Around the World: Old Sturbridge Village is an Idyllic Look at America’s Past
Massachusetts boasts some of America’s earliest colonial settlements, and the state is dotted with historic towns and quaint villages that certainly retain their charming and distinctive New England colonial atmosphere.
But the one quaint village that actually invites you to step back in time and experience life as it was long ago during the days of America’s founding fathers, is Old Sturbridge Village.
It’s a town that’s a museum, or a museum that’s a town. Or a living history museum. And it does, in fact, fit all of those descriptions.
Old Sturbridge Village -- or OSV as the place is oft referred to by locals -- features a fabulous collection of some 59 historic buildings, each of which dates back to years from 1790 to the 1830s.
The buildings were actually collected from across Massachusetts, and each represents an essential element in New England town life during the Federalist and post-Federalist eras.
America was still new, still settling in, still establishing its roots.
At that time, the land now occupied by OSV was a farm owned by one David Wright, who also owned the sawmill and gristmill that still stand on the property today. There was also the millpond, dug in 1795, which still survives and still powers the mills.
OSV is divided into three parts, Center Village, The Countryside and the Mill Neighborhood. Obviously, the buildings mentioned above belong to the latter. The sawmill is amazingly fast and accurate. It can cut a huge tree into perfectly square-edged planks in a matter of minutes.
Back in the day, it was not in operation full time, but only when lumber was needed for a specific project. Farmers in the area spent most of their time farming, but each had a special trade that fit the needs of the town and earned him some extra cash, and a good measure of respect for work well done.
Today, the mill is manned by two OSV staffers, one a gentleman in his late 40s and the other a teenage boy who appears to be an apprentice. Both fellows are dressed in authentic period costumes: britches, leggings, leather vests over white muslin shirts -- and the senior miller has a straw hat that sits jauntily on his head.
They absolutely look the parts they‘re playing, and act them, too. Each has a little back story that they impart bit by bit, as they explain how the business of milling is done. They handle the equipment -- the huge saw blade, clamps and levers -- with ease and expertise. The functioning sawmill alone would justify calling OSV a living museum, But the town has so much more than just the sawmill.
In the OSV section designated as The Countryside, you’ll find the Freeman Farm, with a homestead, a barn and outbuildings surrounded by 70 acres of fields. Inside the house, two women in period calico dresses, shawls and bonnets are cooking, using early 18th century equipment: iron pots, wooden and tin utensils, all of which were produced at OSV.
The recipes they’re using come from an old and well cared for Federalist period cook that’s open on their work counter. They‘re preparing fresh vegetables that were recently harvested on the farm, mixed with other locally produced foodstuffs, some of which have smoked or pickled or preserved by other historically accurate methods.
These women are adept at what they’re doing and it‘s fascinating to watch them work -- without a Cuisinart or microwave or, for that matter, the electricity to run them.
Instead, they cook over an open stone fireplace outfitted with a heavy metal hook for hanging pots over the flames. Today a wholesome chicken stew is bubbling above the fire. There’s also a warming/baking oven built into the stone hearth. It has a metal door to trap heat. From it emanates the rich, mouthwatering aroma of baking bread. For all of its unusual preparation, the food that’s cooking smells absolutely delicious.
The work is arduous and you can just imagine that at the end of the day these women would be ready to retire to the nicely decorated -- with appropriate antique furniture and accoutrements -- bedroom that‘s adjacent to the kitchen. However, that room -- according to an interpretive placard placed near the bed -- was reserved as a sick room for an elderly family member. And, to make the story real and believable, there are medical potions placed on the bedside table.
There’s livestock in the barn and surrounding fields, and chickens scratch their way across the dirt courtyard outside the kitchen door.
OSV’s wonderful air of authenticity carries over to the nearby cooperage, where the cooper -- or barrel maker -- is also hard at work, but not so preoccupied that he can‘t tell you how barrels, which were essential storage units back in the day, were crafted from start to finish. Highly skilled labor, it is, that can bend wood to the right shape and fit the barrel parts together so that the receptacle is water tight.
But, like the miller, the cooper only plies his trade, he says, part time. He‘s a farmer first, concentrating primarily on planting and harvesting crops, He spends, he says, most of his waking life in the fields, and his children are all enlisted to help him.
The largest concentration of buildings is Center Village, where you’ll find homes that belonged to wealthy farmers and to the less affluent. There are no dirt poor homes in the town -- one supposes that less effort would have been made to preserve them. However, the difference in material comforts from one house to another is shocking -- but really no more so than it is, if you think about it, today.
Center Village also has two meetinghouses -- one belonging to the Quakers and the other a church that doubled as a civic center -- and a lawyer’s office, a printing office, a bank, the parsonage, a shoemaker’s shop, the tin shop and a general store, all positioned near a town square and pond.
The buildings are all perfectly maintained and inside each you find at least one costumed staff member to tell you about the specific history or provenance of that building and how it fits into the town’s social and commercial life.
You’ll also find OSV’s costumed denizens outdoors, making their way along the dirt-paved paths that lead from one building to another. Some are leading livestock, others just strolling as townsfolk do. Be sure to stop them and ask for directions, just so you can interact with them.
Staffers, volunteers or interns all, they obviously love the town and working in it, and have a very clear idea of who they are and what role they play in the OSV’s living museum context. They‘re fabulous, and they make you want to jump right in and join the conceit.
It’s because of these townsfolk that OSV succeeds in welcoming you into what is not only a quaint New England town, but a charming adventure into a way of life belonging to an era long past. It’s entertaining and educational, relaxing and refreshing. And, it’s a great family experience.
Turn off your cell phones or leave them in the car. You’ll want no modern technologies to interfere with your pure enjoyment of what from the perspective of 21st century life seems to be an idyllic past.
You won’t, by the way, be invited to sample any of the food prepared at Freeman Farm. That’s served at staff-only meals. But, let the Freeman Farm’s good food aroma’s stimulate your appetite, and then head over to The Publick House for a hearty and delicious meal. The historic inn was established in 1771 -- a bit before the OSV period -- and is famous for its old-fashioned hospitality, antique furnishings and fine dining.
An ‘I’d-travel-for-miles-to-eat-this’ choice from The Publick House’s varied menu is the open hot turkey sandwich, a mountain of perfectly tender and moist white and dark meat covering a generous portion of secret recipe stuffing, and all of that sitting on top of a home baked corn bread base. Add to that a side of spectacular sweet potato fries. The Publick House’s hot turkey sandwich is famous from New York to Maine, and it’s easy to understand why.
Of course, the turkey and everything else on the menu is prepared in a fully modern kitchen, and the entire multi-building landmark status inn, with its antique ambience and perfectly manicured lawns and gardens, is equipped with every modern convenience and amenity you might desire. So, while you’re in the neighborhood, you might consider staying there for the night.
For more information about Old Sturbridge Village, visit www.osv.org on the Internet or call 1-800-733-1830.