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OF the quaint ancestral homes still standing in the old Granite State, none is more picturesque or more interesting from the historical view-point than the Stark house in the little town of Dunbarton, a place about five miles' drive out from Concord, over one of those charming country roads, which properly make New Hampshire the summer and autumn Mecca of those who have been "long in populous city pent." Rather oddly, this house has, for all its great wealth of historical interest, been little known to the general public. The Starks are a conservative, as well as an old family, and they have never seen fit to make of their home a public show-house. Yet those who are privileged to visit Dunbarton and its chief boast, this famous house, always remember the experience as a particularly interesting one. Seldom, indeed, can one find in these days a house like this, which, for more than one hundred years; has been occupied by the family for whom it was built, and through all the changes and chances of temporal affairs has preserved the characteristics of revolutionary times.
Originally Dunbarton was Starkstown. An ancestor of this family, Archibald Stark, was one of the original proprietors, owning many hundred acres, not a few of which are still in the Starks' possession. Just when and by whom the place received the name of the old Scottish town and royal castle on the Clyde, no historian seems able to state with definiteness, but that the present Dunbarton represents only a small part of the original triangular township, all are agreed. Of the big landowner, Archibald Stark, the General John Stark of our Revolution was a son.
Another of the original proprietors of Dunbarton was a certain Captain Caleb Page, whose name still clings to a rural neighbourhood of the township, a crossroads section pointed out to visitors as Page's Corner. And it was to Elizabeth Page, the bright and capable daughter of his father's old friend and neighbour, that the doughty John Stark was married in August, 1758, while at home on a furlough. The son of this marriage was called Caleb, after his maternal grandfather, and he it was who built the imposing old mansion of our story.
Caleb Stark was a very remarkable man. Born at Dunbarton, December 3, 1759, he was present while only a lad at the battle of Bunker Hill, standing side by side with some of the veteran rangers of the French war, near the rail fence, which extended from the redoubt to the beach of the Mystic River. In order to be at this scene of conflict, the boy had left home secretly some days before, mounted on his own horse, and armed only with a musket. After a long, hard journey, he managed to reach the Royall house in Medford, which was his father's headquarters at the time, the very night before the great battle. And the general, though annoyed at his son's manner of coming, recognised that the lad had done only what a Stark must do at such a time, and permitted him to take part in the next day's fight.
After that, there followed for Caleb a time of great social opportunity, which transformed the clever, but unpolished.
New Hampshire boy into as fine a young gentleman as was to be found in the whole country. The Royall house, it will be remembered, was presided over in the troublous war times by the beautiful ladies of the family, than whom no more cultured and distinguished women were anywhere to be met. And these, though Tory to the backbone, were disposed to be very kind and gracious to the brave boy whom the accident of war had made their guest.
So it came about that even before he reached manhood's estate, Caleb Stark had acquired the grace and polish of Europe. Nor was the lad merely a carpet knight. So ably did he serve his father that he was made the elder soldier's aid-de-camp, when the father was made a brigadier-general, and by the time the war closed, was himself Major Stark, though scarcely twenty-four years old.
Soon after peace was declared, the young major came into his Dunbarton patrimony, and in 1784, in a very pleasant spot in the midst of his estate, and facing the, broad highway leading from Dunbarton to Weare, he began to build his now famous house. It was finished the next year, and in 1787, the young man, having been elected town treasurer of Dunbarton, resolved to settle down in his new home, and brought there as his wife, Miss Sarah McKinstrey, a daughter of Doctor William McKinstrey, formerly of Taunton, Massachusetts, a beautiful and cultivated girl, just twenty years old.
It is interesting in this connection to note that all the women of the Stark family have been beauties, and that they have, too, been sweet and charming in disposition, as well as in face. The old mansion on the weare road has been the home during its one hundred and ten years of life of several women who would have adorned, both by reason of their personal and intellectual charms, any position in our land. This being true, it is not odd that the country folk speak of the Stark family with deepest reverence.
Beside building the family homestead, Caleb Stark did two other things which serve to make him distinguished even in a family where all were great. He entertained Lafayette, and he accumulated the family fortune. Both these things were accomplished at Pembroke, where the major early established some successful cotton mills. The date of his entertainment of Lafayette was, of course, 1825, the year when the marquis, after laying the corner-stone of our monument on Bunker Hill, made his triumphal tour through New Hampshire.
The bed upon which the great Frenchman slept during his visit to the Starks is still carefully preserved, and those guests who have had the privilege of being entertained by the present owners of the house can bear testimony to the fact that the couch is an extremely comfortable one. The room in which this bed is the most prominent article of furniture bears the name of the Lafayette room, and is in every particular furnished after the manner of a sleeping apartment of one hundred years ago. The curtains of the high bedstead, the quaint toilet-table, the bedside table with its brass candlestick, and the pictures and the ornaments are all in harmony. Nowhere has a discordant modern note been struck. The same thing is true of all the other apartments in the house. The Starks have one, and all displayed great taste and decided skill in preserving the long-ago tone that makes the place what it is. The second Caleb, who inherited the estate in 1838, when his father, the brilliant major, died, was a Harvard graduate, and writer of repute, being the author of a valuable memoir of his father and grandfather. He collected, even more than they had done, family relics of interest. When he died in 1865, his two sisters, Harriett and Charlotte, succeeded him in the possession of the estate.
Only comparatively recently has this latter sister died, and the place come into the hands of its present owner, Mr. Charles F. Morris Stark, an heir who has the traditions of the Morris family to add to those of the Starks, being on his mother's side a lineal descendant of Robert Morris, the great financier of the Revolution. The present Mrs. Stark is the representative of still another noted New Hampshire family, being the granddaughter of General John McNeil, a famous soldier of the Granite State.
Few, indeed, are the homes in America which contain so much which, while of intimate interest to the family, is as well of wide historical importance. Though a home, the house has the value of a museum. The portrait of Major Stark, which hangs in the parlour at the right of the square entrance-hall, was painted by Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the discoverer of the electric telegraph, a man who wished to come down to posterity as an artist, but is now remembered by us only as an inventor.
This picture is an admirable presentation of its original. The gallant major looks down upon us with a person rather above the medium in height, of a slight but muscular frame, with the short waistcoat, the high collar, and the close, narrow shoulders of the gentleman's costume of 1830. The carriage of the head is noble, and the strong features, the deep-set, keen, blue eyes, and the prominent forehead, speak of courage, intelligence, and cool self-possession.
Beside this noteworthy portrait hangs a beautiful picture of the first mistress of this house, the Mrs. Stark who, as a girl, was Miss Sarah McKinstrey. Her portrait shows her to have been a fine example of the blonde type of beauty. The splendid coils of her hair are very lustrous, and the dark hazel eyes look out from the frame with the charm and dignity of a St. Cecilia. Her costume, too, is singularly appropriate and becoming, azure silk with great puffs of lace around the white arms and queenly throat. The waist, girdled under the armpits, and the long-wristed mits stamp the date 1815-21.
The portrait of General Stark, which was painted by Miss Hannah Crowninshield, is said not to look so much like the doughty soldier as does the Morse picture of his son, but Gilbert Stuart's Miss Charlotte Stark, recently deceased, shows the last daughter of the family to have fairly sustained in her youth the reputation for beauty which goes with the Stark women.
Beside the portraits, there are in the house many other choice and valuable antiques. Among these the woman visitor notices with particular interest the fan that was once the property of Lady Pepperell, who was a daughter, it will be remembered, of the Royall family, who were so kind to Major Caleb Stark in his youth. And to the man who loves historical things, the cane presented to General Stark when he was a major, for valiant conduct in defence of Fort William Henry, will be of especial interest. This cane is made from the bone of a whale and is headed with ivory. On the mantelpiece stands another very interesting souvenir, a bronze statuette of Napoleon I., which Lafayette brought with him from France and presented to Major Stark.
Apropos of this there is an amusing story. The major was a great admirer of the distinguished Bonaparte, and made a collection of Napoleonic busts and pictures, all of which, together with the numerous other effects of the Stark place, had to be appraised at his death. As it happened, the appraiser was a countryman of limited intelligence, and, when he was told to put down "twelve Bonapartes," recorded "twelve pony carts," and it was thus that the item appeared on the legal paper.
The house itself is a not unworthy imitation of an English manor-house, with its aspect of old-time grandeur and picturesque repose. It is of wood, two and a half stories high, with twelve dormer windows, a gambrel roof, and a large two-story L. In front there are two rows of tall and stately elms, and the trim little garden is enclosed by a painted iron fence. On either side of the spacious hall, which extends through the middle of the house, are to be found handsome trophies of the chase, collected by the present master of. the place, who is a keen sportsman.
A gorgeous carpet, which dates back fifty years, having been laid in the days of the beautiful Sarah, supplies the one bit of colour in the parlour; while in the dining-room the rich silver and handsome mahogany testify to the old-time glories of the place. Of manuscripts which are simply priceless, the house contains not a few; one, over the quaint wine-cooler in the dining-room, acknowledging, in George Washington's own hand, courtesies extended to him and to his lady by a member of the Morris family, being especially interesting. Up-stairs, in the sunlit hall, among other treasures, more elegant but not more interesting, hangs a sunbonnet once worn by Molly Stark herself.
Not far off down the country road is perhaps the most beautiful and attractive spot in the whole town, the old family burying-ground of the Starks, in which are interred all the deceased members of this remarkable family, from the Revolutionary Major Caleb and his wife down. Here, with grim, towering Kearsarge standing ever like a sentinel, rests under the yew-trees the dust of this great family's honoured dead.
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