Old Sturbridge Village, the largest outdoor history museum in the Northeast, depicts a rural New England town of the 1830s. Step inside more than 40 original buildings, and explore homes, meetinghouses, a district school, country store, bank, working farm, three water-powered mills, and trade shops – all situated on more than 200 scenic acres. Talk with authentically costumed historians and see heritage breed farm animals. Discover the endless ways to immerse yourself in the Village.
Old Sturbridge Village, a museum and learning resource of New England life, invites each visitor to find meaning, pleasure, relevance, and inspiration through the exploration of history.
Old Sturbridge Village… More than a museum.
Old Sturbridge Village celebrates the people who lived in rural New England in the formative, first decades of our new nation – the United States of America. The Village provides an authentic, first-hand look at the often challenging and rapidly changing textures and rhythms of New England life in what were transformative years – 1790 to 1840.
Illustrating a period in America largely driven by agriculture, industry, family and the seasons, the Village invites guests to meet those who faced the trials and triumphs of everyday life, and worked together to survive and prosper in the rural New England towns and countrysides they called home.
Unlike traditional history museums, Old Sturbridge Village encourages guests to put their hands on history—to see, hear, feel, smell, taste, experience and fully immerse themselves in our nation’s past.
From individual interactions with expert, costumed historians, farmers, artisans and performers to trying their hands at farming, trades and domestic chores, guests make their own history at the Village every day. Through storytelling, theatrical experiences, hands-on demonstrations and participatory learning, young and old alike are inspired by the early Republic.
The Village uses its historic buildings and landscapes, expansive collections, and programs in agriculture, horticulture, households and trades to produce innovative, immersive and engaging exhibitions, interpretation, educational offerings and public events. As a result, we will continue to transform museum learning for 21st-century families and students.
The 200-acre campus also provides guests with endless opportunities to enjoy the cycle of the seasons. From nature trails and engaging play spaces to the Quinebaug River and the gardens, farms and fields, the grounds are a great place to meet up, relax, explore or simply have fun in the great outdoors.
To enhance every guest’s experience, Old Sturbridge Village is committed to:
- Providing excellence in guest and hospitality services.
- Infusing historical context and quality into its culinary offerings, museum stores, inn and lodges.
- Recruiting and training a talented, diverse team of staff, interns and volunteers.
- Ensuring the museum campus is sustainable, safe and accessible to all.
- Continuously listening, learning and evolving our visitor experience to exceed and anticipate the needs of our guests.
- By truly making history dynamic, dimensional, immersive, hospitable and inclusive, Old Sturbridge Village makes America’s past exciting, relevant and inspiring for today’s families, students and individual visitors – ensuring that our nation’s vibrant history continues to inform and enrich modern society.
Founder A.B. Wells
Industrialist Albert B. Wells of Southbridge, Massachusetts, became interested in the beauty of hand-wrought utilitarian objects in the early 1900s on annual tours of Europe with his father-in-law, the noted Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham. Wells had great respect and admiration for Burnham, who famously advised, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood… Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing.” Wells took this advice to heart and kept Burnham’s words framed on his wall as a lasting source of inspiration. Working closely with his older brother Channing M. and younger brother J. Cheney, A.B. Wells built their father’s business, the American Optical Corporation, into what was once the largest and most innovative eyeglass manufacturer in the world.
A.B. Wells also thought big about his hobbies. In the mid-1920’s A.B. went to Vermont with some friends for a relaxing weekend of golf. When rain prevented golfing, his friends suggested they go antiquing instead. Wells objected, asking what his friends found so appealing about “those old junk shops.” He gave in to their cajoling and in Henniker, New Hampshire, had an epiphany. A.B. Wells fell in love with that he called “primitives” and “oddities”—the unique, handcrafted tools and implements of an earlier day. That weekend he bought enough “primitives” to fill two station wagons. His assistant George Watson, who was dispatched along with the chauffer to bring it all home, recalled that Wells directed him to stash it in the garage because “he did not dare tell his wife.”
A.B. Wells later wrote a friend, “when the collecting bug bit me, it bit me hard.” His collecting became a consuming passion. Within a few years he had filled his large mansion at 176 Main Street in Southbridge (designed by Daniel Burnham) and two additional barns. A.B. and his wife were forced to move to another home. In 1935 Wells formed the Wells Historical Museum, a not-for-profit trust to ensure the preservation of his collection. As A.B.’s son George Burnham Wells observed, the collection was “too big and too numerous to be simply one man’s hobby.” Eventually, A.B. Wells and his brothers purchased the Quinebaug Farm, setting in motion the creation of Old Sturbridge Village as we know it today. As A.B. Wells’ health declined in the 1940s, and his beloved daughter-in-law Ruth Dyer Wells, began to oversee more projects in the emerging Village. In 1945, a heart attack forced A.B. Wells to move to California for his health, but he continued to keep in touch with Ruth, and offered any advice or support she needed. A.B Wells’ passion for “primitives” and his industrialist spirit are the catalysts that began Old Sturbridge Village.
A Living History Museum
Old Sturbridge Village began as one man’s hobby, but over the years it has evolved into a national institution that nearly 25 million people have visited.
In 1936 A.B Wells hired an architect to design a series of gallery buildings to better display his treasures. Wells was excited about this scheme when he presented it to family and friends in July, but his son George believed his father’s “primitives” shouldn’t be displayed in a traditional museum setting, he believed “It would be necessary to have a village, a live village, one with different shops operating.” While collections of old buildings had been assembled in a few places, none yet actively demonstrated historic crafts.
Within a week the Wells’ brothers bought the old farm in Sturbridge, then known as the Ballard place, on which their mother had been born. The Quinebaug River ran through the rolling property, providing the requisite waterpower. Trusted assistant George Watson was sent out to find and move old houses, barns and mills to create the village and help design new buildings constructed from new and reused materials to resemble early structures. The museum’s first curator, Malcolm Watkins, was hired later that Summer to catalog and classify the collection of tens of thousands of objects. The two Wells brothers hired respected landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff to lay out a rural landscape that matched their vision of early New England. A.B. Wells recalled that he never argued with anyone as much as he did Shurcliff, or knew anyone whom he respected more for his knowledge and ability.
That first decade was fraught with setbacks for the new museum. Only months after buying the farm, a waning hurricane washed away the old mill dam, and another storm in 1938 caused more damage and blew down acres of trees. World War II forced construction to halt, and most of the war years were devoted to moving the huge collection from Southbridge to Sturbridge. Ruth Dyer Wells, A.B. Well’s daughter-in-law, began to oversee more and more projects in the emerging Village. In 1945, Ruth took over as director of the village after A.B. had a heart attack and moved to California for his health. As an early employee recalled, Ruth Wells “had the tenacity and the drive and the administrative sense to get the Village rolling.”
After the war, work quickly resumed. Partially constructed buildings were completed and others brought in. Word got out, and curious people began to come by to see what was going on. Many of these uninvited guests complained that they had mistakenly searched in vain for the Village in nearby Quinebaug, Connecticut. In 1946 the fledgling museum changed its name to Old Sturbridge Village in hopes of thwarting any further geographic confusion.
Ruth Wells realized that the people dropping by were impeding work on the museum, so she decided to open it up. On June 8, 1946, 81 people paid a dollar apiece to tour the grounds and see displays of antiques arranged in the new and restored old buildings, including the Fitch House, Grist Mill, Richardson House and Gebhardt barn (now called the Parsonage and Parsonage Barn), the Miner Grant Store, Dennison Schoolhouse (now the Child’s World exhibit), Firearms exhibit, Shoe Shop and more, including a sawmill and blacksmith shop (but not the ones standing today). The Village Inn (now the Bullard Tavern) was under construction, but many now-familiar exhibits, including the Center Meetinghouse, Towne and Fenno houses, Freeman Farm, Thompson Bank and Covered Bridge were not yet here. Over 5,000 more guests visited that first summer and fall. Almost constant growth marked the Village’s early years, as more exhibits were added and more visitors came to see them.
The Village Inn (now the Bullard Tavern) was completed in 1947. That same year, the Center Meetinghouse, was acquired in exchange for a new Hammond electric organ to the congregation. Restoration was completed the following year. Active craft demonstrations began by 1948, and soon guests were no longer permitted to tour the Village in their cars. As the years went by, Earle Newton was hired as director, and Ruth Wells transitioned to managing the growing crafts program. By 1952 the Fenno House, Friends’ Meeting house and town pound arrived, several buildings were moved and the Salem Towne House’s restoration continued. The tenth year of operation saw perhaps the Village’s greatest test. In 1955 two hurricanes, Connie and Diane, hit New England back to back. Raging floodwaters damaged several exhibits and washed the covered bridge off its footings. But the water receded, and the clean-up began.
Most important, more and more people kept coming to see history brought to life at the Village, which welcomed its one millionth visitor in 1957. Since then, many more programs, exhibits and special events have been added and refined in an effort to constantly improve the visitor experience. Through the decades, we have grown well beyond a collection of antiques in a bucolic setting, or even an assemblage of historic craft demonstrations. The “living village” envisioned by George, A.B. and J. Cheney Wells has taken on a vibrant life of its own as a leader in the fields of museum education and living history interpretation. As we celebrate our own past as well as New England’s early history, we continue to “make no little plans,” as we look ahead to a long and bright future.