Written by Tom Kelleher, Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts at Old Sturbridge Village
Seventy years ago on Saturday, June 8, 1946, after almost a decade of hard work and multiple challenges, Old Sturbridge Village officially opened to the public. Recently renamed from its original Old Quinebaug Village to avoid geographical confusion with a nearby community in Connecticut, 81 people came that day. They paid $1 each to see the long-promised “living village” that grew out of the antique collecting of Southbridge industrialists Albert B. Wells and his younger brother J. Cheney Wells. Albert was not there, but comfortably retired on his ranch in California. If Cheney Wells was present, no record of that has been found. The presiding director of the museum was Ruth Dyer Wells, wife of A.B.’s son George Burnham Wells, who back in 1936 had suggested building a “living village” museum to display his father’s antiques in context.
What was the Village experience like for those 81 curious visitors? For one thing, there was a lot less to see and do than a visit to Old Sturbridge Village offers today. No Freeman Farm or farm animals. No meetinghouses. No gardens. No lodges or tavern. No Museum Education building or school programs. There were only a few demonstrations to see, and no hands-on activities. Many now-familiar buildings were not yet here, or were in different locations and put to different uses. Some of what people in 1946 saw is now long gone. Several staff members lived on site.
Visitors paid their admission at the David Wight Cottage, then called the Gate House, where HSEAD now has a research center. Visitors did not explore on their own but were led on tours by one of seven hostesses dressed in an eclectic mix of original 19th-century clothing pulled out of attic trunks and distributed by Frances Dyer, Ruth Wells’ mother and manager for the day. Later that summer tours were led instead by high school students dressed in modern clothing. By the time the Village closed in the fall, 5,170 people had visited.
The museum was still mostly a collection of collections, including exhibits of antique firearms, woodworking tools, pottery, tin, brass, copper, heating devices, cooking utensils, spinning wheels, and more. What is now the Glass in New England exhibit was called the Spectacle Shop, a copy of the original American Optical factory, and displayed antique optical tools and glassware. The Miner Grant store was a nostalgically assembled catch-all exhibit purporting to depict an early “general store.” The back rooms, basement and attic were filled with various displays of antiques. Also on the common was the Dennison School (about where Thompson Bank is now, and then a toy museum), the Fitch and Richardson houses furnished in colonial style, and the Gebhardt barn, full of vehicles and farm tools. An assemblage of buildings where the Oliver Wight Tavern, Gift Shop, and Visitor Center now are held offices, exhibits, staff apartments, and workshops. The shoe shop sat about where the Small House now is.
In the countryside was the Grist Mill, a static old sawmill moved from Gilead, Connecticut, and a reproduction blacksmith shop and shed. There was a “Blacksmith’s House” displaying antique wrought iron, and the miller lived in what is now the New England’s Changing Landscape exhibit. There were only three craft demonstrations that first year: Dave Duquette operated a printing press in the basement of the Spectacle Shop; Charlie Almquist ground meal (with electric power) at the Grist Mill; and Ray Lemmelin blacksmithed at a shop that burned down one night in 1956.
The village was alive with growth in those first years. Ground was broken on the Village Inn (now the Bullard Tavern) in July of 1946. In 1947 it opened, selling box lunches and displaying a great deal more of the museum’s extensive collection of antiques. Cabinetmaking, furniture refinishing, and weaving were added to the list of demonstrations that year, and the Fiskdale Baptist Church (now Center Meetinghouse) was acquired. A cow and some sheep were added. Hostesses were stationed in the buildings, leaving visitors free to explore on their own… even in their cars if they wished!
Each year more skilled craftsmen and antique buildings arrived on site. Change was the only constant. Visitation grew to over 40,000 people by 1950, and over 300,000 by 1960. There were plenty of set-backs and growing pains, but the Village was well on its way to becoming the beloved national treasure it is today.