Putting Worms Back In Apples

The blacksmith, asked if he forged hammers, would bark, “Of course I don’t! You can get a hammer at Montgomery Ward’s!”

On June 8, 1946, the model village was opened to the public; admission was one dollar, attendance was eighty-one. The village had eighteen assorted buildings, some old, some new, some restored, some modernized. It also had a new name. The discovery that there was a real town of Quinebaug in Connecticut prompted A. B.’s resourceful daughter-in-law to name the village after Sturbridge, the township it was in, in which case the traveler using a road map to locate a place that did not, in the road-map sense, exist, would find it anyway in spite of his folly.

What the first visitors saw were the rudiments of a generalized preindustrial community that served chiefly as a “backdrop for a vast collection of antiques,” as a future president of the Village was to put it in 1969. It was also a stageset for live demonstrations of cabinetmaking, rug hooking, pottery, basket weaving, and printing. Many of the activities took place in six “craft shops,” which also displayed objects for sale and parts of the Wells collection. As George Wells rightly noted, the “craft program” at the Village far outweighed its “antiquarian, historical” aspect.

The unfortunate effects of a heart attack that struck A. B. Wells in 1945 gave the crafts still greater predominance. The attack left the once-ebullient A.B. (who now lived year-round in California) profoundly depressed and prey to irrational fears about money in general and postwar inflation in particular. As he noted in a 1948 letter, “Old Sturbridge would never have been started if my brother Cheney and I could have visualized what was going to happen to the almighty dollar and its purchasing power.” The Village, he insisted, would have to pay for itself or go under. Convinced that the Village’s astonishing popularity (its annual paid attendance was to increase from 5,172 in 1946 to 154,200 in 1954) derived entirely from craft demonstrations, George and Ruth Welk believed that the craftsmen could bring in still more money by making and selling modern handicrafts to the visitors. With that decision, the “craft program” and the “antiquarian, historical” side of the Village became all but hopelessly entangled. In a place that was officially supposed to “portray a New England town as it might have appeared in 1800,” modem cash registers rang up sales in eleven different shops, the Village blacksmith used a blowtorch, the master cabinetmaker used modern tools, and the potter employed the latest in potter’s wheels. They did so because they had to. Without such tools they stood no chance of making a living at Sturbridge. Moreover, few of the Village’s master craftsmen felt comfortable in their dual role as contemporary craftsmen who were also costumed actors playing the part of old-time New England artisans. Most of them had taken up crafts out of a deep dislike of the modern world and here they were at Sturbridge with the modern world at their doorstep, chewing gum and asking damn-fool questions all day long. The Village blacksmith, I was told, simply refused to take part at all. People would ask him if he forged hammers, and he would bark back, “Of course I don’t! You can get a hammer at Montgomery Ward’s.”

Creating a faithful illusion of the past is so difficult that until the mid-1960s nobody at Sturbridge made a serious attempt at it.

If such incongruities and anachronisms were a trifle confusing, it must be said that they only bothered a tiny handful of museum experts. One of them, Ned S. Burns, head of the National Park Service museums, visited Sturbridge in October 1950 and said he was “shocked” at the sight of modern tools in an 1800 village and told the Village’s first curator, Frank Spinney, that the historical atmosphere was being ruined by such things as a radio playing in a craft shop, the Coca-Cola machine in the old-time general store, and the exposed fireplugs, not to mention other exigencies of modern civilization such as the television antennae rising from the roofs of the live-in craftsmen’s Village homes.

The fact that the Village housed a vast collection of Americana also collided with the “antiquarian, historical” aspect. The common school was an essential feature of the New England village, but what aspect of New England’s past did the Sturbridge schoolhouse portray when it housed a collection of old toys? The truth is, for decades nobody even thought to ask such a question. It was to take a remarkably long time before the passion for authenticity began to dominate proceedings at Old Sturbridge Village. For many years—most of its years—Village directors and curators were more or less content with the standard of authenticity set forth in the 1951 guidebook: “to create a convincing background against which to dramatize the skill, ingenuity and thrift of the early New Englanders.” Convincing to whom? To the visitors of course. By that misapplied democratic standard the Village was certainly authentic enough, since the visitors kept coming in ever-increasing numbers.