Putting Worms Back In Apples

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Sturbridge defies the intentions of those who created it. Perhaps that is why staff members insist it has a life of its own.

All this Herculean research is, of course, invisible to the casual visitor, but its dividends are evident at once. Take ten steps past the entrance and you feel absolutely certain that the rustic place you have entered re-creates the past as truly as an old photograph depicts it. What is more, Old Sturbridge Village possesses the curious magic that relatively few old photographs possess—the power to carry you across the barrier of time into a world that has vanished forever. The feeling of having magically entered the past came to me a number of times during my first hours at Old Sturbridge Village—while walking down a seemingly endless country lane between two rows of split-rail fences; stepping out of the front door of Salem Towne’s 1796 mansion onto the sun-drenched common; watching the tailrace stream away from a ponderously rotating waterwheel; spying a hillside pasture dotted with tree stumps and looking just the way old pastures looked in my childhood illustrated histories.

 

Probably no two people would draw up the same or even similar lists. Ask any day’s total of visitors to Old Sturbridge Village what each of them found most moving, and I strongly suspect that every experience the Village provides would be named by someone. I offer as proof the elderly man who told his wife in my hearing how much he relished the aroma of pine needles and horse manure on the woodland road from the common to the countryside.

To make the past come alive so magically for so many millions of people seemed to me quite beyond the capacity of any one mind, and such is the case at Old Sturbridge Village. Although the place has a founder, it is the brainchild of no one. It does not even reflect the intentions of anyone in particular. Indeed, it actually defies the intentions of many people who took part in its creation. That is the reason, perhaps, why staff members insist that the Village has a life of its own, a spirit and will independent of the Village directorate. I think they are right, for the more I studied Old Sturbridge Village and its history, the more I came to realize that it represents the New England past far more profoundly than even its creators seem to have realized.

It is characteristic of the Village’s independent career that its founder had little interest in bringing the past to life and no interest whatever in historical authenticity. His name was Albert Bachelier Wells, commonly known as A.B. to his friends and associates. He was a bluff, outgoing multimillionaire who had turned the American Optical Company of Southbridge, Massachusetts, the Wells family business, into a multinational giant and who nonetheless was still oldfashioned enough to live in a big house on Main Street not far from the plant. A.B.’s idea of a summer vacation was to sojourn at a lake a few miles from town.

Beginning in 1926 with an unplanned trip to an antique store (his golf game having been rained out), Wells began collecting zestfully what he was fond of calling “my goddamn primitives,” or on occasion his “junk,” meaning old New England country furniture, old tools, woodenware, and every laborsaving device he could find. Yankee ingenuity was A. B. Wells’s special delight, although it was Yankee poverty that made his collection enormous in a remarkably short time. During the Depression, recalls his daughter-in-law Ruth Dyer Wells, an endless stream of desperate New Englanders would drive to Southbridge with their jalopies loaded up with family relics—burl bowls, old muskets, flails, and so on—in hopes that Mr. Wells might buy them. Wells rarely refused their offers, and they never turned down his standard price. Two hundred dollars went a lone way in the 1930s.

 
 
 

By 1936 A.B. had acquired enough of the material culture of preindustrial New England—nearly five hundred thousand pieces, according to his own reckoning—to fill his forty-two-room house, private bowling alley included. For a brief time A. B. Wells’s house became the Wells Historical Museum, admission twenty-five cents. Somehow that did not seem quite satisfying. Though a notably down-to-earth man, Wells was convinced (what collector is not?) that his beloved “junk” deserved a more resplendent monument than a mere private home. “I thought of a big horseshoe with buildings around the edge and in the center a park.” It was to be located on Main Street, the horseshoe shape evoking memories of the traditional New England village green. That was as close to historic re-creation as A. B. Wells would ever get on his own.