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About the Old Harlow Fort House

Written by: Ruth B. Wagner - Research by: Jane Baker

Half-a-mile south of the center of Plymouth stands the Harlow Old Fort House, a small story and a half dwelling with grayed shingles, gambrel roof, and a large central chimney. This type of house was often built in the area south of Boston. The gable faces Sandwich Street, the old "hieway" connecting Plymouth with Sandwich on Cape Cod.

The house presents much the same appearance it did in 1677 when it was completed and occupied by William Harlow, a cooper by trade, who had obtained the land at a town meeting in 1669. Harlow, a 'freeman' or voter of the colony, and a Selectman of the town which he also represented in various minor offices, was typical of the responsible, sober and hardworking men who carried on the pilgrim tradition in the second generation of Plymouth Colony. His house projects the Pilgrim home and way of life.

Sergeant William Harlow was born in England about 1624 but is first mentioned in Plymouth (Massachusetts) town records as a voter in 1646.

His first wife, Rebecca Bartlett, to whom he was married in 1648, was the granddaughter of Richard Warren, who arrived in Plymouth in 1620 as a passenger on the Mayflower. Mary Faunce was his second wife. He married the third time to Mary Shelley.

Many families today trace their ancestry back to Sergeant William Harlow through his fourteen children.

Local church history, as well as town sources, reveal his many contributions to the community. His title was obtained as a leader of the military company and he had charge of the old fort and saw much military service. In 1621 the Pilgrims built the old fort on Burial Hill where their religious services were held. At the end of King Philip's War (1676) the fort was torn down and its timbers used by Sergeant William Harlow for the construction of this house.

After nearly 250 years in the Harlow Family, the Plymouth Antiquarian Society acquired the property and restored and refurnished it to its original appearance and then opened to the public in 1921. It is supported by the generosity of the people whose national heritage is here preserved. Anyone interested in helping is cordially invited to become a member of the Society or to contribute to the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, Plymouth, Mass.

This is a working museum that presents to the visitor an intimate glimpse into the daily life of our 17th century settlers. A costumed hostess demonstrates how wool is washed, carded and spun on the spinning wheel; and how the thread is skeined, dyed and woven on the loom. She shows the process of making linen from the flax plant to the finished product. She dips bayberry candles by hand as they were made in Pilgrim times, and there are some demonstrations of fireplace cooking.

An herb-bordered path leads from the gateway to the stone steps and nail-studded oak door where tall visitors may have to stoop to enter the tiny hall. A steep narrow stairway rises abruptly, and to the right is the largest room, called 'the Hall'.

The heavy timbers the house are seen in 'the Hall', the upright gunstock posts of oak and the summer beam and floor joists of jack pine. There is a tradition that these timbers once were a part of the Pilgrim Fort built on the hill above the first street and dismantled at the conclusion of the King Philip's War in 1676 when the danger of attack by Indians was considered over. William Harlow is believed to have acquired the timbers at that time and the splicing of the beams in the next room supports the tradition that these timbers were used before.

The brick fireplace is large enough to burn huge logs and has an oven built into the back. It is spanned by a great wooden lintel. The chairs, chests, settle, hutch table, spinning wheels and other furnishings date from the 17th century. The walls plastered with clay and straw, reproduce an English technique often followed in early New England.

There are three other rooms on the ground floor. A smaller fireplace and another oven are in the room beyond 'the Hall'; a large old hand loom exhibited is still used to weave homespun cloth. A bedroom and a buttery, or pantry, open off this room, as does the scullery - a narrow room whose inner wall is formed by the back of the central chimney, Herbs are hung in the scullery, and the cheese press is still operable. In a corner is a shallow round sandstone sink with a spout that drains through a shuttered outlet into the yard. It may have come from Holland on the Mayflower; at any rate, that is the tradition handed down to us. It is of Dutch type and tooled from a large sandstone not found in Plymouth, nor is it typically English as sinks were rare in the 17th century.

At the top of the narrow stairs in the entrance hall is a landing with steps to the left and right. Each of these leads to a bedroom with a brick fireplace, and under the eaves are four small low rooms that provided storage space or extra sleeping quarters. The corded beds of the time have both feather and cornhusk mattresses.

In the yard behind the house is a corn patch, a well, and an herb garden, usual in Pilgrim yards. Here an old wood shed served the museum for over forty years as a workshop, classroom, kitchen, and tool shed. The interior of the shed was remodeled in 1967 to provide a modern kitchen and dressing room, and a new building was constructed for the workshop and classroom. These additional conveniences offer a greater scope for the many activities of the Harlow Old Fort House Museum and opens possibilities for new projects in the future.

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