Old Sturbridge Village; Plimoth Plantation

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1946

Albert Wells was an executive in the thriving American Optical Company of Southbridge, Massachusetts, built up by his father. In 1926, A. B. (as he was called) went antique hunting with some friends, and quickly became a thoroughgoing collector of old New England artifacts. Anything from a bowl to a plow could catch his interest, and his collection grew quickly.

By the 1930s, there was no room left in the house he’d been using as a museum, and a family meeting was held to decide what to do with their New England antiques. Historical preservation was coming into vogue at the time. Other wealthy Americans were beginning to gather together pieces of the past that were threatened by the rapid scramble of change underway in the 1920s and ’30s. But when A. B. proposed a multi-building museum, his son stunned him with an even more ambitious idea: recreate an entire nineteenth-century village. Don’t just erect buildings, but set costumed staff to work at what villagers would have been doing—living history. A. B. bought the idea, and work began. The family asked major landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff to help them design the premises, and by 1946 they had dirt rural roads, barns, shops, and homes. Period farmers were cropping, craftsmen were creating. Old Sturbridge Village was a functioning microcosm, and open to visitors. The village grew into a thriving historical attraction of nearly 60 buildings.

Across the state of Massachusetts, Henry Hornblower II was undertaking a similar labor of love. A Bostonian who had made his money in finance, he’d always enjoyed history, and the story of the Pilgrims’ seventeenth-century plantation at Plymouth especially fascinated him. He was particularly interested in the complex relationship the English settlers had with the Wampanoag Indians who lived nearby. He had studied archaeology and history at Harvard, and later financed several archaeological digs in the area, seeking historical artifacts.

Then Hornblower got a really bold idea: to recreate the Plymouth settlement as a living-history museum. He believed full immersion was the most powerful way to educate Americans about their important historical moment in the 1620s, and set about convincing others. In addition to his own money, his first outside donation of $20,000 came from his father. Hornblower managed to get “Plimoth Plantation” launched as a nonprofit in 1947, with two model cottages from the period. It grew steadily, with the addition of a replica Mayflower in 1957, an entire English village in 1959, the Wampanoag village in 1973, and a visitor center in 1987, two years after Hornblower’s death.

Today, with seven decades of living history under their belts, Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation—each incorporating pioneering standards of historical accuracy that were far ahead of their time—remain beloved cultural attractions in New England.