Quincy in a Day:

Presidential History a “T” Stop from Boston

by Emilie and Gretchen Haertsch

This mother-daughter team is traveling again! Recently, when Gretchen visited Emilie, now living in the Boston area, they made an excursion to the historic town of Quincy, MA, the home of presidents John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams. Quincy is only a 20-minute “T” ride south of Boston, and its historic sites can be enjoyed in the course of a day.

Museum of Quincy
We began our historical tour of Quincy, MA, at the Museum of Quincy, located in the landmark Adams Academy Building. Operated by the Quincy Historical Society, the museum provides a fine historical context for the day’s exploration, without overwhelming the visitor with information.

The first misperception dispelled by the museum was that the city took its name from John Quincy Adams. Rather, that honor belongs to Colonel John Quincy, maternal grandfather of Abigail Adams.

This sign hangs in front of Peacefield house, the Quincy, MA, home of John and Abigail Adams. John Adams was not wealthy by contemporary standards, and preferred a modest "farm."
The timeline of the museum’s exhibit ranges from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the present day. We were particularly intrigued by the information about the Wampanoag Indians, who were living in southeastern Massachusetts when the first settlers arrived. The tribe still has a reservation on Martha’s Vineyard. We also learned about the role of Quincy in the American Revolution, and the economic importance of the town, especially in shipbuilding and stone quarrying. Quincy’s quarry now stands in disuse and is used as a park, illustrating how the local economy has changed. Having traveled from the beginning of the colonies to present day in the museum, we left with a better sense of Quincy’s place in American history.

After our visit to the Museum of Quincy, we decided to have an early lunch, as stopping would not be an option once we began to immerse ourselves in presidential history. The charming Gunther Tooties, a hybrid coffee and lunch shop and hot spot with the locals, was located conveniently nearby. We purchased some hearty sandwiches and tea and sat outside at the sidewalk tables to people watch while we ate. Once fortified, we were ready for all the presidential lore Quincy could throw at us.

United First Parish Church
Deciding to begin at the end, we visited United First Parish Church, aptly nicknamed Church of the Presidents. The church was designed and built in 1827–28 and financed in part by John Quincy Adams. He contributed the local blue granite—one of the earliest such materials used in the United States. We found the church tour to be well worth the suggested donation, though we saw that other visitors were put off by the request.

We were lucky enough to have a private tour guide who brought alive the rich history of the beautiful church, which still has an active Unitarian Universalist congregation. The highlight, however, was the mausoleum downstairs. There we found four tombs—those of John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Louisa Catherine Adams. Standing next to the resting place of these figures of American history was quite a powerful experience, and our guide stood at a respectful distance while we lingered.

Adams National Historical Park
From the church, we walked to the Adams National Historical Park Visitor Center, where we watched an orientation video about John Adams and browsed the well-stocked bookshop. We purchased tickets to the park for five dollars, and a charmingly retro trolley picked us up and headed off to our first destination—the birthplaces of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, the oldest presidential birthplaces in the United States.

Peacefield house, as scene from the gardens.
The old saltbox-shaped houses are next door to each other, creating a presidential complex of sorts. John Adams was born in the brown house on October 30, 1735. As a boy and young man, he lived in this house with his family until he married Abigail and they moved into the adjacent gray house, which John’s father had acquired and bequeathed to him. This house served not only as their residence, but also as John’s law office. John and Abigail’s son, John Quincy Adams, was born there in 1767. A tour guide escorted our group through both houses, which were appointed with furniture and tools accurate to the period. Though Adams was from impressive lineage, the houses illustrated his relatively modest background, as he was a successful solicitor but never became rich, even after he was president. To two fans of the HBO series John Adams, history was springing to life.

The same trolley again picked us up and drove us to the main attraction: Peacefield. A much grander house, though still no mansion, Peacefield was the home of John and Abigail Adams before, during, and after his presidency. The couple acquired the property and farm in 1787 while they were living in London, where John was serving as British ambassador. Upon their return home, they were somewhat disappointed with its smallness in comparison with the grandeur of their European quarters; Abigail referred to the house as a “wren’s nest.” Consequently, the Adamses made many modifications and additions to the house. As John was often away, Abigail was the main proprietor of Peacefield and oversaw the changes.

Today Peacefield remains a lovely Georgian-style house with black shutters, surrounded by extensive gardens. It is aptly named. Abigail Adams was quite a gardener, and her beds are still maintained. A rose bush that she planted herself blooms yet at Peacefield. You can be sure we paused to smell those roses! After the roses, our next stop on the property was the impressive Stone Library, which is a building separate from the residence. It was designed specifically to protect John Quincy Adams’s enviable collection of books: more than 14,000 volumes rising to the tall ceiling. The book lover in each of us swooned.

From the library we entered the residence. As Peacefield was occupied by subsequent generations of Adamses before it became a historic site, it contains an extensive collection of family furniture, artifacts, and portraits. The tour is replete with anecdotal stories about Adams family life. For example, Louisa Catherine Adams, John Quincy Adams’s wife, was the only foreign-born first lady; she was English. And, like many new brides, she had mother-in-law problems. Abigail did not approve and tried to dissuade her son from marrying Louisa Catherine. Apparently, the problems of presidents and first ladies are not that different from our own.

Emilie and Gretchen smell the roses at Peacefield house, originally planted by Abigail Adams.
The house, with its many additions, is quirky in design. John Adams even deliberately placed the guest room, for visiting politicians and dignitaries, in an unfortunate location that required other people to pass through it to get to his study. Adams himself often barged through while visitors were still sleeping! Abigail eventually insisted they install a new hallway to avoid this problem.

One of the most striking aspects of our visit to Peacefield was the real enthusiasm of the volunteers and Park Service employees for the Adams family. All of our guides spoke of the Adamses as if they not only knew them but liked them, as well. And they made us, the visitors, feel as though we knew them, too. When our guides opened the door to the dining room, we half expected to find John and Abigail sitting at the table.

The trolley returned us to the visitor center, and our visit to Quincy was complete. This mother-daughter team left the city, having amply experienced the charm of the New England town, as well as discovering a great deal more about two American presidents and their wives and families.

If You Go
Quincy is the eighth largest city in the state, but Quincy Center has a small New England town feel. If you’re taking the T from Boston, disembark at Quincy Center to visit the historic sites. (Actually, Quincy has four T stops.) Quincy Bay is within the city limits and is part of Boston Harbor and the Massachusetts Bay. If you’re driving, stop for dinner at one of the casual seafood restaurants along the bay and take a stroll along the water before heading back to Boston.

Gretchen Haertsch lives in the Philadelphia area and teaches advanced writing courses at Arcadia University. Daughter Emilie Haertsch recently earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. She lives in near Boston and works as an assistant editor for content development at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Haertsches last contributed to Empty Nest with a recap of their visit to Charleston, SC, in the Winter 2009–2010 issue.

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