Connecting kids with history isn’t easy — the eras they read about in school are so far removed from today’s way of life the people and places seem like storybook characters and lands of make believe. Living history museums and well-interpreted historic sites can bridge that gap between then and now, and bring the past to life for kids.
In Plymouth, Mass., the very place where the first Europeans landed and built a permanent settlement in North America, Plimoth Plantation is an authentic replica of their village. It is inhabited by role-playing interpreters who dress, speak and carry on the daily activities as the Pilgrims did in the early 1600s. A log fort armed with cannons overlooks the dirt street of primitive houses, each identified as home to a real person or family; kids can step inside and talk with the inhabitants to learn how they grew their food, cooked their meals and built their houses. In another separate village (included in the same admission ticket) they can see how the native Wampanoag people lived at this time.
At Old Sturbridge Village, in Sturbridge, Mass., more than 40 historic homes, workshops, stores, mills and farm buildings have been brought from their original sites to create a living history village. The costumed interpreters fill in the human story of each place, often demonstrating the skills and pastimes that took place there. Animals live on the farms and in the backyards; logs become boards in the water-driven sawmill; and horse-drawn wagons carry visitors around the 200-acre village. New England life in the early 1800s comes to life here for kids, who can learn to play old-fashioned games, dip candles, try making pottery or discover some other forgotten art.
One of the most important maritime museums in the country, Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn., is a living museum village built to showcase an outstanding collection of floating vessels. The rarest of these is the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan (1841). Kids can see and board this and other ships, including a fishing schooner and several steam ships, and learn maritime skills like knot tying. This fully recreated 19th-century seacoast village is inhabited by interpreters who can relate stories of life in the village — the work of sailmakers, shipbuilders and those who provisioned the ships.
In New England’s earliest days Portsmouth, N.H., was a major seaport and shipbuilding center, and much of its commerce was by water. A unique type of craft was built there, the gundalow, a shallow boat much like a barge that was poled through the shallow water. Later, these were also propelled by a sail on a mast that folded down to go under bridges. Measuring as long as 70 feet, gundalows could navigate shallow rivers and carry up to 50 tons of cargo between ocean-going schooners and towns around the Great Bay. Your kids can learn all about these and New England’s maritime history firsthand as they cruise Portsmouth Harbor and