adapted into a film.

Juster lived in the house on Lincoln Avenue from 1982 to 2007. He describes the inside of it in detail in “The Hello Goodbye Window.” The house is now privately owned.

The Amherst Writers Walk grew out of a UMass course on public history, was created by the Historical Commission, and funded through the Community Preservation Act. Here is a link to the commission’s website on the Amherst Writers Walk.