Experience the people and places that helped shape America as depicted at these dynamic museums.
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
We’ve always enjoyed exploring the history of areas where we travel. Sometimes this is done through books, but often we learn much more by visiting living history museums. Whether you stop for the architecture, the antiques, or just for the stories of earlier times, here are some places where you can learn about early American life.
1. Jamestown Settlement, Virginia. Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in America, established in 1607. Its 104 settlers arrived on three ships: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. Re-creations of these ships are moored at the Jamestown Settlement’s pier and open to visitors. The site also includes a replica of an English fort and a Powhatan Indian village. A new 30,000-square-foot gallery provides an introduction to Jamestown’s early years, while costumed interpreters demonstrate daily life in the early 17th century in the outdoor areas.
2. Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Less than a 20-minute drive from Jamestown Settlement (or by free shuttle bus) is our favorite historic village, Colonial Williamsburg. It extends for more than 300 acres and includes 88 original 18th-century structures; some are private residences, but many are open to the public. One of the highlights of any trip to Williamsburg is watching local artisans practicing their crafts using 18th-century methods and tools. You can visit the blacksmith, the silversmith, weavers, and shoemakers — in all, nearly 20 different trades are demonstrated.
3. Shaker Village Of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Known locally as Shakertown, Pleasant Hill is located approximately 25 miles southwest of Lexington, Kentucky. Established in 1805 as a Shaker religious community, it remained active until 1910. Today, with 34 original 19th-century buildings and 2,800 acres of farmland, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill claims to be the largest historic community of its kind in America. You can take self-guided walking tours through the village and watch skilled artisans and costumed interpreters demonstrate highlights of early Shaker life.
4. Lincoln’s New Salem, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln lived in the small village of New Salem (not the same as present-day New Salem) for six years, starting in 1831. The town, 20 miles northwest of Springfield, Illinois, was home to about 25 families during this period, and during his six years of residence there the future president earned a living as a shopkeeper, a soldier in the Black Hawk War, a general-store owner, a postmaster, and a rail splitter. Only one of the current buildings is original, but the other 22 are constructed in a style representative of those that existed when Lincoln lived in the village.
5. Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. Mystic Seaport was one of the first living-history museums in the country. This 19th-century village has examples of almost every type of specialized activity associated with building and operating a sailing fleet. Visitors can view a collection of sailing ships and boats, as well as more than 30 historic buildings on the 37-acre site. Four of its ships have been designated National Historic Landmarks.
6. Genessee Country Village And Museum, New York. The 700-acre Genessee Country Village and Museum, located near Mumford, New York, was established in 1966 as an attempt to preserve selected examples of local architecture. The buildings became showcases for the many crafts of the area, such as cabinetmaking, weaving, and pottery. Now the small 19th-century village consists of 68 restored and furnished buildings that are open to the public. Most of the structures have costumed interpreters explaining the history of the building and, in some cases, demonstrating crafts such as quilting, printing, pottery, and woodworking.
7. Old World Wisconsin. Located 36 miles southwest of Milwaukee, Old World Wisconsin claims to be the nation’s largest outdoor museum focused on rural life. Covering almost 600 acres, the museum features more than 60 historic structures, including farmsteads with completely furnished houses and a rural village. True to the history of the area are examples of the various ethnic groups that came to the region — Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, African-American, and German settlers — as well as the larger Crossroads Village.
8. Little Norway, Wisconsin. Little Norway is an outdoor museum that displays a fully restored farm dating from the mid-1800s. It contains the largest collection of privately owned Norwegian antiques in the United States. Located in a hidden valley in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, Little Norway also goes by the nickname “Valley of the Elves.” Its main attraction is one of the few examples of a Norse stave church existing outside of the homeland. The church was built in Norway and shipped to the United States in 1893 for the Chicago World’s Fair. After the fair closed the church was sold, moved to Lake Geneva, and eventually relocated here.
9. Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts. Hancock Shaker Village was established in 1783 and called “The City of Peace.” It opened as a living history museum in 1960 and is now a National Historic Landmark. At one time, 19 major Shaker religious communities stretched from New England to Kentucky. Hancock has 20 historic buildings and a large collection of Shaker artifacts. It contains the most famous Shaker building, the Round Stone Barn, which was built in concentric rings to efficiently hold both hay and cattle.
10. Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts. Old Sturbridge Village, with its more than 40 historic structures, spreads across 200-plus acres. It contains three themed areas: The Center Village, representing a typical town; Countryside, made up of outlying farms and shops; and The Mill Neighborhood, consisting of commercial buildings that get their power from a millpond. Old Sturbridge re-creates life in rural New England in the period between 1790 and 1840. Costumed history interpreters carry out the typical daily activities of life during this period.
11. Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts. Take 11 historic houses along a one-mile street, turn them into museums, and you have Historic Deerfield. Deerfield is an actual town, but you seldom find one with this many stately houses dating from 1720 to 1872. Two of the homes are open for self-guided tours, while others have 30-minute tours beginning on the hour. Start first with the Hall Tavern Visitor Center (originally built in 1760), where watching the orientation film will help you plan your visit.
12. Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts. The Plimoth Plantation is a re-creation of what is known of the first settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The site is several miles from the original location, and the dozen buildings are probably only a third of the number that existed in 1627. But when you enter the village, you’ll find the costumed residents acting and speaking like their 17th-century counterparts. Also nearby is an Indian village from the same period, and just three miles south of the Plantation is the Mayflower II, a replica of the Mayflower sailing vessel that brought the colonists to Plymouth in 1620.
13. Strawberry Banke Historic District, New Hampshire. Strawberry Banke, which is located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, features more than 40 restored buildings built during the 17th through 20th centuries that display architectural styles from the Colonial, Georgian, and Federal periods. First settled in 1630 and named for the wild berries growing along the nearby Piscataqua River, the area was a residential neighborhood until the 1950s. In 1965 it was opened as a historic museum. Ten of the houses have period furnishings and are open to the public.