As a total history nerd I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but until about two months ago I had never been to Old Sturbridge Village. Crazy, right?! I love a good living history museum, both as a history enthusiast and as someone formerly in the museum field so I can appreciate both the history and how it’s being presented to the general public.
Living history museums and colonial house museums are really my thing. (Well they were my thing. “Formerly” in the museum field is the operative phrasing there) but even though I’m really closer to an ordinary visitor now I still find myself fascinated with how museums, and especially living history museums, interpret the past and educate the public.
Given all of this, it’s really strange to think that I had never before been to Old Sturbridge Village (which is located in the quaint town of Sturbridge, just about in the center of Massachusetts in case you’re not familiar). Unfortunately, I actually haven’t experienced a lot of the museums and historic sites that are within driving distance of where I’m currently living on the Massachusetts coast- My parents were not museum/history people growing up, and when I was old enough to go myself I was living in college which was promptly followed by a move to Florida. (I guess this just means I have a lot of exploring to do around here before the next move!)
When I had to head to Springfield (which is a little ways west of Sturbridge) to work an event for my day job this fall, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally check out Old Sturbridge Village- It was on the way so we simply had to stop.
Old Sturbridge Village shares the experiences of what it was like to live in an 1830s rural New England town. With a 200-acre footprint, it’s the largest living history museum in the Northeast encompassing more than 40 authentic historic buildings that make up an entire town (with homes, blacksmith shops, farms, shoe shops, a bank, law office, schoolhouse, mills, and more). And like every living history museum, the best part about visiting is that you get the chance to interact with costumed educators and see firsthand how people lived in this region almost 200 years ago.
Just beyond the admissions area there is a set of exhibits about New England in general during the time period represented (approximately 1790-1840). It’s a quick set of FAQ-like interpretations that I’m pretty sure we already knew the answers to, but it’s presented really nicely and if you are not from New England it’s a good refresher before you head out to explore the rest of the grounds.
There are more exhibits housed within the main visitor center building (and in other parts of Old Sturbridge Village) but being short on time we just made our way to the J. Cheney Wells Clock Gallery since it was nearby.
We admittedly rushed through the visitor center because we only had about three hours until they closed and we knew we’d probably be taking our time going through everything. As a side note, Old Sturbridge Village is pretty similar to most other museums in that how long it will take you to go through it entirely depends on your own interests. I’m sure there are visitors who do what they want to here in under two hours, but we knew that just wasn’t going to be us.
With this in mind, we really used the map to prioritize where we’d focus on going to in case we ended up not having enough time. (Side note #2: I tore my ACL a couple of weeks before this, and then instead of doing the logical thing and going to the doctor I went to Disney for a couple of days, walked on it at Food & Wine Festival, drank A LOT thereby convincing myself that it was better, and spent the rest of the trip in a wheelchair before deciding I needed to get it looked at when I got home. Then I found out it was an ACL tear about a week before this trip- so while I was able to walk pretty easily standing on it for long periods of time still wasn’t great so we also planned this visit around that.)
The buildings at Old Sturbridge Village are a mix of authentic historic structures and reproductions with some of them being from the town of Sturbridge while others are from all over New England. The Center Meetinghouse pictured above for instance was built in Sturbridge in 1832 and was moved to Old Sturbridge Village in 1947. The Blacksmith Shop pictured below is c. 1810 from Bolton, Massachusetts, and was moved to its current location in Old Sturbridge Village in 1957.
Because the structures here do not all adhere to the same history of a single town, Old Sturbridge Village presents the history of New England in general during this time period. It’s a different approach from most living history museums that tend to focus on major historical events within their towns, but this was something I really enjoyed about our visit.
When you visit a living history museum as an adult (or at least when I do), you tend to get caught up in learning the history of certain events, with all the details of names and dates being what really sticks with you. Of course every living history museum has some degree of interactivity and costumed reenactors providing interpretation for various tasks during their time, but these sometimes feel sort of “field trip-y” and not like the focus of visiting as an adult.
With Old Sturbridge Village however all of this is at the forefront and extremely accessible for all ages (regardless of how much you already know about general New England history or Sturbridge in particular). I learned so much more about what living in New England during the early 19th century was like on our quick trip to the village than I think I have in any other museum in the region.
The village is also home to a variety of Heritage Breed animals, and we definitely spend lots of time hanging out with these guys ^. The sheep above is a Gulf Coast Native/Merino Cross Sheep, which we learned have as a breed been modified so much since the 19th century that most Merino Sheep today look rather different. In the 1830s however they were very much known for their extremely fine wool that supported the growing American textile industry of the time.
Additional Heritage Breed animals at Old Sturbridge Village include Horned Wiltshire/ Dorset Cross (which are the unmodified counterpart to the Merinos), along with various breeds of cattle, chickens, pigs, and turkeys. We didn’t have time to see the rest of the animals during this trip, but we will definitely make it a point to pay all of them a visit when we come back!
If you’re planning a visit to Old Sturbridge Village, definitely check the events calendar on their website– they host tons of seasonal events and always seem to have something going on. I can’t wait to plan another trip in the spring to see everything we missed on this pit stop and check out some of the nature trails around the site too. OH and before I forget– If you’re like me and can easily blow your entire paycheck in a museum gift shop, save up for this one because the gift shop at Old Sturbridge Village is one of the best I’ve seen in a while!