Friday, October 7, 2011

Time Travel

by Sheila Connolly


I visited 1830 this week. No, I don't have a time machine; I went to Old Sturbridge Village (about an hour from my home) for their annual Apple Days. I was trying to remember how many times I've been there, and I think this was my sixth trip. The first was during a college tour with my mother and grandmother; the second, with my daughter when she was roughly the same age I was when I first saw it. The other trips were "business," more or less: there are heirloom apples and quince still growing there, and the staff includes a very well-informed food and garden historian. (And an excellent bookstore!)

I've visited Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg, but that was with my daughter's fifth-grade class, which is not optimal if you want to absorb the ambience of another era (someone please explain to me why children always seem to need to find a bathroom when they are as far as possible from the nearest facility? And it's pitch dark? BTW, I compared notes with my daughter about what we remembered best, and for both of us it was the candlelight tour—where it was so dark that we couldn't see anything in the multiple shops we visited). I've also seen Plimoth Plantation, which is practically in my back yard; I've talked to one of my ancestors there. OSV wisely chose to replicate a different era, the early 19th century, and they did it very well.

Perhaps my favorite trip there was the one with my daughter, during her spring break in April one year. It's easy to forget that in New England it sometimes snows in April, and that was the case that year—not a blizzard, but intermittent snow showers, enough to discourage the ordinary tourist. But not us. We had the whole place to ourselves, except for the re-enactors going about their business. There were new lambs in the barn, and fires on the hearths. It felt authentic.

One thing all the aforementioned historical recreation sites share is that the designers made it possible to ignore the modern world. Of course there are still planes flying over, and if the wind is right you hear the ocean-like swoosh of the nearby highways, but you don't see any of today—except for the modern tourists. I don't like tourists, even when I am one. I like nothing better than to find places off the beaten track, where the tourists never go. I like to sit and listen to the quiet, and observe small details.
Old apple trees

Still, that second trip to OSV, and this most recent one, came pretty close to my exacting standards. It was possible to get a real sense of how life used to be in New England, down to the eddying woodsmoke and the plentiful cattle droppings on the muddy roads. The fact that I can prove some distant relationship with some of the people who lived in the houses at OSV adds to the attraction for me (disclaimer: most of the buildings weren't there originally, but were transported from other places nearby and carefully reassembled on site).

I believe we all harbor a mental image of New England, which was in its early years nearly synonymous with the United States. The big white church, the green (once for grazing livestock, later for training militias), the houses of the rich clustered around the green, the poorer farms at a distance—all are part of our collective memory. My earliest impression came from a tiny color pictures in a Readers Digest, and I still remember it. The thing is, some towns still look like that picture, and OSV has stripped away the later "improvements" and captured what that iconic town looked like.

My next trip to Old Sturbridge Village is already planned: next month Bruce Irving, the author of New England Icons and a former producer for This Old House, will be speaking at a luncheon there about what makes New England special (in terms of its physical architecture), with a little help from Norm Abram of This Old House. I'm already signed up. Maybe it will help me understand why I fell under New England's spell long before I ever saw it, and why I'm writing a series about it now.


Diane said...

I got to see - sort of - Williamsburg decades ago. I say 'sort of' because my daughter went to William & Mary, so though I was there, most of my time was spent shuffling her in and out of dorms, etc. Now that I'm back in Virginia, and a bit closer than before (I was in metro DC/northern VA earlier, now about 1 hour south), I should make the trip to actually see the place as a visitor instead of a work horse.

As for New England, I've always found it magical. The steepled churches polking above the trees, the town square (i.e., green) with businesses and homes around it. Lovely.

lil Gluckstern said...

The years I spent in New England were everything I loved, especially at this time of year. I loved the old buildings, the cider mills, the trees. Well, the snow not so much. I had a strange experience in Tenesse in the Great Smoky National Park. They had lovingly recreated a village called Cade's Cove, and it was charming, with reenactors and such. Unfortunately, film canisters and boxes (remember them?) were also scattered in fireplaces and on the grounds. I never did see those at Old Sturbridge Village, os even Old Mystic Seaport. I miss the ability to walk into the past as I was able to do in New England.

JJM said...

I lived in Williamsburg for four years -- well, four school years, attending William & Mary. Loved the place, but even so got terribly tired of the 18th century! I haven't been back since about 1973; I gather much has changed. One of these days ...

One lovely thing about being at W&M was that students got free passes to the buildings. And, yes, some of us used them -- although I ended up most frequently in the Governor's Palace Gardens, where there'd be fresh figs on the ground (unrecognized by most tourists, and free for the picking), and a wonderfully quiet spot up a small hill towards the back where you could sit and study for exams.

As for disliking tourists: I always felt there are tourists, and there are visitors. I'm not fond of tourists, myself; from what you say, Sheila, I suspect that you're a visitor. A much nicer critter altogether. ;)