Grab your bonnet and musket: It’s a 19th-century getaway


STURBRIDGE, Mass. | Perhaps it was the intrigue of a straw bed or the chance to finally shoot a gun, but when asked to spend a night living like a farmer in the 19th century, I jumped at the opportunity.

I like to think I’m always up for adventure — I’ve taken overnight trains across India and smoked Cuban cigars in Havana. So this experience sounded fun in a campy sort of way. But I soon learned I was hardly cut out for old-timey life — in short, it was hard.

I wrangled a friend, who packed a cooler of wine, and we set out for Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum that recreates rural New England life from 1790 to 1830. It’s a place where chickens run freely, men wear tall hats and women don bonnets. Costumed pioneers greet visitors with a hale and hearty “Good day!”

We were part a program, called “Boarding with the Bixbys,” where guests stay overnight in a house built in 1808 and once owned by the Bixby family in Barre, Massachusetts. It was later donated to Old Sturbridge Village and moved the 25 miles (40 km) there more than a century later.

The $325-per-person cost to board with the Bixbys includes a night in one of the home’s three straw beds and food. Many furnishings and structural details are exactly as they were when the Bixbys inhabited the wooden house.

The museum’s costume seamstress fitted me with a floor-length cotton skirt, petticoat and long-sleeved blouse.

None of the fabrics matched, she explained, because people of that era used whatever they had. The clothes were utilitarian. Clothing was meant to protect the skin from a day’s labor in the sun and from biting bugs.

I was given two bonnets — a petite version for indoors and a wide-brimmed beast that inhibited peripheral vision in the same way blinders do on a horse. Any modern accoutrements I had packed — my iPhone, flip-flops and camera — were put in a cloth bag.

When you participate in the Bixby program, you choose a period activity: typically knitting or watercolor painting for the women, musket firing or blacksmithing for men. But I chose musket firing because I’d never held a gun.

The musket was surprisingly heavy, at least 10 pounds (4.5 kg), and the trigger was difficult to budge. I quickly lost interest in toting around the anachronistic firearm in the 90-degree F (32 C) heat along with my bag of modern contraband, all while wearing head-to-toe garb. In the end I loaded it with a blank because the thing was sending me into an overheated panic.

At the Bixby house, we were offered potted cheese, a mixture of cheese, butter and spices, and crackers. Then, guided by a staff host, we started the four-hour process of making dinner. Inside, the hearth blazed. I walked to the water pump, which was connected to town water supply. I wanted to put on my flip-flops and drive back to Boston.

Dinner chores were split between my friend and me and another couple staying the night. We skewered chicken and hung it above the fire. Sides included cooked parsnips, cooked greens, biscuits and rhubarb pie. Pies were served at every meal as an easy way to pack in calories. And most food was cooked. Even the tomatoes were cooked to death and stuck in a pie.

We dined at a white-cloth table by candlelight. We drank apple cider, a popular beverage of the times. After the meal, exhaustion from the day’s labor set in. We passed on the offer of 19th century games, too tired even for our wine.

The straw bed — supported by rope — wasn’t great. I fell asleep at 5 a.m. out of exhaustion, but I am, admittedly, a finicky sleeper. Some in the group had a better night’s sleep.

There was no morning shower. We used the park’s restrooms, a small luxury.

Breakfast was leftovers from supper, which helped cement one of my biggest takeaways: People of this time rarely wasted anything. Bones and leftover scraps fed the animals. Egg shells could be used to make coffee. Human urine was used for household cleaner after it turned to ammonia.

Since the Bixby trip, I find myself cherishing the comforts we mostly take for granted — a dishwasher, air conditioning, flip-flops, bug spray, indoor plumbing. I returned relieved to be in my modern clothes. I appreciate the crunch of fresh vegetables.

Living like a Bixby was tough, but it made me grateful for my modern life.

If You Go…

OLD STURBRIDGE VILLAGE: About 60 miles (96 km) southwest of Boston. Peter Pan Bus has limited service to the village from Providence, Boston and other cities. “Boarding with the Bixbys” costs $325 a person and covers admission to the museum, farm and other 19th century buildings. Without the overnight program, admission is $28 for adults (discounts for seniors and students; children 3 and under free).

OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Options include boat tours of the Quinebaug River, which runs through Old Sturbridge Village, and rides on a reproduction of an early 19th-century stagecoach. Sturbridge Townships, comprised of 11 communities, offers beautiful places to hike, stroll and explore nature, with orchards, maple sugar houses and farms.