August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Much of this history was already milling around in my head when I took my last walk through the Village. It was a cold, gray afternoon; a pelting rain had cleared the common of visitors. Perhaps because I was standing in the shelter of the meetinghouse porch I thought of John Adams’s remark that the recipe for a New England town was a common school, a meetinghouse, and a town meeting of self-governing citizens. I thought, too, of Jefferson saying that when he first saw a New England town meeting, he felt the earth tremble beneath his feet. It was as if Periclean Athens had been miraculously re-created in what Jefferson called the little “ward republics” New England. What I was looking at was the wonderful re-creation of Athenian democracy’s historic rebirth in the self-governing New England township, where every citizen was a part-time lawmaker and a full-time free man. It dawned on me suddenly that the founders and developers of Old Sturbridge Village had never seriously taken note of the fact in the entire forty-five years’ worth of reports, guides, memoranda, plans, programs, and declarations that I had been wading through at the Village research library. From 1936 to the present, Old Sturbridge Village has paid tribute to New England thrift, to New England ingenuity, to the New England work ethic. Of New England’s love of political liberty, of New England’s direct, local democracy not so much as twenty official words have been said in forty-five years. For all those years, Sturbridge leaders have rightly insisted that the story of the old New England township “is important to our understanding today and in the future.” But for all those years, it. never seems to have occurred to anyone at Sturbridge Village that democracy is fundamental to that story.
From the porch of the meetinghouse—New England’s true glory—I looked out once more on the raindrenched common, this time with the puzzling omission in mind. I saw with fresh eyes the winding path leading from the Village into grim woodland that once stretched westward for a thousand miles. I looked at the self-respecting houses, the perky little shops, the neighborly yards, and the ample spaces, and it seemed to me that the Village was incomparably wiser than its makers, for in spite of their reports and their declarations of purpose, what Old Sturbridge Village truly embodies with its magical charm is the valor and generosity of a community of free men.