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A patriots' preserve

From Concord, a call goes out to help restore a cradle of liberty

Jim Cunningham, Save Our Heritage project manager for the Barrett farmhouse now being restored, said the only two families that had owned the Concord property since Colonial days had refrained from making changes that could have eroded its historical importance. Jim Cunningham, Save Our Heritage project manager for the Barrett farmhouse now being restored, said the only two families that had owned the Concord property since Colonial days had refrained from making changes that could have eroded its historical importance. (photos by Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 11, 2008

CONCORD - Time had all but forgotten Colonel James Barrett and his 1705 farmhouse.

Three centuries have weathered the Colonial home's timber beams, rusted its door hinges, and faded its King of Prussia marble hearth. The home's original floorboards, 23-inch-wide hardwood planks, have buckled.

But little has changed in the muster room where Barrett, a colonel in the Colonial militia, met with John Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and other patriots in the days before the Battle of Lexington and Concord. History reveres those men as founding fathers yet scarcely remembers Barrett and his farm, which was also a massive munitions hold that provoked the British march to Concord that April morning in 1775.

The British arrived too late.

Colonists had already armed themselves with the weapons and made their way to Old North Bridge, where the American Revolution began.

While thousands come every year to Concord's Old North Bridge to pay homage to the hallowed battleground, few find their way to Barrett's farm, or know its history.

Historical preservationists are hoping to change all that.

They want to designate the small Concord farm a national landmark and restore Barrett's crumbling home to its original glory. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, with support from Senator John F. Kerry, is leading a legislative campaign to make the 5-acre property part of the nearby Minute Man National Historical Park, and US Representative Niki Tsongas is proposing similar legislation in the House.

Area historians envision the former Minuteman stronghold as a public museum.

"Everyone knows that Paul Revere rode out to Concord to warn that the British were coming," said Jim Cunningham, a Lincoln resident who is managing the restoration of the farmhouse.

"But why were they coming? For munitions that were hidden right here at this farm. This was their objective."

Kennedy said in a statement yesterday that the farm should be "protected for generations to come" as a key site in the history of the American Revolution.

Inside the muster room yesterday, its original beam construction and brick fireplace creating an eerie historical echo, Cunningham told the story.

British spies had learned that Barrett, a leader of the Middlesex Militia, had amassed an impressive arsenal of guns, powder,and ammunition on his farm. Of particular concern were four cannons the colonists had stolen from British troops in Boston.

"When they heard about the cannons, the British knew they meant business," Cunningham said. "There were enough weapons for an army of 15,000 men."

Several companies of British regulars marched to the farm to confiscate the supplies, but the colonists had already moved most of the weapons, buried the rest in a freshly plowed field, and vacated the premises.

As fighting broke out about 1 1/2 miles away at the Old North Bridge, where Barrett commanded the Colonial forces who pushed the British to retreat, redcoats sat down to breakfast at Barrett's farm. As history tells it, Barrett's wife grudgingly fed them, but refused their offer to pay. When they tossed a few shillings into her lap, she told them, "This is the price of blood."

Preservationists call the property the most important unrestored Revolutionary War landmark in Massachusetts, perhaps anywhere, and say it deserves its rightful place in the nation's annals.

"It's a living history," said Anna Winter, executive director of Save Our Heritage, a nonprofit preservation group that bought the property three years ago and oversees the restoration.

"There are things that have fallen out of the story that have to be told, that have to live on."

Since the Revolutionary War, the farmhouse had been owned by just two families, the Barretts and the McGraths, who sold the property to Save Our Heritage in 2005 for almost $2 million.

The McGrath family had allowed the building to fall into disrepair.

"Instead of being a monument of incredible importance, it was almost an eyesore," Winter said.

But that neglect was a historical blessing, preservationists said, leaving the farmhouse essentially untouched over the years.

Today, it largely retains its original structure, including the staircase, floors, and low ceilings and doorways - one of the few houses from that time that remain intact.

"They understood what the house was and wanted to preserve it," Cunningham said. "Just not great on maintenance."

The McGrath family lives adjacent to the property and still farms the land, growing corn, beans, peas, and blueberries.

Save Our Heritage hopes to raise $1.5 million for the renovation, which is likely to take at least three years, and is seeking donations in the hopes of turning the house over to the National Park Service in "museum quality," Winter said.

Workers are restoring the house in the same fashion as it was built, using painstaking manual techniques to re-create the Colonial-era construction.

They will then comb historical records to reproduce the home decor and furnishings, with the goal of giving visitors a realistic glimpse of the site where the Founding Fathers met at the dawn of a nation.

"This is the little house that time forgot," Winter said. "For historians, that's a miracle."

Nancy Nelson, superintendent of the Minute Man National Historical Park, said opening Barrett's farm to the public would help complete the story of the "shot heard 'round the world."

"It's a fascinating historical resource, and it's definitely a key part of the story," she said. "For it to still be standing and in overall good condition is remarkable."

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