(Photo credit: Adams NHP, courtesy LCarolJohnson, Flickr Creative Commons)
Back in 2008, the HBO miniseries “John Adams” caught the public imagination and led to a widespread reconsideration of America’s much-maligned second president. Actually, that process had begun seven years earlier, with the publication of the John Adams biography by renowned popular historian David McCullough. That book had also been a hit. Both of these media events had led to a spike in visitation to the National Park Service site in Quincy, MA dedicated to the memory of the man and his family. Even before the TV series, park service figures showed a nearly five-fold increase in visitation between 1997 and 2008, from fewer than 50,000 to almost 250,000 a year.
Because of the rise in visitation the National Park Service a few years ago instituted a trolley bus system to shepherd groups of visitors from a central off-site waiting area (the visitor center) to the historical park itself, where groups are taken from one site to another and given brief tours by rangers before being moved along. This goes on for two hours, until visitors board the trolley back to the visitor center. I know these procedures are necessary for high-traffic sites such as Adams, but they still grate on me. Given the choice I will always prefer to walk myself around a site rather than being herded around like cattle. But in this case you are not given the option of just going around the site on your own.
By the time my wife and I visited the site, it was May 2011 and that TV-generated spike in tourism had perhaps eased off a little. One morning we had taken the “T” (the Boston transit system) Red Line from Park Street down to Quincy Center, arriving around 9:45 a.m. The town, now devoid of rush hour traffic, was eerily quiet. The signage from the station to the park service visitor center was lacking, and we had a tough time tracking down the correct building.
When we found it and walked in (admittedly it was a little before 10 a.m. on a weekday) we were the only ones there. We were told the next tour would be at 10:45, even though tours were scheduled on the half hour for the rest of the day and there was a clear gap in the information board where I’m pretty sure the numbers “10:15” should have been. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out the park rangers had decided to just skip 10:15 a.m. that morning because no-one was around till we showed up and they didn’t want to put on a tour for just two people. That was nice for them but annoying for us, as now we had to sit around with nothing to do for more than three-quarters of an hour in a rather uninspiring waiting area.
Eventually a few more people showed up and at 10:45 we boarded the trolley bus for the short drive to our first stop: the John Adams and John Quincy Adams birthplaces (two separate buildings). We got out and were guided inside to seek out our first ranger, though he was nowhere to be found. After a few minutes’ wait he eventually showed up to give us our first tour.
Both buildings are of the rather odd-looking “salt box” variety, where the front of the house presents two full floors but the roof at the rear slopes all the way down to the first floor. They sit side-by-side, right by a busy roadside, and opposite some rather downtrodden-looking stores. Of the two buildings the John Adams birthplace looks more rustic, largely on account of its lack of exterior paint. Our first tour guide ranger, who showed us round the both structures, seemed a little distracted and slow at first, and his talk initially sounded very pro forma. But he warmed up a bit toward the end. As we exited I noticed another ranger and a teacher outside were getting a group of grade schoolers engaged by having them reenact (if that’s the right word) a Revolutionary War battle, using wooden “muskets” and swords made out of nerf form. One side was commanded by “General Mills” and the other by “Cap’n Crunch,” and this made me laugh. The kids seemed to be having fun.
We moved on to Peacefield, the main Adams family home, built in 1731, that housed four generations of the Adams family. The tour ranger at this spot—a short, middle-aged and energetic woman—was more engaged and more personable, and that’s what made this the better part of the tour.
Overall, the story of the Adams family at Peacefield is pretty interesting. I particularly liked the story of Louisa Catherine Adams, the English-born wife of John Quincy Adams, who endured a grueling 40-day journey across war-ravaged Russia with her two-year-old son, Charles Francis, heading back to Ghent in Belgium, where John Quincy was negotiating a peace treaty to end the War of 1812. The trunk she used on the journey was one of the exhibits on display there.
The garden outside was lovely. My wife was intrigued by the 200 year-old, low-cut boxwoods that line the paths between the main house and the impressive stone library building.
The whole tour lasted about two hours and it was very interesting. Still, I was left with the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t the best-run park service unit I had ever visited. I’d like to return and see how it operates when things are really busy.
Adams National Historical Park. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/adam/index.htm
Expanded Transit Service Evaluation (2008). Adams National Historical Park. Available at