Sturbridge Village Log: A Journey Back in Time
All year, fifth graders focus on American history in their social studies class. In April, they visited Old Sturbridge Village and came together as a class to recount their very memorable trip here:
In a plain, white church on the Sturbridge Village green our fifth grade class participated in the purest form of democracy. We had come to Sturbridge, Massachusetts earlier that day to spend time living in a world that mimics small town life in the 1830s, complete with preserved architecture and preserved traditions, relating to food, farm life, and much else. In this white church, we simulated a town meeting, discussing an important subject of the time: how to take care of poor, older members of Sturbridge. We all got to debate solutions and to vote on an outcome. First, we voted on whether or not the town should buy a farm for the poor. We decided to buy the farm. But then after further discussion, we learned that to buy the farm, we would have to raise taxes. It would be a tax that would have probably hurt the poorest farmers, so we voted not to raise taxes, which then meant we didn’t have enough money to buy the poor farm. So the problem was not solved but put off for further debate. We learned that in democracy, you have to compromise and keep trying to figure out an answer because sometimes, what you think is the right thing is more complicated than it appears.
One of the first things we did was ride in a horse-drawn carriage called a “carryall.” The carriage went so slowly that we could have probably walked faster than the horses did. As we rode around the town, the driver gave us a bit of the history of the town. We got a preview of what we were about to see from him. The driver had a strong New England accent. Surprisingly, it was sometimes difficult to understand him, even though he was speaking English! We passed a pottery shop, and our driver told us that pottery wasn’t a full-time job. It was a side job for when you were done with your farming. He also told us about the recurring problems with flooding in the area.
As we walked around Sturbridge in our small groups, we were all interested in the town pound, where lost animals were put for their owners to claim them. We learned that if an animal’s owner did not claim it within thirty days, it was auctioned off. Lost animals were not just cats and dogs, but pigs and goats and other farm animals.
We also got to scrape the dirt off of our shoes on the bar of metal that was set in the steps outside of every building. We thought this would be a great idea to get for MMS when we return from the park with muddy shoes!
We visited a schoolhouse. The New England colonies were serious about school. They thought every child should receive an education in order to read the Bible. This included girls as well as boys. It was the law that if a town had 50 or more families, it was required to hire a schoolteacher; If the town had over 100 families, it was mandatory that the instructor teach Latin as well. The woman who was a teacher told us that kids would go to school in the winter and summer only because in the spring and fall, they had to stay home and help their families with the harvest. In addition, it was common for kids to walk three to four miles to get to school, where all different ages of kids learned in a one room schoolhouse.
One of our favorite stops was the blacksmith’s shop. When the blacksmith pulled the hot metal pieces of iron from the fire, they glowed bright red and orange. Sparks flew off as he hammered and bent the rods into tools. It was like a mini Fourth of July.
The most active and delicious event was preparing our dinner over open fireplaces and making everything from scratch. To whisk the cream, we used birch twigs tied together with rope. It took forever. We used a grater that was made by the tinsmith to grate our cheese. We churned our own butter using a stick and disk with holes in it. We had to rotate the chickens every ten minutes to make sure they cooked properly. Then, when dinner was ready, we ate with 1830s manners. That meant that we had to use our napkins as bibs, we ate with our knives, and it wasn’t even uncommon to use the knives we were eating with to serve ourselves salt. We also had a toast before dinner, and we sang Happy Birthday to Mateo before we had dessert, which was a George Washington cake—a famous recipe in the early 19th century—with whipped cream.
After dinner, we listened to three stories that were popular in the 1830s. One was about King Arthur and his kitchen boy; another was a pirate story with ghosts in it; and the last was a murder mystery. The storyteller was very good as she used a lot of different voices for the various characters and also used movements to emphasize what she was saying. After the stories, we went to our hotel rooms at the Sturbridge Inn, spent time with friends, and then went to sleep.
We learned that democracy is difficult and that problems of the past like the aging poor are still problems today. We learned that everything took longer whether walking to school or whipping cream. We learned that a good story is still a good story and a wonderful way to end a day.
Here’s an earlier (December) dispatch from the fifth graders’ social studies class.