- 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
That this comfortable standard was abandoned is proof that the village area at Old Sturbridge Village truly has a life of its own. It was this village, speaking through its lovely common, through its gleaming Greek Revival meetinghouse, through its limpid millpond and its country lanes, that demanded that it be regarded as more than mere “backdrop” and “background.” When the live-in master-craftsmen scheme finally collapsed after 1955—“we found production costs high, sales irregular and creative artists unpredictable,” reported a Village president—the re-created New England “background” was ready to take its place as the centerpiece of Old Sturbridge Village, Inc., thrusting crafts and museum exhibits into a secondary role, a turnabout that nobody had foreseen or desired. The Village grew, not only in size but in stature as well.
For some years the chief effect of the turnabout was the rapid addition of historic buildings to the Village—today there are more than forty of them—which now was regarded as representing not 1800 (which it did not typify), but the half-century from 1790 to 1840 (which it did). Additions included a grim one-room schoolhouse from New Hampshire, dating back to 1805; a wonderful water-powered wool-carding mill that had first been in operation in South Waterford, Maine, in the 183Os; a squat little brick bank of the same decade with a Greek Revival portico tacked on, a superb example of the wackier side of that famed revival.
Still, authentic buildings and their careful restoration are not the same as the authentic re-creation of a particular historical environment. The former are things, authentic in themselves. The latter is the attempt to create a faithful illusion, the illusion of being in a real past. The attempt is so beset with difficulties that as late as the mid-1960s nobody at Sturbridge thought seriously of undertaking it. Even at that late date “it still struck nobody as peculiar that there should be gross historical incongruities in the Village,” as Darwin Kelsey, a Village vice-president, pointed out to me. The interiors of buildings, in particular, he said, were regarded as mere empty spaces more or less outside of history. A Village craftsman using authentic tools to demonstrate an old craft in an authentic old shop, said Kelsey, would be surrounded by a museum exhibit and not by the kind of things his shop would have had in 1830. According to Kelsey it was not until the late 1960s that everyone at Sturbridge finally decided that “if we claimed to be a village, let’s be a village” and that if 1830 was the date the Village most closely approximated, let it be, as far as possible, a typical rural village of the 183Os.
With that resolve, one which marked the final triumph of the model village over all its competitors at Sturbridge, staff researchers began delving deeply into the surprisingly little-known history of earlynineteenth-century New England. What, in fact, did old villages really look like? While the researchers dug through long-neglected documents, the curators began removing exhibits from the craft shops and cash registers from buildings in the village area. To provide a more vivid sense of life as lived, they took houses that had been furnished with “period” pieces and transformed them into households representing typical village inhabitants—the home of the parson, the home of a “moderately prosperous” artisan. Realizing that the 183Os marked the beginning of the end of the preindustrial world, the Sturbridge Village staff now emphasizes the historic signs of that world’s erosion, perhaps most tellingly at the old shoe shop, which is occupied by a man who merely stitches together shoe parts manufactured elsewhere and whom the manufacturers pay by the pair—a piece worker, rather than an independent artisan or even an entrepreneur. The recent annual report, which speaks of “the long tortuous road that leads to authenticity” was not exaggerating one iota. It is a truly heroic enterprise that Old Sturbridge Village has undertaken.