Plimoth Plantation brings 17th-century New England to life

Sunday, November 5, 2006


The Associated Press

PLYMOUTH, Mass. -- Men in knickers shout directions in archaic English as they work together building a house. Women in long skirts and bonnets sit in the shade, taking breaks from sewing to gossip.

At the English Village at Plimoth Plantation, it's always 1627.

Students across America grow up learning about the Pilgrims, who arrived here from England on the Mayflower and endured the hard New England winters with the help of the native Wampanoag.

At this museum, these stories are brought to life.

And while the Thanksgiving season is a busy one at the museum in terms of visitors, there is no reenactment of the meal Americans have been taught to think of as "the first Thanksgiving." Guests can learn about the history of the holiday at an exhibit called "Thanksgiving: Memory, Myth and Meaning," and a variety of Thanksgiving meals are offered to visitors. But role-players in the village simply go about their regular routines.

One day earlier this year, Beth Gillett and Sara Mahoney sat on a bench, staying strictly in character as they spoke in archaic English and Dutch dialects, playing the roles of settlers Patience Prince and Jayne Cook. They described their four failed attempts to reach New England, and their final journey.

They rattled off the names of single men in the village -- in case female tourists were interested -- and lamented the deaths of family members who didn't survive the voyage.

But "Cook" said she hadn't thought twice about attempting the voyage five times.

"It was God's will that we were to come here."

Along the banks of the Eel River Pond nearby, a smaller site recreates an American Indian settlement. There, Phillip Wynne, an 18-year-old Wampanoag, sat on a felled tree, polishing a slate pendant for a necklace. His head shaved in a mohawk, he wore a loincloth, and waited for visitors.

"As a historical interpreter, we talk to people, answer their questions," he said as a group of tourists took his picture. The Wampanoag home site at Plimoth Plantation is staffed by members of the contemporary Wampanoag tribe; they dress in 17th-century native clothing, but they speak from a modern perspective about their cultural history and the Wampanoag today.

Although the Mayflower arrived in 1620, the museum's depictions are set seven years later, using a 1627 inventory that colonists prepared at the request of the British government as a source of information, along with diaries and other records. Workers have recreated houses, crops, even weddings and funerals just as they were nearly 400 years ago.

A replica ship, the Mayflower II, can be toured at the Plymouth waterfront. The village, Wampanoag home site and ship remain open for the season until the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

"We like to say that people make the 'pilgrimage' to Plimoth Plantation this time of year to learn about the true history of Thanksgiving," said Jennifer Monac, museum spokeswoman. "We do a little myth-busting, because what Americans think of as Thanksgiving is really a Victorian holiday."

The "Thanksgiving: Memory, Myth & Meaning" exhibit traces the history of the holiday from contemporary customs back to 1863, when Thanksgiving was first declared a national holiday, and from there back to 1621, when the Pilgrims and Wampanoags shared a three-day harvest celebration. In contrast, an actual day of "giving thanks" would have been celebrated in the 17th century by fasting, not feasting, said Monac.

Even so, there are plenty of dining options for visitors stopping by the museum on Thanksgiving Day or the Friday after, from a formal Victorian dinner to an "Eat Like a Pilgrim" lunch where you use your fingers instead of a fork. Some events require reservations; more formal dinners sell out early.

Only 30 percent of the more than half a million annual visitors come from the state. The rest make their pilgrimage from all over the country -- and the world.

Nathan Wang and his son Derek, from Los Angeles, were among those who visited the village last summer.

The Wangs were in the crafts center, where modern artisans recreate crafts from the 17th century, and had just come from talking with "settlers" in the English Village.

"We met colonial Pilgrims and talked to Miles..." the younger Wang said and looked at his father who mouthed "Standish."

"Miles Standish," Derek Wang repeated. They went on to see interactive exhibits that trace the lineage of some of the earliest colonists to the present day.

To attract more visitors like the Wangs, the museum is working to emphasize its "bicultural" offerings, pumping more money into the Wampanoag Homesite and emphasizing the experience of the natives as well as that of the settlers.

"The intention has always been a commitment toward a bicultural telling of the story," said Lisa Whalen, who manages the Pilgrim village program.

If You Go...

PLIMOTH PLANTATION: Plymouth, Mass; or 508-746-1622. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. until it closes for the season on Sunday, Nov. 26. Plimoth Plantation is a living museum that recreates a 17th century Pilgrim village and Wampanoag homesite. The Mayflower II, a replica ship, is docked at the Plymouth waterfront.

GETTING THERE: Plimoth Plantation is about 40 miles southeast of Boston. Take Interstate 93 south to Route 3 south. Take Plimoth Plantation Highway to Plimoth Plantation exit.


-Thanksgiving in the visitor center courtyard, Nov. 23, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. First come, first served. Turkey, stuffing, etc. No reservation required; $16.99 a person.

-Thanksgiving Day buffet, Nov. 23. Reservation required; this event sells out early. Adults, $57.95; children 12 and under, $37.95 (includes museum admission). Call 800-262-9356, ext. 8364, 8365 or 8366; Master Card and Visa only.

-"Eat Like a Pilgrim," (Friday) Nov. 24, noon. No forks allowed, in keeping with 17th century traditions of eating with your hands. Reservation required. Adults, $37.95; children, $27.75. Call 800-262-9356 ext. 8364, 8365 or 8366.

-Victorian Thanksgiving (Friday) dinner, Nov. 24, 1 p.m. Reservation required. Adults, $74.95; children, $55.95 (includes museum admission). Call 800-262-9356 ext. 8364, 8365 or 8366.

-A la carte breakfast, chowder, sandwiches, desserts, cider, cocktails, snacks available throughout the museum, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., daily.

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