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OLD STURBRIDGE VILLAGE, MA: A THRESHOLD TO 'THE WAY WE WERE'
By Karen Rubin

You never know what will be the one thing that stands out and makes an impression from a visit to Old Sturbridge Village, the living-history museum in central Massachusetts.

This time, it was the Print Shop, and the description by the gentleman in period dress of how an apprentice would have to dash every 15 seconds to hoist a wet, freshly printed sheet, to a drying rack. With the "modern" technology of the time-literally the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the 1830s-the printer could publish over 2,000 sheets a day. My son looked down the length of the building, imagining the apprentice (who might have been him, in that era), rushing back and forth every 15 seconds.

There were many, many more impressions formed, some that might be internalized but will probably pop up over the coming days and years, as he contemplates his present life with the way people lived almost two centuries ago. I imagine at some point, he will contemplate his own experience in school and compare it to the one-room District Schoolhouse at Old Sturbridge and the style of "copy, memorize, recite" teaching and discipline techniques they used at that time.

What is so special is to see everything in context and then have an opportunity to ask questions. I was particularly fascinated with the use of trade, rather than cash, which people used, while shops would maintain complex records of credits and debits for the annual "Day of Reckoning," and the bank-intentionally the sturdiest and most stable looking building in the village-would provide the capital for businesses.

I found myself thinking about the historically accurate pigs, Gloucester "Old Spot" pigs, that had been all but extinct, but that Old Sturbridge Village is now, for the first time, trying to breed; about the woman who has worked here as an interpreter for 19 years, and relished her special perspective on life then and now; seeing the elegant meshing of metal gears, wood rollers, and other clever innovations at the Carding Mill and imagining how that invention-hoarded by England for many years-took a task, typically performed by children, that took 10 hours to comb one pound of sheep's wool, to a matter of 10 minutes. And I find myself marveling at all that was produced and manufactured using what were essentially natural ingredients-the wool from the sheep, the grain from the wheat, the power from flowing water.

I find everything fascinating: the Blacksmith's, the Bank, the Law Office, the Pottery Shop, the Farm, and especially the Carding Mill, the Grist Mill and the Saw Mill, where planks are being cut for the construction of a "small house," demonstrating the construction techniques of the time.

The 1830s is a particularly meaningful "window" on America, indeed, on human society. You can really appreciate how the social and economic structures were formed, based on the natural resources and the emergence of cheap, fast transportation that was already, in that time, making the nation and the world a smaller, more integrated place. It is also a pivotal time, as well, when the combination of technological innovation, prosperity, and new frontiers brought change, choice and opportunity.

This was an era in which children didn't necessarily follow what their parents did-some moved West or took jobs off the farm, or combined jobs. They raised more than enough food, permitting specialization of labor and time to devote for crafts, for art and for innovation. The people in Sturbridge were not cut off from the rest of the world--rather they bought and sold goods with England, China, France, West Indies, and with it, spread new ideas and innovations. This was because transportation was significantly improving (and falling in cost), opening new markets and also changing the demand for products that may have been produced in the countryside. It also made the country and the world a smaller place-trips that had once taken weeks now required only a few days.

Old Sturbridge Village is a collection of homes and buildings-a re-creation--but it is hardly a fabrication. Many of the homes and historic buildings, some pre-dating the American Revolution, have come from just a short distance away, and wherever possible, the lives of their inhabitants have been re-created as well. The interpreters, however, do not play the role of a historical figure, nor do they stay in that time period, as in Plimoth Plantation (where actor/interpreters literally take on the role and dialect of a historical figure, and only speak from the framework of that time). In order to give the most complete information to a visitor, Old Sturbridge Village interpreters will relate to the language and events of present times, often slipping in and out of present and past tense, and switching from "I" to "they."

Old Sturbridge Village was founded by members of the Wells Family (of the American Optical Company), originally to display the antique objects they avidly collected-Albert B. Wells' furniture, tools and utensils from early rural New England and Joel Cheney Wells' collection of paperweights, glass, and 19th century clocks. In 1936, A.B.'s home in Southbridge, which had been expanded to 45 rooms to accommodate the collections, became the Wells Historical Museum and a curator hired to catalog the holdings.

A.B.'s son, George, proposed that the collections would attain their true and greatest value when displayed in the setting of a working museum village, where the objects could be studied in their authentic environment, and where it could be revealed how they were made and originally used. They purchased 150 acres of farmland which included good sites to capture the waterpower of the Quinebaug River, just as they did of that pivotal time. Old Sturbridge Village opened in 1946 with the mission to present, research and educate.

Spend time in the Visitor Center. An excellent video, really aimed at youngsters, introduces the experience and who the "Village people" are (not Pilgrims, Shakers nor Quakers). "It is important to bring your curiously with you," the host notes.

Also in the Visitor Center is an exhibit, "The Enduring People: Native American Life in Central New England" which is only on view through Jan. 4, 2004. This exhibit poignantly reminds visitors that during the 1830s, depicted in the Village, and even up to the present day, the settlers, mainly English, shared the land with the original Native American inhabitants as well as descendents of African slaves. There are ancient stone tools and pottery from pre-colonial America including a 4,300-year old bowl; carved wooden bowls from the 1600s to 1800s, plus baskets, brooms, spoons, chairs and other items made for sale to non-Indians.

"The Enduring People" exhibit is more than just artifacts and relics (some amazingly, go back 5,000 years), but even more stirring, it provides a personal look at the Ken White family, who can trace their heritage in this area back more than a century.

Kids will particularly enjoy going into the full-size wigwam, re-created to represent a Nipmuc house of the mid-1700s at the Chabunagungamaug Indian Reservation, located in what is today the town of Webster, Mass.

The exhibit attempts to be objective in its presentation of the often tragic clash of cultures, with the tribal people initially rejecting the "Praying Towns," and only "grudgingly" submitting to the authority of the colonists in mid-1600s because of the pressure exerted by the Mohegan and Narrangasatt tribes. But as the population of New Englanders grew, they expanded into Indian lands and began enforcing laws restricting Native American religion and cultural practices. Finally, there was an uprising in 1674 among the Wampanoags of southeastern Massachusetts, against the English settlers of Swansea. The uprising, dubbed "King Philip's War" (for the Sacham Metacom known by the English as Philip), was one of the bloodiest in colonial times.

In conjunction with "The Enduring People" exhibit, on Aug. 9 and Aug. 20, Old Sturbridge will offer Native American Weekend, with performances and craft demonstrations that highlight the historical presence of Native Americans in New England.

Threshold into the Past

Immediately upon stepping past the threshold from the Visitor Center into the Old Village, you feel yourself decompress, you feel time slow down, and for all you know, time has actually been reversed. You have entered a period about 50 years after the American Revolution, and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. It is the 1830s.

Old Sturbridge Village is so picturesque, it is a delight for photographers and artists (keep your children engaged in what they see by giving them their own point-and-shoot camera). You can appreciate how beautiful the village must be in the different seasons; indeed, there are special activities for each season (spring is magnificent with budding flowers, newborn lambs, piglets, and calves). Each season's special holiday is celebrated the way they would have been in the 1830s (for example, Christmas in those days was not the big deal it has become, but Fourth of July was a very big holiday). There are special events throughout the year, including an annual agricultural fair, quadrennial presidential election campaign, Fourth of July celebration, Thanksgiving, town meetings and militia training days. There are historical music and dance, performance and dramatic character presentations. There are also wedding and funeral rituals that are periodically re-created.

When you visit, keep in mind the day's schedule-many of the activities are repeated during the day, but you need to do some planning in order not to miss out. Demonstrations at the saw mill, carding mill, and grist mill are at designated times; there are musical performances and story telling at various times during the day. But each day is different at Old Sturbridge, with the tasks of the day displayed (women would typically bake once a week) so the interpreters in the different homes will do different activities, depending upon the day and time of day-and because of all these serendipitous factors, every visit to Old Sturbridge guarantees things you have never seen before.

It is ironing day at the Bixby House, one of the homes depicting countryside life. This home, just diagonally across from the blacksmith shop, was actually the home of a blacksmith, Emerson Bixby, built in Barre, Mass. c. 1800-1810. The women of his household raised cows and produced cheese and butter which they sold. "Mrs. Bixby" tells us that it is important to iron-not just to keep up appearances-but because the clothes are washed with potato starch, which helps to preserve the fabric, and if they are not ironed, the fabric will become permanently wrinkled. On other days, it could be bake day or wash day, at the Bixby House, which, she says, is also consistent with the way life was. But you are still likely to see baking done in another exhibit, such as at the Freeman Farm.

Indeed, at the Freeman Farm, we learn about the method of heating the oven (the cooking was done in the morning, to avoid the heat of the day), and, most interestingly, the method used to test the temperature: literally by putting your hand in and counting the seconds until you had to pull it out. At 12 seconds, it was 475 degrees, hot enough to bake the crust of the pie, then as the temperature would fall, it was the right temperature to bake the inside, then as the temperature would continue to fall, it was suitable for baking bread and then cakes and custards. I take note of a book on her table, "The American Frugal Housewife" by Mrs. Child, 1833. (Further on, in an exhibit of family medicine. I see that Lydia Maria Child also wrote a guide "The Family Nurse" in 1837, about home remedies.)

At Old Sturbridge Village (unlike Plimoth Plantation, in Plymouth), the interpreters are comfortable moving in and out of the time period and from first to third person, in order to answer questions, "to teach the best we can, so we can better compare and contrast, rather than speak only in historical terms."

Just as you step through the Visitor Center, you will be able to see one of the new activities underway this year: the building of a "small house" as an ongoing demonstration of historical construction techniques. Once completed, the two-room, one-story dwelling will offer a way to interpret New England's social and economic diversity. This sort of house, in which nearly one-third of New England's families once lived, were often occupied by young couples at the start of their married lives, or renters hoping to be able to own their own home someday (we would call this "affordable housing" today). They were also commonly occupied by labors and tenant farmers, Irish immigrants, and New England's Native American and African American families.

There are also new hands-on activities in many areas of Old Sturbridge Village. The Fenno Barnyard is where visitors can learn about heritage breeds of farm animals, meet lambs, calves, and piglets, and learn about agriculture in early New England. A new addition to the museum's working farm this spring is a pair of Gloucester Old Spot piglets-one of the oldest registered breeds in existence, which was nearly extinct. The Village is participating in a program to reintroduce the breed which once was common. Other rare breeds that can be found include Milking Devon and Milking Shorthorn cattle, and Gulf Coast Native sheep.

A new puppet theater is being introduced at Samson's Children's Museum, an interactive space designed for children 3-7 with an adult. At Samson's, children can try on period clothes, use a play kitchen and a pretend hearth and fireplace cooking tools, sit in a one-room school with benches and slates and play with toys.

New since our last visit (and offered seasonally) is the Quinebaug River Ride, a 15-20 minute tour of the river which feeds the Mill Pond that powers the sawmill, gristmill and carding mill. It is pleasant, but costs $3 pp extra. The river actually extends 100 miles and empties into the Long Island sound. We see trees that have been nibbled and felled by beaver.

A fun and informative ride (and no extra charge) is the horse-drawn cart that takes you all around the 200-acre Village in about 15 to 20 minutes. This also serves as transportation (it is important to note that Old Sturbridge Village is designed to be accessible).

The Bullard Tavern offers dining, but there is also a very pleasant cafeteria that serves a nice sized meal for $4.50; peanut butter sandwich for $2; macaroni and cheese, hot dogs.

Newly opened is the Tavern at Old Sturbridge Village, which serves Sunday brunch, lunches and dinner, and is outside the entrance to the village so it is open after the historic village has closed. Dinner at the Tavern completed our experience of visiting the Old Village. American fare is marvelously prepared and served-the dinner selections included a superb clam chowder ($5.25/bowl); roast quail, seafood pie as appetizers; dinner entrees such as prime rib ($22); rack of lamb, salmon baked in pastry (our son was able to get a pasta alfredo, referred to as macaroni and cheese, instead). The dessert selections are outstanding and include: apple cranberry pie ($4.25); Bourbon pecan pie ($5.25); Indian pudding (cornmeal, molasses and spices, $4.25); three-layer Boston Cream pie ($5.75; harvest bread pudding (apples, cinnamon, sugar and walnuts with Bourbon Sauce ($4.95) On many evenings, there is a guitarist (the musician who we saw in various incarnations at the village). Reservations are recommended, 508-347-0395, www.osv.org.

You need about three to four hours on average to be sure of seeing the highlights-longer if you want to linger, chat, take in the scenes, and do the activities (in my case, I love to go back to places I've enjoyed, and look for interesting scenes). Young children will probably reach their limit at 2 ˝ to 3 hours, but you can take advantage of free admission for the consecutive day. The Village is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission (good for two consecutive days) is $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $10 for youths 6-15.

There are many choices for accommodations in the area, but we enjoyed the special experience of staying "on property" at Old Sturbridge Village Lodges, which include the historic Oliver Wight House (circa 1789). These are very comfortable cottage-looking lodges arranged in a kind of village, affording motel-style accommodations and (in season) a pool and playground, about a half-mile from the entrance to Old Sturbridge Village (walkable or bikeable). It is a few short steps to Friendly's, and a half-mile walk (we biked) to the entrance of the restoration village, as well as the relatively new Tavern. There is also a small deli-bakery-café close by the Lodges-and a host of other eateries along Route 20. The Oliver Wight House is a Federal style mansion on the National Register of Historic Places. A Dinner-Theater Overnight Package, featuring the Lodges, a $30 voucher toward dinner at the Tavern at Old Sturbridge Village, continental breakfast for two at The Tavern, tickets to the Stageloft Repertory Theater and admission to Old Sturbridge Village starts at $204 per couple for stays Friday through Sunday, through Dec. 14 (Thursday evening packages available July 10 through Aug. 28). For information or to make reservations, 508-347-3327, www.osv.org.

Area Attractions

This time, our visit to Old Sturbridge Village was a stopover, but we found there is plenty more to do nearby, making Old Sturbridge an excellent getaway.

Just a short distance away: Salem Cross Inn, a national historic landmark located on 600 acres of rolling meadows and woodlands, has been a family-run restaurant since 1961, and on many weekends during the year, offers "Fireplace Feast" events reenacting colonial history and cooking, when the servers are in period dress as well as daily dining; some packages with Old Sturbridge Village are available that include this dining experience (508-867-8337,www.salemcrossinn.com).

Also recommended: The Ecotarium (www.ecotarium.org) in Worcester, is a center for environmental exploration with a three-story museum, interpretive nature trails on 60 acres, and narrow-gauge railroad ($7/adults, $5/3-16, college students and seniors, 508-929-2700, www.ecotarium.org); Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, a Massachusetts Audubon Society facility, is the largest urban wildlife sanctuary in New England and affords six trails through 277 acres, (508-753-6087); Higgins Armory Museum, with armor and weapons from Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Feudal Japan, ancient Greece and Rome, swordplay demonstrations, craft workshops (508-853-6015, www.higgins.org ). There is also Davis' Farmland & MegaMaze, in Sterling, a seven-generation family-run animal farm where there is a corn stalk maze provides three miles of pathways and bridges, pony and hayrides, and interactions with animals (www.davisfarmland.com).

Old Sturbridge Village is located off Route 20 near Exit 9 of the Mass Pike (I-90), or Exit 2 off I-84 (take Exit 3B if arriving after 7 p.m.). For further information, call 800-SEE-1830, or visit www.osv.org.

Photo Captions:

Interpreters at Old Sturbridge Village explain the measuring system used at the gristmill (© 2003 Karen Rubin).

History comes alive at Old Sturbridge Village where children delight in discovering how to play games like children of the 1830s (© 2003 Karen Rubin).

The carding mill was one of the technological breakthroughs that brought great change to rural America in the 1830s, depicted at Old Sturbridge Village (© 2003 Karen Rubin).

© 2003 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.


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