Putting Worms Back In Apples

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What set him somwhat more squarely on the road to the past was, oddly enough, the teachings of John Dewey, which had captivated A. B.’s bookish son George. As trustee of the Wells Historical Museum, he objected strenuously to his father’s horseshoe scheme. To make the vast collection truly educational, A.B. recalled his son saying, “It would be necessary to have a village, a live village, one with shops operating, with employees … who know how to use the old tools, the old methods. ” In this way, presumably, people could learn by doing, to employ a Dewey catchphrase. To illustrate the evolution of industry, a much-favored Dewey topic, George Wells suggested that the “live village” have waterpowered mills, and that meant “you ought to get out of Southbridge. You ought to be on a stream or a brook.” A. B. Wells and his brother Cheney agreed at once, and “that was the start of Old Sturbridge Village,” as A.B. recalled a dozen years later.

 
 

On July 23, 1936, just ten days after adopting his son’s suggestion, A. B. Wells bought the 167-acre Wight farm on the Quinebaug River, three miles from Southbridge, as the site of the future live village.

Despite the promptitude of the purchase, A.B. was still a bit leery about his son’s ideas. “I was afraid of criticism and just criticism,” he later admitted. That is readily understandable. The live village was such a compound of purposes and objectives it is difficult to figure out precisely what A.B. and George Wells had in mind, if indeed they themselves knew. First and foremost the village would feature demonstrations of the old preindustrial crafts, from pewtering to cooperage, using A. B. Wells’s tool collection. Secondly it would be a museum exhibiting the kinds of things produced by the old-time artisans. It would also provide living quarters for the craftsmen, and they in turn would introduce their crafts to children, in line with Dewey’s precepts. As icing on the cake this craft community-cum-museum would also resemble somewhat a New England village circa 1800, a date A. B. Wells seems to have plucked out of thin air.

 
 
Calling in the restorers of Colonial Williamsburg was the best mistake Wells ever made; their grandiose plans forced him down to earth.

Badly in need of expert reassurance, A.B. called upon the services of Thomas Mott Shaw of the illustrious Boston architectural firm of Perry, Shaw & Hepburn, then fresh from their great triumph as the restorers of Rockefeller’s Williamsburg. It was probably the best mistake A. B. Wells ever made, chiefly because Shaw’s plans were so grandiose they forced Wells back down to earth. Shaw suggested at one point that Wells’s community be housed in re-creations of fine Georgian town houses; alternatively the buildings could be made to illustrate the evolution of domestic architecture in preindustrial America. By December 1937 Mr. Wells was thoroughly disappointed with Mr. Shaw. “He is too influenced by Williamsburg, where he had all the money in the world,” A.B. complained to his brother. Shaw’s plans made Wells feel poor. As he liked to point out to anyone who would listen, he was no Rockefeller and he was no Ford. He was also the son of a man who had grown up on a New England farm. Not only were Shaw’s plans too costly, Wells noted, they were false to the time and place. “People around Southbridge, Charlton, and Dudley in 1800 didn’t have any money to build extravagant houses.” Instead of reconstructed Georgian town houses, Wells bought for his village an old Dutch barn from the Hudson valley, a Connecticut general store dating back to 1802, and a saltbox house built around 1736—price five hundred dollars. In short, the grandiosity of Perry, Shaw & Hepburn pointed Wells in the direction of historical realism, for frugality’s sake at the very least.

 
 
 

In July 1938 the creation that was slowly taking shape was formally incorporated as “Old Quinebaug Village” to serve as “a model village” of the preindustrial period for the edification of the public and the “training of apprentices in New England crafts and trades.” Lest anyone suggest that he was doing something so dotty as attempting to re-create an actual detailed past, Wells emphatically noted that “there is little or no justification for highly detailed restoration.” Since the buildings were meant to house exhibits and craftsmen, he expected most of them to be modern, well-built “reproductions” with no curatorial nonsense about authenticity. A few old buildings would be restored, but only to illustrate “the housewright’s art.”