A woman in a long dress and apron bends to remove a peach cobbler from the 19th-century oven. It smells delicious, despite the Texas heat. Except for the clucking of chickens and other farm sounds, you’re surrounded by the quiet of the Hill Country. The baker from the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm in Stonewall offers the dessert around, and your group shares a few bites as you take in the rustic scenery. This is the difference between museums and living history—you get to smell, feel, and even taste the past. In fact, countless parks and attractions around the United States feature living history reenactments, allowing guests to get a first-person perspective on the daily lives of America’s ancestors. Here are some of the best sites to tour with your group.
Over 500 distinct Native American tribes have called North America home for thousands of years, and their history and culture can be celebrated and explored in many meaningful ways. In St. Augustine, Florida, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is home to a re-created Timucuan village. Living history interpreters demonstrate the ways the Timucua fished, hunted, constructed canoes, and made shell tools in the late 1500s. The park also has a reconstructed 1587 Franciscan mission and regularly fires an old Spanish cannon.
Plimoth Patuxet Museums re-creates the Indigenous homeland of the Patuxet, now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Visitors sit on fur lined benches inside a domed hut or wetu while learning about 17th-century Wampanoag life. You’ll also learn about the Pilgrims and even have the opportunity to participate in a muster drill. “Plimoth Patuxet Museums offers an ideal experience for group tours to explore America’s founding story,” says Janet Young, group sales manager for Plimoth Patuxet Museums. “Throughout your visit, you will meet historical role players portraying the actual residents of Plymouth Colony, as well as museum educators who will share a modern perspective on the colonists and Indigenous people who lived in this place for more than 10,000 years prior to European arrival.” Themed dining opportunities enhance the living history adventure.
In Fishers, Indiana, Connor Prairie features indoor and outdoor experiences that bring the past to life. Visit a re-creation of an 1816 Lenape Indian Camp and experience Native culture by making baskets, throwing tomahawks, and exploring the tribe’s relationship with American fur traders. The 1859 Balloon Voyage is one of the museum’s most unusual features. Visitors float 377 feet in the air in a tethered helium balloon, which commemorates the 1859 launch of Jupiter, an airmail delivery balloon.
New England is rich with sites that held significance for early Colonial settlers. In Williamsburg, Virginia, there are multiple attractions for groups. At Jamestown Settlement, learn about 17th-century Colonial history and culture at America’s first permanent English colony. Your group can climb aboard reproductions of the three ships that carried English colonists to Virginia in 1607 and explore a re-created fort from 1610. Jamestown is also home to Paspahegh Town, where interpreters demonstrate traditional Powhatan cultural activities based on archaeological findings.
At Colonial Williamsburg, special evening events for adults include watching reenactments of a Colonial dance or participating in a piracy trial and a witch hunt. “As the largest U.S. history museum in the world, Colonial Williamsburg brings history to life in ways that most other museums can’t,” says Ellen Petz, public relations manager at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “Whether it’s watching some of the best traditional artisans in the country practice pre-industrial trades like coopering, tailoring, blacksmithing, or wig making; talking to actors portraying the free and enslaved members of the 18th-century Williamsburg community; or enjoying a meal at one of the historic taverns in town, visitors have the unique opportunity to be immersed in 18th-century life.”
The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum—which is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the famous event this year—allows guests to do something they have probably wanted to do since elementary school. Yes, you can climb aboard a replica of an 18th-century sailing ship and throw tea into the same water that the Sons and Daughters of Liberty did. Also in Boston, the Freedom Trail encourages group to experience 16 historic sites. This collection of churches, meetinghouses, museums, parks, burying grounds, a ship, and historic markers features tours led by guides in 18th-century costumes. “Groups love experiencing the Freedom Trail,” says Suzanne Segura Taylor, executive director of the Freedom Trail Foundation. “There is something for everyone on the trail, from visiting the Paul Revere House—one of America’s oldest homes in an urban setting—to the USS Constitution, the world’s oldest warship still afloat.”
In Mystic, Connecticut, maritime history buffs will enjoy the Mystic Seaport Museum’s 19 acres of history. The museum houses more than 500 watercraft, including four National Historic Landmark vessels. Musicians, storytellers, and craftspeople help visitors understand what it was like to live off the sea. At Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City, Michigan, Fort Mackinac re-creates the life of British soldiers and French-Canadian merchants in the 1780s. Costumed interpreters lead demonstrations and tours, while cooking and trades are performed at key locations throughout the site.
Your group can learn about Mexican history and heritage at Old Town San Diego, California’s most-visited state park.The park interprets culture from 1820 to 1870 as the area switched from Mexican to American rule. Admire early architecture, check out the collection of horsedrawn vehicles in the Seeley Stable and Livery, watch blacksmiths at work, and try to sense the famous ghost of the Whaley House. Fort Vancouver in Vancouver, Washington, uses living history in innovative ways to interpret its 150 years of history. Your group might enroll in a course on saber training, explore a World War II encampment, or take a lantern tour of the fort at night.
A Day In the Life
Some parks showcase the everyday lives and trades of the working class. At Lafayette, Louisiana’s Vermilionville Living History Museum & Folklife Park, groups learn about the crafts of Acadians, Native Americans, and Creoles, all set against a bayou background of cypress trees and moss-draped oaks.
In West Virginia, visitors can learn about the state’s bittersweet mining history at Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. Take an underground tour in a mine car as coal miners explain the daily lives of mining families. You’ll also tour a re-created coal camp, including a one-room schoolhouse, church, and miner’s shanty.
Meanwhile, immigrant farm life is the focus at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, Wisconsin. You can tour 60 restored homes, farms, stores, and workshops of the Danish, Finnish, and Norwegian immigrants who settled there from the 1840s onward. Learn about beer brewing, try on wooden clogs, dye wool, collect chicken eggs, and roll pie crust. Box lunches and private narrated tram tours add to the experience.
With so many living history adventures across the country, it’s easy to bring the past to life for your group. Visiting historical sites and museums becomes even more meaningful when groups can share in the everyday activities of the people who came before them.
Written by Teresa Bergen
Main Image: Plimoth Patuxet Museums, Credit: Plimoth Patuxet Museums