History of Old Sturbridge Village

Old Sturbridge Village traces its beginnings to the remarkable collection amassed by industrialists Albert B. and J. Cheney Wells of neighboring Southbridge. The Wells family brought together a wealth of early New England artifacts, including tools, utensils, furniture, glassware, and clocks. The family later dedicated itself to the idea of displaying the collections within a working village, where visitors could better understand how the items were originally crafted and used.

Old Sturbridge Village first opened to the public on June 8, 1946. In the more than 65 years since, more than 21 million adults and children have visited the Village, and the museum has attained international recognition for its innovations in research and education.

The Land

In the early nineteenth century the land on which Old Sturbridge Village now stands was David Wight's prosperous farm, including sawmill, gristmill, and well-situated millpond. In earlier years the land had been wild and rough--the hill behind the Meetinghouse had once been called Pogus Mountain and known principally as the home of bears, wolves, and wildcats. Still earlier, at the end of the last Ice Age, the great glaciers had shaped and scoured the landscape, leaving ponds, boulders, and subtler traces that Village archeologists would find much later.

The Wells Family

To understand the Village's beginnings as a museum we look at the 1920s - a decade of prosperity, technological triumphs, and social experimentation. Telephones, automobiles, electricity, and motion pictures were changing American life along with flappers, jazz, and Prohibition.

One of the era's stories of industrial success was the American Optical Company of Southbridge, Massachusetts. George Washington Wells had started with a modest central Massachusetts "spectacle shop" in the late 1840s and built it into a major firm by the turn of the century. His three sons - Channing M., Albert B., and J. Cheney Wells  - followed him into the business. All three inherited the family's New England ethic of hard work and became successful owner-executives in a fast-growing, technically-complex industry. They also developed in their different ways a passion for collecting that would ultimately result in the founding of Old Sturbridge Village.

The Wells Family, Old Sturbridge villageOne decisive moment came on a rainy day in Vermont in 1926. A.B. Wells (as he was almost always called), unable to play golf with three of his friends, accompanied them instead on an expedition in search of "antiques." He had dabbled in collecting before, but that afternoon he became hooked on the ordinary objects of New England's past - "my primitives" as he often called them. From that day on he would incorporate this passion into the busy life of a prominent industrialist.

Photo:  In 1941, Channing Wells, J. Cheney Wells, and A.B. Wells discuss Village plans at the Miner Grant Store with noted landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff.

Having specialized in the manufacturing side of his business, A.B. loved things that had been handmade in the New England countryside, things that were simple and rustic rather than ornate and urbane. If they were ingenious in design, unusual in appearance, or even bizarre, so much the better. He delighted not only in wooden bowls and painted country furniture, scythes and hayrakes, redware pots and butter churns - but also a mouse trap with a guillotine-like double deadfall, an example of Wood's Patented Portable Washing Machine, and devices for breaking cheese curd and crushing apples.

J. Cheney Wells (usually called Cheney), took up collecting as well. Reserved, precise, and methodical, he found an interest to match his temperament and began to amass a significant collection of early American clocks and timepieces. In the 1920s, many of them came to adorn the American Optical Company's executive offices.

Channing Wells, the oldest of the brothers and long-time company president, excelled in sales, marketing, and skilled negotiation. He collected as well, particularly enjoying fine furniture, but his interests often took him in directions different from those of his brothers. However, he remained a knowledgeable and sympathetic advisor, and he and his children played a role in all family ventures.

They may not have known it at the beginning, but the Wells brothers were following a path that would lead to the creation of a major American museum. Interestingly, the same course was also being taken by members of other prominent American industrial families in the 1920s and 1930s. John D. Rockefeller Jr. (Colonial Williamsburg), Henry Ford (Greenfield Village), and Henry Francis DuPont (Winterthur), among others, had become serious collectors and preservers of the American past. These individuals were very different, as were their collections and museums. But they shared more than wealth and prominence. Each was concerned with preserving and cherishing pieces of the past against the powerful currents of change in early twentieth-century America, currents so powerful that it seemed they might carry away everything old. In their demanding business life, the Wells brothers could find little time for sentiment or for tradition for its own sake. But avocationally, they sought to preserve the handcrafted artifacts of a vanishing past.

For A. B. Wells, the late twenties through the mid-thirties were "filled with collecting energies." The collection grew almost daily. At first it meant the addition of extra rooms to his large Southbridge home; finally the overflow crowded the family out completely and they moved to Walker Pond in Sturbridge.

The Beginnings of a Museum

By the early 1930s there were more than 45 rooms full of New England "primitives" in the Southbridge house, and the question of what to do with this extraordinary profusion of ordinary things could no longer be avoided. The collection had become too significant not to be shared with the public. As A.B.'s son George Wells put it, they "were too big and too numerous to be simply one man's hobby."

In 1935 A.B., along with his brothers, other members of the family, and trusted associates, incorporated the Wells Historical Museum. A nonprofit educational corporation, the Museum took title to the collections and became responsible for their care and public display.

In July of 1936 there was a gathering of the Museum's trustees - really a Wells family council - to determine its future course. A.B. had a proposal in mind and he began the meeting with it: the Museum would move a number of typical early New England buildings to the extensive family-owned site on Main Street in Southbridge, arrange them in a horseshoe shape around a common, and use them as galleries to display the collections. But this plan was immediately "knocked ... full of holes" by George, who had a very different notion in mind. "He pointed out," A.B. recalled, "that the historical value of the things I'd been collecting was tremendous, provided that it could be put to proper usage.... He suggested that to make this material valuable it would be necessary to have a village, a live village, one with different shops operating ... it was essential to have water power." George had proposed "a revolutionary idea." It took the others "off their feet" but quickly won their support. J. Cheney Wells offered to add his clocks and other collections to A.B.'s and to help "in every way I can to develop a village along the lines that George suggests."

The origin of this idea is unknown, but may have originated in the family's travels to European "open-air" folk museums that, in the interest of creating national unity out of regional diversity, exhibited typical rural buildings brought together from many different places. The largest and most famous was Skansen, in Sweden outside Stockholm. The resonance of Skansen can be seen in their conceptions of the "live village" and "model village."

Just as important was a particularly American notion, that of learning by doing and direct experience - a belief that activity, engagement, sensory stimulation, and participation were vital parts of education, and particularly, a museum experience. Thus the Village was to be not simply an outdoor museum, but an active outdoor museum with craftsmen and costumed staff as well as houses and artifacts.

Within a week they had purchased David Wight's old farm in Sturbridge, a tract of 153 acres. The site was judged perfect for realizing the new conception; it had sloping meadows, wooded hillsides and, as noted earlier, a fine location for waterpower along the Quinebaug River. They began site development work for the "live village" and a few months later hired Malcolm Watkins as the museum's first curator to begin the formidable task of classifying and cataloging a collection already numbering in the tens of thousands.

To encompass these newly defined purposes, the Wells Historical Museum gave way to a new organization, first called the Quinebaug Village Corporation. It was established to: "operate a model village wherein shall be exhibited and carried on for the educational benefit of the public specimens and reproductions of New England architecture and antiquities, the arts, crafts, trades, and callings commonly practiced in and about New England villages prior to the period of industrial expansion...." Making allowances for six decades of change in terminology, this very early statement still fits comfortably with the defining purposes of Old Sturbridge Village as they are carried out today.

The Early Village

Families tour Old Sturbridge Village in their cars in the early years.As they developed the guiding vision for their Village, the Wells family relied on their strong sense of the look and feel of the New England countryside, rejecting plans and proposals that seemed too formal or citified. They asked the eminent New England landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff to help them lay out a country landscape that matched their vision.  Thus the Village came to be defined by unpaved country roads, clap boarded rural houses, barns and shops, and craftsmen busy at their tasks - a look that it still retains.

Landscaping and construction work progressed in 1937 and 1938, but in late September "the great hurricane" washed away much of two years' visible progress and felled thousands of trees. Undaunted, the staff dug out, rebuilt, and piled up acres of "hurricane lumber" that would be used in future museum construction.

By 1941, some of the Village's familiar landmarks were in place: the Fitch House, the Miner Grant Store, and the Richardson House (now the Parsonage) were on the Common, and the Gristmill, a largely reconstructed building housing early machinery, was in operation on the Millpond. But December brought the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the coming of the Second World War brought museum construction, like most other civilian activities, virtually to a halt for the duration.

In 1945, active leadership of the museum effort passed into the hands of the next generation. The brothers of the Wells "triumvirate" were all in their seventies, and their sons were engaged with American Optical or pursuing other business concerns. At A.B.'s urging, his daughter-in-law Ruth Wells, George B.'s wife, became Acting Director of the Village, moving the construction work forward with renewed energy. In 1946, Quinebaug Village with the approval of town selectmen became Old Sturbridge Village, and in May of that year it was decided to prepare the museum to open to visitors.

Like other members of the Wells family, Ruth Wells did not seek attention or claim credit - but, as an early staff member who knew her well recalled, "she had the tenacity and the drive and the administrative sense to get the Village rolling...." She propelled the Village to Opening Day on June 8, 1946.

Admission was $1 per person. Eighty-one visitors toured the Village, driving their cars around the grounds. The Village staff of 25 included craftspeopIe, office personnel, and hosts and hostesses in the Village's earliest versions of period costume. Visitors could see and hear New England craftsmen at their work in a variety of shops, look at fine examples of rural New England architecture, enjoy a comprehensive exhibition of the Wells collections - and watch grain being ground by waterpower at the Gristmill on David Wight's millpond. More than 5,000 people visited in that first year.

The Village's First Decade

The second year saw the acquisition of the Village's most visible building. The staff had been searching "all over the countryside for a Meetinghouse..." and finally happened upon one belonging to the Baptist Society in the Fiskdale neighborhood of Sturbridge. The Village provided the Society, "by exchange of courtesy," with an organ for its new house of worship. The removal and restoration of the Meetinghouse were completed in early June 1948.

Visitors arrived in increasing numbers each year - largely through "word of mouth," as returning travelers encouraged friends and acquaintances to visit the special place they had discovered. The Village was "The Town That Wants to be Out of Date," said a 1950 article in "The Saturday Evening Post." A prosperous postwar America had become a nation of tourists and travelers, and the Village had become an "outstanding attraction."

By 1955, the graceful Salem Towne House from nearby Charlton was under restoration at the opposite end of the Common from the Meetinghouse. The Fenno House, the Friends Meetinghouse, the Pliny Freeman House, the Printing Office, and the District School had also become vital parts of the Village landscape, which was increasingly taking on the look and feel of a living community.

Then, on August 18, Hurricane Diane arrived with little advance warning. It proved to be the most powerful storm in decades, even worse than the 1938 hurricane that had ravaged the prewar Village. Gale-force winds and torrential rains pummeled the area. Raging tides broke dams in Sturbridge, Southbridge, and Charlton, completely overwhelming the rudimentary flood control system. Route 20 was impassable by early evening.

The Village took the brunt of the storm along with hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents. Fortunately no lives were lost at the museum, but 15 staff members were stranded for three days by the rising waters. The low-lying area where the Freeman Farmhouse then stood was inundated, and the Covered Bridge was washed off its foundation. It was saved by the heroics of a Village damage control team who, at considerable risk, lashed the floating bridge to trees on the bank of the Mill Pond.

The stranded Villagers were fed by helicopter supply drops for three days. Flood waters receded to show extensive damage to Village exhibits and landscape-over $250,000 in 1955 dollars, at least ten times that sum today.

Over 3,000 local people were left temporarily homeless, and Massachusetts Governor Christian Herter was "speechless" on viewing the destruction. But the Village, the American Optical Company, and other area employers began working round the clock to clean up and get back into operation. Just nine days after the floods the Village reopened, closely followed by the optical plants in Southbridge. Friends, Trustees, and other supporters responded generously to Director Frank O. Spinney's appeal to "help us to maintain the educational program developed over many years - and to rebuild."

As part of reconstruction and recovery, water-damaged exhibits and materials were repaired and replaced, and the Freeman Farm was moved to higher ground. The Covered Bridge was set more securely on its foundations, and a high water mark was notched on the Gristmill, where it can still be seen. In 1956 fire followed flood as the wooden Blacksmith Shop burned (an occupational hazard for such structures in the nineteenth century as well), but plans were swiftly made to replace it with the granite-walled shop from Bolton, Mass., that visitors admire today.

In 1956 the Grasshopper, unofficially used for years on maps and letterheads, became the Village's official symbol. "Sprung from the soil" in classical mythology, it represented the museum's closeness to its rural New England origins. In an unusual twist of tradition, it had also come to symbolize hard work, and persistence in the face of adversity.

In August 1957, the one millionth visitor arrived, and her entire family shared a celebratory cake with Village staff. They could also share an extraordinary educational experience: an outdoor historical museum whose buildings, demonstrations, exhibits, and programs had grown in completeness and excellence since opening day in 1946.

 

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