That’s So 200 Years Ago

Thinking about taking the family on an American history-themed getaway? Here's one parent's rave review of Old Colonial Williamsburg, Mystic Seaport and Sturbridge Village.

Thats So 200 Years Ago

How does an American History themed vacation with kids sound? Dry as dirt? Nothing your 21st century kids would go for?

Making hooks with the blacksmith

Well, what if it included an opportunity to use 19th century blacksmith tools to heat iron until it melts and make a decorative hook you get to take home with you? What if you heard 200-year-old ghost stories from people who seem to have stepped out of the past? What if you got to attend an 18th century witch trial? What if your kids played with early American toys and went aboard a real whaling ship and made candles and used a printing press? My kids have loved the history vacations we’ve taken, from when they were very little through their teens, and they’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are some great places to go:

Candle making

Mystic Seaport is the Museum of America and the Sea and it’s on the shore in Connecticut, about 3 hours drive from Park Slope. A restored nineteenth century whaling village, Mystic is staffed by costumed “interpreters” – actors who enact roles, portraying village life and demonstrating activities to the visitors. The last remaining wooden whaling ship is there, and you can go on it and marvel at the tiny quarters the sailors somehow managed to live in for months on end. A children’s museum has period toys for the younger set; a planetarium is used to demonstrate how the stars were used to navigate; blacksmith and printmaking and apothecary and shipwrights show how people made their livings way back then. And in a program called “Hands On History” adults and kids alike can try their hands at some of those trades. My daughters made wonderful decorative hooks when they were being blacksmiths two years ago – we still use them.

The seaport can easily keep a family happily busy for a few days. If you want to branch out a bit, the town of Mystic has a decent aquarium, the pizza place made famous by Julia Roberts, and lots of good seafood. Connecticut and Rhode Island beaches are near by.

Authentic cattle (photo credit: Thomas Neill)

A little farther away, Old Sturbridge Village (OSV) in Massachusetts is a reconstruction of a New England village in the 1830s. The staff are fanatical – in a good way – and strive to get all the details right. Animals have been “back bred” to best resemble those described in 19th century records and depicted in contemporaneous paintings. A mill was built by OSV staff, using only tools and materials available at the time. Children can pet the animals, play with hoops and other period toys, visit a 19th century general store and go for a ride on a horse drawn carriage. The OSV equivalent of Mystic’s “Hands on History” is called “Crafts at Close Range” but these workshops are only available to adults. OSV is open year round and in the winter has fascinating activities under a program called “Yankee Winter Weekends.” When we went, there was a magic show in the evening with a magician who portrayed a period magician and did his tricks. My kids – 10, 6, and 3 at the time – all got to be “magician’s assistants” and had no idea how he did the tricks.

Kids play 18th century-style in Colonial Williamsburg

The most elaborate reconstruction is Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. It’s also the only one of the three where the buildings are in their original location. Lovingly restored, with actor/interpreters playing statesmen, slaves, craftspeople, and soldiers, Williamsburg leaves you feeling like you have truly gone back in time. We went when my kids were 16, 12, and 10 and spent three days there en route to visit friends in Charlottesville. We’d planned to split our time in Williamsburg between Colonial Williamsburg and the nearby Busch Gardens theme park, but had such a good time at the living museum that we never got around to the amusement park, a first for my family. Highlights of our visit were a Witch Trial and a night program of scary stories told in various restored homes.

All three living museums mentioned here have very informative websites that are a big help in planning your trip. There are many places to stay nearby, to fit assorted budgets. I think you’ll find, as I have, that an American History Vacation is fun for all, and a good way to help kids understand our nation’s past.

Dale Rosenberg

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