Alex Gross '11 Delves Into History at Old Nourse Farm

Alex Gross '11
Alex Gross '11
At three years old, Alex Gross '11 used to chase cows and pick blackberries just like his great-great-grandfather Benjamin Alden did in the mid 19th-century. Alden, the manager of the farm at the time, kept his family's diaries and letters stored in an old horse-hair chest. Gross's family eventually inherited the chest and other antiques from Old Nourse Farm, but it wasn't until last summer that Gross decided to read its contents. 

A year later, Gross is now the first in his family to analyze the intricate scrawl with Professor of History Douglas Ambrose. His research is part of the Levitt Research Fellows Program, one of 16 collaborative projects this summer funded by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. The letters and journals, which date from roughly 1860 to 1877, record daily business agreements, community affairs, and personal thoughts.

He got his project idea from a class he took with Ambrose, in which students were assigned to read the preserved memories of those who would have otherwise been forgotten. Through examination of primary resources, Gross hopes to gain a better understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary times. 

Gross will study more resources than just those in his home. He will also do research at the Westboro, Mass., library and at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. His secondary sources will include information on small farms and the Civil War. Although his project originally focused on how the Civil War could have impacted a small farm in Massachusetts, it has now transformed into a survey of Alden's community involvement and the improvements he made in terms of religion and education. 

"He was kind of an every man's man," Gross said. By the time he died, Alden had expanded his plot of land from 62 to more than 200 acres. He had diversified the crops and made the land more profitable – the family produced hundreds of barrels of apples per week. Alden was also the superintendent of the school district and oversaw all academic agendas and events. He examined student scholars in each of the 10 district schools and at one point became deacon of the local church. 

Two of Gross's uncles now run the farm, so he will spend part of the summer observing farm practices and traditions. He says his ultimate goal is to find out what life was like for farmers during that era. 

As a philosophy major, Gross knows that his research does not have much in common with Aristotle or Nietzsche, and might not help him beyond the benefits of research experience and potential publication. And it probably won't help him do well on the LSATs, which he needs to take in order to get into law school after Hamilton. 

"But it will help me as a person," he said. "I think a lot people have this drive to write about their ancestors and figure out why they were important. It's good to know where you come from, and why you're here."

-- by Allison Eck '12

Related Information
Summer Research at Hamilton
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