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Step Back in Time

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

WHAT’S THE PERFECT MOTORHOME VACATON? Opinions vary, of course, but through the years
certain types of vacations have endured to earn the status of “classic.” These vacations
have attracted families for generations and are still going strong. They do have certain
things in common: a special affinity with America’s past and a relaxed pace. Yet, each one
is lively enough in its own right for the whole family to enjoy. If you plan to travel
through New England this year, make it a point to visit Old Sturbridge Village in
Massachusetts. New England is famous for its wealth of historical museums. This one in
particular makes excellent use of the area’s rich heritage and natural beauty. When you
leave your motorhome at the gate of the village, you will step into the quiet charm of the
early 19th century. There you can see for yourself how people worked and lived almost two
centuries ago in this haven of American heritage. Old Sturbridge Village itself is not old
at all. Most of the major buildings were brought here from their original sites; the rest
are reconstructions. George Washington never slept in any of them. Old Sturbridge does not
teach history through the lives of great people. Instead, it shows the ordinary people of
today how the ordinary people of America’s first half-century worked and played. During the
period depicted at Old Sturbridge Village, America was poised at the edge of the Industrial
Revolution and the opening of the Western frontier. New England farm communities were
beginning to lose their young men — and sometimes young women — to the city mills that
offered cash wages, or to the cheap and abundant land of the Ohio River Valley. Andrew
Jackson was president; Michigan had put the 26th star on the flag when it joined the Union
in 1837; and the great debate over slavery was beginning to percolate all over the country.
America was on the move, about to become a major industrial force in the world. Rural New
Englanders were largely unaware how quickly their way of life was to fade. Like most
outdoor museums, Old Sturbridge began as a collection of collections. For almost 50 years,
Albert and J. Cheney Wells amassed thousands of early American antiques, everything from
farm tools to paperweights. By the late 1930s, the two brothers faced the problem of what
to do with their holdings. They first tried transforming a 42-room mansion at nearby
Southbridge, Massachusetts, into a history museum, but it quickly proved too small. Then,
at the suggestion of one of their children, they bought the Sturbridge site and began
importing period buildings in which to display their early American objects in context.
Attached to each was to be a small museum and a craftsman’s shop. On June 8, 1946, the
model village opened to the public; admission was $1. The village had 18 assorted buildings
— some old, some new, some restored, some modernized. What the first visitors saw were the
rudiments of a generalized pre-industrial community that served chiefly as a backdrop for a
vast collection of antiques. It was also a stage set for live demonstrations of
cabinetmaking, rug hooking, pottery, basket weaving and printing. It was from this modest
beginning that Old Sturbridge grew, slowly at first, then faster during the 1950s as
attendance soared and professional curators joined the staff. Today, Old Sturbridge is a
village of 40-odd buildings arranged on a 200-acre tract of meadow, woodland and river
shore. It is different from other such projects because it is “alive.” The shops house
working craftspeople who pursue their trades, as did the early Yankees. The meetinghouse
holds recreated services; the general store sells old-fashioned candles, New England foods,
books and maps; the Bullard Tavern serves fine New England meals cooked according to old
Yankee recipes; the grist mill grinds cereals the old-fashioned way; and the blacksmith,
coopers, potters, tinsmiths, weavers and other artisans work at their trades. The focal
point is the tree-lined town common with its majestic white meetinghouse. Close by are the
workshops of the community’s artisans and the “proper” businesses of the community: the
bank, the general store, the law office. You may see an oxcart rumbling by or sheep
grazing. To my mind, the level at which the village succeeds most admirably is less in the
impact of its architecture and more in the many small ways it conveys a vivid impression of
life 170 years ago: the smell of a steaming apple pie pulled from the fireplace bake-oven
in the farmhouse kitchen; the sound of water tumbling from the wooden wheel at the grist
mill; the music of a folk singer under a tree on the village green; the aromas of broom
corn in the broommaker’s shop, of bayberry in the candlemaking shop, of clove in a room
where a woman makes pomander balls. Nationally renowned for its preservation and
presentation of life and culture in the early years of the American republic, Old
Sturbridge Village possesses the curious magic that relatively few old photographs have:
the power to carry visitors across the barrier of time into a world that has vanished

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