Part of the fun of an old timey living-history museum like Old Sturbridge Village is the feeling that you’ve stepped off a time machine into the past—in this case, peacetime 1830s New England after the successful independence movement and fending off the British again in the War of 1812. Staffed by historical performers dressed in recreated vintage garb, you’re invited to wander the dirt lanes of a burgeoning mercantile republic of dairy farms, clanging blacksmith shops, banks, and little factories turning out pots and lumber.
Old Sturbridge Village was founded by Albert B. Wells of Southbridge and his younger brother J. Cheney, who were wealthy from operating the American Optical Corporation, the world’s largest eyeglass manufacturer. Their father had founded the firm in 1833, and under the direction of the three sons, the company also produced scientific instruments and industrial safety products.
In the 1920s, A.B. and Cheney collected vintage clocks, early washing devices, mowers, kitchen choppers, chests, mirrors, guns, pottery, paperweights, saws, axes, and other Americana. Inspiration came to A.B. from New England travels with friends and yearly tours of Europe with his father-in-law, the Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, who designed New York’s Flatiron building and coauthored the landmark master plan for Chicago.
Before long, A.B. Wells’s collection outgrew his home and two barns, so in 1935 he formed the Wells Historical Museum. Initially, he planned to construct a series of gallery buildings, but in conversations with family and friends hit on the idea of showcasing his collection in an old time village that would immerse visitors in the past.
This interest in immersive history and Americana were part of a new museum trend of creating walk-through historical villages—John D. Rockefeller Jr. opened Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia in 1932; Henry Ford opened his Greenfield Village, near Detroit, to the public in 1933; Plimoth Patuxet (known until 2020 as Plimoth Plantation) in Massachusetts debuted in 1947.
In 1936, the Wells brothers bought the Quinebaug Farm in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, then known as the Ballard Place, where their mother had been born, on which to recreate an early 19th century village as laid out by architect Arthur Surcliff.
“Southbridge Institution Buys Cape Cod Relic,” The Boston Globe headline read when the museum bought a Cape Cod clockmaker’s workshop in fall 1936 and had it moved to Sturbridge. They moved a general store from Stafford Springs, Connecticut, old houses, barns and mills to the property. Replica structures were also constructed.
Hurricanes and World War II caused delays. After A.B. suffered a heart attack, his daughter-in-law Ruth Dyer Wells took over as director. Old Sturbridge Village opened to the public with two dozen buildings to tour in June 1946. Craft demonstrations began in 1948. When a covered bridge on Route 30 north of Brattleboro, Vermont, was being replaced in 1951, it was moved to Old Sturbridge Village. (A tour guide during our visit said the replacement concrete and steel bridge has since been replaced too, while the covered bridge remains in good shape.)
Today Old Sturbridge Village offers more than 40 buildings on 200 acres along Sturbridge’s Quinebaug River. Houses, a tall-steepled church, a barn full of chickens with a sheep pen next door (for petting), and a saloon (with a working cafeteria downstairs) cluster around a green. Beyond are farmlands with pigs and sheep and cows, a forge where a blacksmith hammers glowing-hot metal, a kiln for baking pottery (inactive on the autumn Sunday we visited), and mills for carding cotton, grinding grain into meal, and preparing lumber. (Be sure to peek in the cider mill near the entrance for a complete mills tour.)
You’re invited to wander into the houses and barns, which, no matter how many times I’ve visited living history museums like this, still itches of trespassing. In some, no one is home, but you can view the beds and chairs and cups. Sometimes you find someone in a 19th century bonnet or tall hat behind the store counter or spinning sheep’s wool into yarn or quietly embroidering. We followed the daily calendar to find a gentleman firing a musket (very loud!), a fellow strumming “Auld Langs Eye” on a guitar, and men rustling cows in from a wooded hill and then a woman milking one.
What makes the historical illusion of Old Sturbridge Village most entrancing are that flaming forge, the horse-pulled stagecoach that clatters around the green, and, especially, the animals—chickens, pigs, sheep, horses, cattle, wild turkeys, bees—with their peeps and snorts and their very authentically historical aromas.
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