Monday, August 1, 2016

I Remember... Sturbridge Village



When I was a child. We used to go there every year or so. Sturbridge Village is a reenactment of a New England village in the time period of 1820 to about 1840. Just before the Civil War. Every time I went there it was the same. Same dress. Same story. Same buildings. Same people living within the same buildings. It was like a snow globe where the figures are static no matter how fiercely the snow flies or how hard you shake it. I established in my mind several Sturbridge Village memories that I looked forward to seeing again every time I went back. I didn't want it to change.

The blacksmith shop, for one. I loved watching the blacksmith heating iron and making nails or boot scrapers or shoes for horses or stuff. I thrilled at the blasts of the bellows over the charcoal! Nearby was the farm where you could stand respectfully behind ropes and look at how people lived or enter the kitchen and have real live nineteenth century like people cook real stuff over the fire. They even let us taste the cookies! I don't think they let you do that anymore.

The stocks and Pillory! Kids love colonial Justice. And the bank with its ridiculously insecure vault and funny money. And the general store with its rock candy and parchment copies of the Declaration of Independence. And down the street was the clock museum. Clocks were going tickety tockety like they've been doing for centuries. Some things never change. And we didn't want them to.

And the potter. He'd work his clay on a foot powered wheel and fashion pots, steins, and platters, which he would then glaze and carefully stack in the kiln to fuse into finished products. I was reminded of the Nathaniel Hawthorn story of Ethan Brand, the tortured soul burning his own heart into marble. It seemed fitting.

Once, when my daughter was about seven years old, we played hookie. It was February. It was a cold New England winter day. And I broke the rules. Kristin and I played hookie from our school and work! We went to Sturbridge Village. It was deserted, well, there were a few people here and there. Just enough to satisfy the Hawthorn in us.

We saw people boiling maple sap into syrup! It was up behind the church at the end of the green, just as you come in past the Friends' meeting house. You can't miss it!

We went into the tin smith's shop. He took Kristin back by his bench and let her make a Christmas ornament. We went into a house on the green. They brought out clothes from the period and let us try them on. We went into another house on the green. I think it was the print shop. People were playing patriotic melodies on recorders! They were happy to see us and welcome us. It was grand. Don't tell her school or my boss. Shhhh!

There was the green. The farmhouse. The blacksmith shop. The baker with the wonderful ginger snap cookies. Yes, there were seasonal changes, but the changes never changed. Summer was always for haying. Fall for apples and cider. Early spring made maple syrup and the green celebrated the Forth of July with hot air balloons and muskets. The farm house always made bread and cheese and tended the cows in the barn and the sheep in the pastures. The pewter shop always made spoons. The grist mill ground the summer wheat into flour and the sawmill sawed up oak and pine logs. The pond powered the mills, and the frogs leapt about the covered bridge as they always had done, and they always would for ever and for ever more.

Except it didn't work that way.

When I was older I went back to Sturbridge Village. I remembered it from my youth. It was the same. It was different.

For one thing, changes happened. No. I don't mean changes happened to the management of the Village or its infrastructure, though I'm sure that happened. I mean changes happened to the 1800's. It wasn't the same history I remembered. The past had changed.

For instance, during that period the Erie Canal was being built. Suddenly, cheap beef from Chicago was flooding the east coast. That made a difference to the agrarian northeast. People who sold pork or lamb were out of luck. The Bixby house showcased a family where the father worked outside of the house and his wife and daughters worked within. She would go to the market and buy leather. She and her daughters would make shoe uppers and sell them back at a profit. A cottage industry. The sudden change in shipping meant it was easier to make these products near a shipping port. So your local economy was decimated. Good bye cottage industries. Hello Capitalism. Things changed between the twenties and the forties. And they weren't all that good.

So the Sturbridge Village houses and mills now came with a history of their own. There were now signs around the properties explaining what was going on during this time. Signs now said, "At the beginning of this era, things were like this... But by the end, they were like that... And this is how people adapted... Or not..." History changed with time.

The Towne House is another example. When I visited it as a child it was an elegant house of obvious wealth and attachment to occult symbols in the Masonic upper room. The garden was beautiful, overlooking the Quinebaug river. I got the idea that it was some sort of mansion where gifted men oversaw the fate of us lesser beings during midnight séances. But later the emphasis was on the industry of the place. The man of the house managed the property while the woman of the house managed the household industry: The dairy. She oversaw the herds of cattle, milking, making butter and cheese, and oversaw the staff. The man often travelled to Boston or New York to secure contracts and business deals. Their letters are quite touching. The view of their lives as partners much more satisfactory. All seeing eye on the ceiling not withstanding.

Why didn't they tell us that before? This stuff is great! This makes the past come alive! I can imagine these people being my neighbors.

The tavern on the green reflected this as well. Instead of being a static place where people ate and drank and played parlour games, the nineteenth century tavern of today is now portrayed as a place of commerce and cosmopolitanism. A place of the exchange of ideas and business cards. Of politics and pot roast. A place that was adapting to... change. Change in the nineteenth century.

I think I like the new past.

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