old sturbridge village massachusetts

Old Sturbridge Village: 13 Things To Know Before You Go

As far as living history museums go, Old Sturbridge Village is one of the GOATs. Here’s what to know before your next visit.

When Sturbridge, Massachusetts, was incorporated in 1738, the locals got together and made cool stuff like grist mills and sawmills, stations where the tranquil Quinebaug River powered their frontier efforts in a place that was originally called Tantiousques by the local indigenous population.

A lot changed over the next 280-plus years, but today Old Sturbridge Village offers a peak at what life was like back in the early days of the town. Like New England history staples Plimoth Patuxet and Mystic Seaport Museum, the village takes a hands-on approach to local history that makes it interesting and practical for kids and adults.

Before heading out to Old Sturbridge Village, here are 13 things to know to make the most of your venture through space and time but mostly space.

1. It’s the largest living outdoor history museum in New England.

largest living outdoor history museum
Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

New England itself occasionally feels like one giant living history museum, and there are plenty to choose from, but Old Sturbridge Village is the largest of the bunch.

Is this based on acreage? I think so. But if it’s based on the number of historic buildings or some other combination of things that makes the claim difficult to dispute, then so be it. I’m not here to question OSV.

The point is: this place is big, it’s impressive and most definitely worth a visit or two.

2. It’s a realistic glimpse of rural life in early 19th century New England.

sturbridge village with kids
Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

Old Sturbridge Village represents a typically rural New England town as you’d see it in the 1830s, when agriculture, farming and craft was an integral part of everyday life in the country. The village had to take care of all its own needs with the help of craftspeople like blacksmiths, farmers, and mill workers who slung logs down the sawmill.

The village’s layout includes sections for the center of town, where all the dancing and hubbub would go on, and the countryside, where farmers would grow crops and do other 1800s stuff like fire pottery and read leatherbound books by candlelight.

(LET’S BRING BACK READING LEATHERBOUND BOOKS BY CANDLELIGHT)

For historical context, the setting of OSV is about 200 years after the Mayflower landed; Andrew Jackson is the seventh president, New England is a stronghold for the abolitionist movement and the Civil War is still a few decades away.

1830s new england
Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

There are 60,000+ people living in Boston, but most folks live outside of the city and in the countryside, which is why OSV is so typical of the times. And as you listen to the historians, you’ll get a clearer picture of life at this time and why it was challenging on so many fronts.

3. More than 40 historic buildings are scattered on over 200 acres of land.

freeman farm
The Freeman Farm. Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

OSV feels like a legit countryside village – it’s that large and spread out. Over the property you’ll find more than 40 historic buildings and exhibits.

Sturbridge Village itself was not an actual historic place, but many of the buildings here came from various parts of New England. The Asa Knight Store, for example, was originally built in Dummerston, VT, and the Bixby House was constructed in Barre, MA. The Fenno House was built in 1725 in Canton, MA, and the Miner Grant Store and Bakeshop was built in 1802 in Stafford, CT, not far from Sturbridge.

Most of the buildings have information posted, but it doesn’t hurt to have the OSV website handy on your phone – it provides more in-depth detail about most of the buildings and exhibits.

4. The costumed historians aren’t in character: they’re there to explain 19th century life.

sturbridge historians
Photo credit: Rusty Watson, Unsplash

If you’ve visited Plimoth Patuxet Museums, you’ll know the interpreters there “live” in the year 1627, and they don’t know anything about life after that time. They’re great actors with lots of information, but the actor-angle can sometimes feel limited – or awkward, when someone’s asking questions the interpreters can’t answer.

At OSV, the costumed historians aren’t actors from that time period – they’re modern-day staff and volunteers there to help you understand 19th century New England from our modern perspective.

I found this approach refreshing: no fake accents or stilted conversations with someone trying to “stump” the interpreters. They’re able to verbally travel back and forth from the 1800s to now, helping visitors explain what folks did back then, and what it means today, looking through the lens of nearly two hundred years of history.

It might seem like a small difference, but I found the conversations with historians at Sturbridge Village felt more natural than those I’ve had with places that employ historical “actors.”

5. Several nature walks offer a quiet way to explore away from the main attractions.

sturbridge village nature walk
River Walk near the Wight Family Dam. Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

Most of the village is open land framed by historic buildings, exhibits and beautiful rolling hills. But there are also three nature walks that break away from the main attractions and let visitors take in more of the natural surroundings in peace.

The River Walk skirts the Quinebaug River and leads to a dam, covered bridge and eventually over to the Mill Pond, which would’ve been used to power the sawmill. It’s a short but sweet walk along the water and when we visited in early fall, the colors on the riverbanks were just starting to turn.

There’s also a Pasture Walk out by the Freeman Farm, and a Woodland Walk, both highlighting different landscapes that made up rural life in 19th century New England. If your kids are tired of popping in and out of old buildings, these are ideal places to give ’em some room to roam freely.

6. There’s a working farm with animals like sheep, chicken and cows.

farm animals at sturbridge village
Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

OSV has several working farms with real animals, not the animatronic ones other low-end living museums sometimes employ when funds are low. Sheep, chicken, pigs and cows are scattered throughout the village, and you can watch the cider mill crew move the ox from the barn to the mill at various points in the day.

All the animals are dope, but the ox that powers the cider mill is especially impressive in size and temperament. According to its handlers, the ox can be finicky, reliable, stubborn and loyal all in the same shift. Sounds like our kids.

7. You might get roped into dancing in the Center Village.

traditional dancing sturbridge village
Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

When we wandered over to the village center, a group of costumed historians waited patiently for their next dance partners.

Turned out that was us.

My dance partner was Mary, who let it be known that she was indeed contrary, and we had a great time practicing a traditional 19th century dance. I’m not usually a dancer (those dark days are long behind me), but my kids were excited to join so we compromised and I danced. I’m not mad about it.

8. More than 400 types of plants and herbs are grown around the village’s gardens.

old sturbridge village herb garden
Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

One of the village’s historians explained that back in the early 1800s, the doctor was actually someone to avoid because the prescriptions and solutions they offered were pretty terrible. Instead, a lot of villagers first tried to use a concoction of natural herbs to remedy their ailments.

Some herb mixture recipes were passed down through the generations, and other herbs were used for cooking and scents around the home. You can tell how prolific herb gardening was by the number of species grown at the village, and by the way they’re hung and used in homes around the village.

freeman farm herbs
Dried herbs at the Freeman Farm. Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

There are five gardens in the village, including The Herb Garden, The Fitch House Garden and The Freeman Kitchen Garden, each with different herbs and other plants.

9. It takes at least a few hours to get around Old Sturbridge Village, but you can stay way longer.

Salem Towne House
Salem Towne House. Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

Our first visit to Old Sturbridge Village took about five hours, and we didn’t see everything or learn as much as we wanted to.

The village’s website says you can see the place in a few hours, which is true, especially if you’re visiting without kids. But if you do have little ones, expect to spend a solid half-day or full day here to really see everything, have lunch, talk to the historians and explore.

If you don’t have that kind of time, consider a membership with unlimited daytime admission for a year. It’s a great way to come and go for a few hours at a time without rushing through.

10. The village offers popular seasonal events throughout the year.

Redcoats and Rebels
Photo credit: Rusty Watson, Unsplash

There’s never a bad time to visit OSV, but a few popular village events are fan-favorite times to come. The first is Redcoats and Rebels, the largest Revolutionary War reenactment in New England. It takes place in summer and includes mock battles and up-close looks at military camps on the American and British lines.

Phantoms by Firelight and Christmas by Candlelight are two popular holiday events, both nighttime outings where it can get downright cold, so bundle up accordingly. The Christmas festivities include nightly tree lightings, sleigh rides, and cozy walks through Christmas Tree Trail.

Check the OSV event calendar for more events, festivals and special occasions.

11. Hours are seasonal and subject to change.

sturbridge village welcome center
Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

Because of weather and special events, the opening hours here are seasonal and complicated. Not really, but you will want to check the visiting hours before you plan your trip.

For example, the village is open in October Wednesdays through Sundays from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, but most of November is only open Fridays through Sundays during the same times. Toward the end of November, and all of December, they’re closed during the day to prep for Christmas by Candlelight.

For the most accurate times, check their daily schedule before heading out – you can also choose future dates to check later availability.

12. Yes, Old Sturbridge Village is great for kids.

village playground
Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

The appeal of OSV is that it truly appeals to adults and kids alike. Adults will enjoy the history behind the buildings and talks with costumed historians, and kids will like the abundance of animals and open land to frolic about. Who wouldn’t like those things?

Our kids enjoyed the entire village, but particularly liked the covered bridges, the nature walks around town, the Freeman Farm and the playground near the exit. They also liked the school house, the sawmill and pottery shop. And naturally, they enjoyed perusing the gift shop and asking what exactly it was they could take home this fine afternoon.

13. You can bring outside food in for picnics in the square.

center village square
Grassy area in the Center Village. Photo credit: New England Lifestyle

As parents of three small children, our travels revolve largely around snacks, and their availability. So of course we had that eternal small-children-parenting-stage question: DO THEY ALLOW OUTSIDE FOOD AND BEVERAGES?

Fortunately, OSV does everyone right and allows outside food. In fact, they encourage picnics in the town square, and once you see this area, you’ll know it was damn near designed for family picnics.

You know: the type of picnic where you think everyone will sit down and eat and be cool but in reality there will be little to no sitting down and most of the food will end up uneaten or in the grass and once you pack up everything , it will only be a matter of minutes before someone asks for a snack SO WHY DIDN’T YOU EAT THE NICE SANDWICH I MADE YOU DARLING WHYYYYYY.

However your picnic goes, it’s good to know you can bring in food and drinks, they just can’t be eaten in the historic buildings. OSV for the snack win.

Getting There

Old Sturbridge Village is in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, about 60 miles west of Boston and 22 miles west of Worcester. Click here for Google Maps directions.

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