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Playing in the Past at Old Sturbridge Village

Old Sturbridge Village is a living history museum in Sturbridge, Massachusetts that my family loves. We have been to many events over the years and enjoyed them all. You will have plenty to see while visiting as the village is like walking back in time to rural New England in the early 1800s. Since the village is on 200 acres of land with buildings from the late 1790s through the 1830s, you are sure to find a specialty house everyone loves.

Not only does Old Sturbridge Village have over forty historical buildings for you to explore but they also have livestock for you to see. We’ve been lucky enough to just visit this spring and see all the new baby lambs. In fact, seeing the lambs was one of the highlights of our recent trip.

Toys of the past at Old Sturbridge Village
Playing with toys of the past

Although our latest visit to Old Sturbridge Village was sponsored so we could partake in the maple sugaring events, we only recommend places we love. In this post, I will tell you about all the events we have been to over the years. We have visited during several major events as well as regular admission days. Although we have loved the major events and the smaller events, it’s on the general admission days when my kids have made punched tin Christmas ornaments that we love. On the general admission days, the village is able to put out crafts for kids to try and take home. For this reason, we advise going on general admission days as well as when the village has events going on.

learning at Old Sturbridge Village
Learning how to write in calligraphy

Table of Contents

Tips for your Visit

  • Buy your tickets online, ahead of time for capacity restrictions.
  • You will be walking on natural roads so wear comfortable shoes
  • You can bring a stroller if you have little ones. It is a large village with lots of walking.
  • There is a restaurant which you can buy your lunch but you can also bring your own and use the picnic tables.
  • To get the most of your village experience, talk to the costumed historians. They love to share what they are doing.

Maple Sugaring at Old Sturbridge Village

This visit to Old Sturbridge Village was specifically for the maple sugaring events, however, we enjoyed everything. Immediately after the entrance, we saw a gentleman carving a wooden spout used to extract the sap from the maple trees. This was completely new for us and very exciting.

Your first job as a farmer is to choose the right trees for their sap. Next, you need to know when to begin the process of tapping the trees. Too early and you are wasting your time, too late and you don’t yield as much sap which means less sugar. There is a delicate balance between when to tap and when the season is over.

How to Make Maple Sugar

The original way to boil off the water in the sap to make maple sugar was done in big pots. This is generally how the children would help out. They would chop the wood and tend the fire. Sugar bought at the local merchant shops was expensive. To make it more affordable farmers made their own maple sugar. During the early spring before they can plant the farmers ‘tap’ the maple trees. Once they collect the sap, they boil it down to a rich, thick syrup. It is at this point that the syrup goes into a flower pot to cool and allow the last liquid to drain. Once all the liquid drains you have a pot of maple sugar.

boiling maple sap
Boiling the maple sap

It is this sugar that the farmers want. Without refrigeration, the syrup will go bad. However, the sugar loaves will stay fresh until they use the whole thing. It was very interesting that one of the pots of syrup didn’t expel all its liquid and was as dark as tar. The lady said this darker sugar was like molasses. Still very usable just sweeter than if the molasses had drained from the sugar.

The Houses of Old Sturbridge Village

As you walk through the village you will see all the different shops needed to run a proper town. From a blacksmith to a tin shop, from a bank to a merchant, along with a one-room schoolhouse, a church, and a law office. This is a modern town for its time.

The best way to learn about the jobs and trades is to ask questions of the historians. They are there for you to learn from and ask questions so don’t be shy. Personally, I love when my kids have questions, it means they are learning new things. It’s a great history lesson too.

Center Meetinghouse

In 1832 this Center Meetinghouse was built for the town as the Baptist Meetinghouse. As more religions became popular in New England more meetinghouses were built. After Old Sturbridge Village acquired this meeting house a renovation of the interior brought it to show a pre-1800s interior. The paneled pews with side doors are remnants of the time period.

This meeting house was not only the church but was also for town meetings and elections. This really became the hub of the town. When you visit, sit in a pew and see if you can understand what it would be like to attend a meeting in the early 1800s.

During a visit a few years ago my family sat in this church for a demonstration on women’s fashion of the time. An announcer explained every item of clothing as another lady, in an everyday dress, took off that item. Once the lady was down to her undergarments she redressed into a party dress for a fancy ball. Again the announcer explained the reason and design behind every item of clothing.

My family as well as the rest of the patrons in this packed church were in awe. The presentation was mesmerizing. I learned so much that day. For one, I didn’t know there were so many layers to what the women wore. They also talked about how they would put talc powder in their hair because they didn’t wash it as often. Totally fascinating.

Center Meetinghouse of Old Sturbridge Village
Center Meetinghouse

Asa Knight Store

This store is what we call the Country Store. These merchants would carry everyday products the townspeople needed. From cotton material, ribbon, and thread to shoes, toothbrushes, horse brushes, baskets as well as glassware, tinware, dishes, and even spices, tea, coffee, and sugar. This really is their grocery store with items bought and sold on credit.

These shopkeepers took the farmer’s butter, straw hats, and knitted socks as their credit. The shopkeeper would sell these items in the cities and use that money to buy bolts of fabric, spices, teas, coffee, and other goods locally and from sellers from around the world.

In talking to the lady in this shop we learned that families only had one toothbrush. They all shared the same one. This is the case for most items in the households.

Then you will have luxurious items. Some of them so fancy and expensive that they are in a cabinet behind glass.

General Store
The Asa Knight (Country Store)

Thompson Bank of Old Sturbridge Village

The Thompson Bank originally came from Thompson, Connecticut. Banks became necessary to parts of the communities and promoted trade and industry in the area. These country banks followed the regulations of the states they were in.

Thompson Bank is in the Greek Revival style with its impending columns and heavy portico. This building is the epitome of stable and authoritative, just what you want it a bank.

The interior of this bank is something special. The clock on the sidewall is from famed clockmaker Simon Willard. While inside make sure to look up and see the breathtaking astral lamp overhead. The cast-iron stove is a work of art itself. The vault is spectacular with granite-walls and a massive iron door. Now imagine standing in this bank and talking to the teller to make a withdrawal. It would be something special to see the working of this bank during the early 1800s.

Thompson Bank
Thompson Bank

Trades within Old Sturbridge Village

Old Sturbridge Village is a fully sustainable village with all the trades the townspeople would need. The Village has a Blacksmith Shop, a Cooper Shop, a Potter’s Shop, a Tin Shop, a glass exhibit, a printing office along with several other shops for you to visit. I suggest going to all of them to see what the craftspeople are making.

Blacksmith Shop

It is an experience in itself to see blacksmiths at work. To see the fire going and have them working the baffles to stoke the fire and heat up the iron or steel and make it into something useful.

The blacksmiths were making an anchor during our visit and it was very interesting how the two blacksmiths worked together. One holding the different pieces of iron and the other hammering.

In the 1800s the blacksmith was a vital part of everyday life in rural New England. Between making horseshoes, farm equipment and tools to wagon wheels and nails everyone in the town needed the blacksmith.

Blacksmith at Old Sturbridge Village
Blacksmith Shop

Cooper Shop

The Cooper makes barrels, pails, tubs, and any other bucket using wooden slats and metal strapping. The Cooper also told us that after making the bucket or pail you can replace the metal strapping with thin wood reeds. He can then use the metal for the next bucket which saves him money.

We loved watching the process of carving down the wood to make the sides of the barrel. The cooper has two different blades to carve the outside and inside of the slats of wood. For the outside of the slat, it is a typical curve, just like the side of a circle. However, the inside of the slat is concave. The tool to carve out part of the slat is different.

Tin Shop

Watching the tradespeople in the tin shop make household items as quickly as they can is quite amazing. Yes, they do need to solder the joints but it’s still a quick process. No wonder most items were made from tin during this time period.

Don’t get me wrong though, even though tin is easy to work with you still need to have the training to be able to finesse the tin. In previous visits, the village has had crafts for the kids to do. One of the crafts my kids did is making a tin ornament for the Christmas Tree. It is a punched tin ornament but it really gives you the understanding of how hard or soft you need to hammer to make the mark you want on the tin.

Tin Maker at Old Sturbridge Village
Tin Maker’s Apprentice

More Shops to Explore

Some shops are open seasonally like the Village Scoop which is the ice cream shop. It’s worth the trip on a hot day. Others like the Miner Grant Store & Bake Shop is open year-round. Here you can buy souvenirs such as tin lights, woven baskets, fudge, old fashion candy, or even cotton fabric squares. My daughter bought some materials plus an old fashion apron which she loves cooking in.

Miner Grant Store
Miner Grant Store, go in and see all their wondering things

The Mills of Old Sturbridge Village

There is a cider mill, gristmill, carding mill, and sawmill at Old Sturbridge Village. Exploring these engineering marvels is quite fun. Even if they are not operational during your visit you can go and see them set up for use.

If you visit during the fall harvest the Cider Mill & Orchard might be open. You can sometimes try the cider they produce. Which is a real treat.

The Gristmill has a waterwheel that works its mill which is pretty fabulous to see working.

To see the sawmill operational is, well, loud but still very interesting and amazing. To see the full tree coming into the mill and how they are then cut into boards used to build houses is worth a look.


Houses and Farms of Old Sturbridge Village

There are farm animals in several locations around Old Sturbridge Village. In fact, you will probably see chickens and their gorgeous rooster roaming the grounds as you walk around. The village has cows, oxen, pigs, chickens, turkeys, horses, and sheep.

Spring is here

Since our visit was in early March we got to see newly born lambs. The timing was perfect and the lambs are adorable. The sheep are sheared and the wool is used to make yarn in a demonstration in the Fenno House. Seeing a demonstration on how to make the wool into yarn is so much fun to see. It definitely takes some practice to get it just right.

In the Bixby House, you can learn about making straw hats. The women of the household will take straw, braid it and take it to the milliner to have made it into a hat. You can see some hats in the Asa Knight store in the village.

During our visit, the cooking demonstration was in the Freeman Farm House. They were baking pies using maple sugar as their sweetener and drying butternut squash. Using a needle and thread to string 1″ square pieces of butternut squash, they hung them from the ceiling to dry. Once the squash is dried they can use it in soups and pies till the next harvest. Certainly, a great way to preserve the vegetable.

Related Content: If you are stilling looking for more history check out the Minute Man Trail in Lexington and Concord.

Special Events

My family has been to several special events at Old Sturbridge Village. If you can visit during one of these special events take advantage of that and go. You will not be disappointed.

One of the major events my family attended was a Civil War reenactment with a full field battle. To see the two armies, one on each side of the field set up with cannons, hundreds of men, and horses made the experience real. To see the horses and men rush toward each other really put the type of war it was into perspective.

war reenactment
The troops going to fight a battle

It was a hand-to-hand combat war. It was fought on the ground. Even though no one was injured the actors played the part and pretended to die. It really does bring the battle to life. My kids were in awe as were we.

musicians at Old Sturbridge Village
Musicians entertaining the troops

The other great thing to note about special events is the number of costumed actors that are in the village. During the reenactment, I think there were just as many actors as there were guests. It was so cool to see different groups gathered together on the green playing instruments or setting up a little camp.

George Washington at Old Sturbridge Village
Meeting George Washington

It’s safe to say no matter when you go to Old Sturbridge Village you will have a wonderful time.

Pin for Later

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Playing in the Past at Old Sturbridge Village
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Old Sturbridge Village

For more to see and do in Central Massachusetts try these fun activities.

Final Thoughts

Have you gone to a living history museum? If so which ones? What is your favorite part, the houses or talking to the historians?

This Post Has 34 Comments

  1. Alexis Farmer

    Lots of cool old timey shops at Old Sturbridge Village! I would love to check out the maple syrup scene.

    1. Leeanne

      The maple sugar camp was a lot of fun. Learning how the children had to tend to the fire was interesting too. And seeing it turn to sugar is out of this world. Now I want to try to do it at home.

  2. Tricia Snow

    I loved doing these types of historical vacations with our kids. There is so much to do at Old Sturbridge Village!

    1. Leeanne

      Yes, Old Sturbridge Village is the largest living history museum in New England so they certainly do have a lot of activities to see and do.

  3. kmf

    I would love to take a trip back in time and play at Old Sturbridge Village! Love that you’ve returned…and I can see why with so many cool things to do at this living history museum.

    1. Leeanne

      Yes, we love Old Sturbridge Village. We always have a great time and learn something new in the process. It’s a win, win.

  4. Lannie

    What a truly interesting place! I didn’t know a “living museum” was a thing. I’d love to visit the blacksmith and tin shops. That’d be where I’m most interested… (besides the MAPLE SUGAR obviously).

    It’s on the list for future outings!!

    1. Leeanne

      I’m sure you would love both the blacksmith and the tin shop. It’s really interesting when there are kids punching tin for decorative pieces and you can talk to them about it. I love that the traditions are being carried on.

  5. SteveH

    Wow it’s been ages since I visited the Village with my kids. I forgot how many great activities are available and how much fun they had when we visited. Thxs for refreshing my memories of Sturbridge Village

    1. Leeanne

      It really is a special place. I hope my kids continue to enjoy it as much as I do.

  6. Trisha

    I love visiting historical places like Old Sturbridge Village! The reenactments and actors give you a better understanding of how people may have lived back then.

    1. Leeanne

      Absolutely. We loved talking to all the actors and it was amazing that so many of them volunteer on these big reenactment days. I love that so many local people are so interested in preserving the history and enjoy being a part of the whole village. It’s really awesome.

    1. Leeanne

      Old Sturbridge Village really is super fun.

  7. Carole

    Fascinating! I love these places that bring history back to life – the sights, sounds, smells, crafts and events. I can well imagine that kids would love the hands-on elements as much as the grown-ups.

    1. Leeanne

      My kids certainly love the hands-on element. We talk about our visits to Old Sturbridge Village every time we put those punched tin ornaments on our Christmas Tree.

  8. Marianne

    Of course the maple syrup would be what catches my eye from your entire Old Sturbridge Village post! LOL. I like visiting living museums… makes it easy to imagine how things were actually done back in the day.

    1. Leeanne

      I totally agree Maryanne. It really brings the experience to life. I told my kids it was their history lesson for the day and they loved that.

  9. My wife and I have no children, but I think we’d enjoy a visit to this place. For kids it must be even more fascinating. Love that picture of the blacksmith’s workshop. They seem to have done a great job in keeping it all authentic. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Leeanne

      Honestly, even without kids, you would have an amazing time here.

  10. Kendra

    Wow! I love all of the incredible hands-on learning your family got to experience! Old Sturbridge Village looks like an awesome place to visit and learn!

    1. Leeanne

      It really is Kendra. We love that the kids can interact with the historians and really learn what they are doing and why.

  11. Lisa Manderino

    I love historical travel! Old Sturbridge Village looks amazing!

  12. Cindy Moore

    What an amazing living history village! I love these kinds of experiences.

    1. Leeanne

      We do too. You seem to learn so much when you get to see it first hand.

  13. Larissa Li

    How interesting and educational. I learned so much about maple sugar. I even didn’t know it existed 😲

    1. Leeanne

      Well, the next time you are in Massachusetts you should visit with your family. I’m sure they will love it.

  14. Karen

    Old Sturbridge Village looks like my kind of place – love all things history. Love that it’s a living history museum. And those lambs – how adorable!

    1. Leeanne

      I agree with you, it’s an awesome place to visit. We couldn’t have planned our trip better to see the lambs.

  15. John

    These open air sites have a real warm familiarity and are great to visit. So much to be learned by walking through. Sturbridge village has quite the history. All the better that you can take some of it home with you such as the cider

    1. Leeanne

      I agree. There really is so much to see and do here that bringing something home is always fun. This time my daughter bought fabric squares and an apron.

  16. Julie Gazdecki

    Best way to learn history is to play in the past! Old Sturbridge Village looks like a great homeschool field trip.

    1. Leeanne

      I absolutely agree, Julie. In fact, I told my kids as we were leaving that it was their history lesson for the day. They loved that.

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