- Historic Sites
Putting Worms Back In Apples
In reconstructing the past, Old Sturbridge Village is doing a lot more than selling penny candy and buggy rides. Struggling for verisimilitude, curators are raising scrawny chickens, trudging behind 150-year-old plows—and keeping pesticides out of the orchards.
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
Just inside the late Pliny Freeman’s 180-year-old barn in Old Sturbridge Village, I recently watched a gray-haired gentleman eyeing with evident disgust a bucket of wormy apples freshly picked from the Freeman Farm’s cider orchard. “Why don’t you spray your trees?” he asked a grimy youth who wore the garb of a New England farmer of 1830 and who helps work the Freeman Farm as if it still were 1830. “We can’t spray the trees,” explained the young man. “It wouldn’t be authentic. They didn’t have sprays in 1830.” The visitor shook his head testily and stalked off in a mild huff. A past with wormy apples was plainly no place for him.
Fortunately most of Sturbridge’s half-million annual visitors disagree with the testy gentleman, because putting worms back in apples is the very essence of Old Sturbridge Village, which a recent annual report describes with characteristic Sturbridge precision as “a nearly full-scale model of a typical small community of south-central New England about the year 1830. ” It is a “model” in the sense that it is neither the restoration nor the reconstruction of any particular historical town. It is not, for example, what Sturbridge, Massachusetts, looked like one hundred and fifty years ago. As a model the operative word is typical, and the typical is what the Sturbridge staff seeks to discover and then to re-create. It is “nearly full-scale” in the sense that the Village is somewhat smaller than that of a typical small township of its time and place.
Discrepancies such is this acutely distress the Village staff. It upsets Jack Larkin, research historian of the Village, for example, that the dusty roads leading from the village proper to the model countryside are not more deeply rutted; that a 1704 house on the common is too old and mean to have survived on a New England village green into the prosperous 183Os; that droves of cattle and herds of pigs are not forever galumphing through town; and that there isn’t more junk and debris piled up in Village yards.
The Sturbridge passion for authenticity reaches out in all directions. It even has its biological side, which came into being about a dozen years ago when the Village staff decided to transform the Freeman Farmstead into a forty-acre, working agricultural enterprise, complete with appropriate livestock. That posed a serious problem. Stocking an 183Os farm with well-bred modern poultry and cattle was clearly an offense to veracity. The solution was “back-breeding,” a slightly comical venture in realism that consists of putting back into livestock the undesirable traits that scientific farmers have been breeding out of them for two centuries and more. By crossing the Speckled Sussex, the Silver-Gray Dorking, and the Dominique breeds of poultry, the agricultural curators at Sturbridge have reproduced the “dunghill fowl” of 1830, which aren’t meaty and don’t lay many eggs but which scratch around the Village in all their scrawny, ill-favored authenticity. By crossing Durham and Devon breeds of cattle, they have simulated the “common cattle” of the early nineteenth century, which are distinguished by their niggardly production of milk, making them fit companions for the Sturbridge sheep, which produce niggardly amounts of wool.
The endless search for authenticity has its experimental side; the Village staff learns by trial and error how farmers of 1830 actually held a sickle (farm records show that the original Pliny Freeman was twice the farmer his re-creators are); how potters fired their kilns; and what kinds of wood were used. Other researchers pore over the written word—old bills of lading, deeds, wills, court records, handbills, inventories, moldy letters, and crumbling diaries—for every speck of information about how New Englanders lived, worked, played, dressed, and spoke in the years between the end of the American Revolution and the coming of the Industrial Revolution. What did the typical housewife of the period do about ants? She scattered tansy leaves on the kitchen floor, and so do the costumed housekeepers in the furnished homes of the Village. What did New England’s ex-Englishmen call the traditional village green in the post-Revolutionary years? They began calling it “the common,” and so did the Village, beginning in 1973 after that odd fact was discovered. Where did they locate the stock and pillory? Nowhere, more than likely. By the 179Os these devices had become relics of the colonial and theocratic past. They were removed from the Village (to the regret of the young) in the late 1960s.