By Alexia Wulff
Reading about America‘s first pioneers, or the founders of the nation, is almost always done via history books. But experiencing bygone times firsthand develops a better understanding of how history has unfolded over the past few centuries. Across the U.S., these living history museums and preserved towns of the Old West dedicate themselves to providing visitors with a leap into the past.
Pioneer Living Museum, Arizona
Just north of Phoenix lies Arizona‘s best-preserved town from the Old American West. The Pioneer Living Museum, with its handful of original buildings and historically accurate reproductions from the late 18th century, is nestled on a 90-acre property fit with costumed characters such as cowboys, lawmen, and women dressed in Victorian wear. Stroll through the Opera House where Lilly Langtry once performed, outside the house of John Marion Sears, or into the original home of Arizona’s first senator, Henry Ashurst, dating back to 1878.
Pioneer Living Museum, 3901 W Pioneer Rd, Phoenix, AZ, USA, +1 623 465 1052
Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Williamsburg, one of America’s most influential colonies, was considered a political, cultural, and educational center while it was the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. It was here that some of the nation’s most famous leaders and democratic pioneers – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Peyton Randolph – congregated and discussed America’s founding. Today, Colonial Williamsburg allows visitors to learn about its history and significance in the beginnings of America. The town encompasses 85 percent of the capital’s original area, with more than 80 original structures, several reconstructed buildings, art museums, a theater, dining, shops, and lodging.
Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts
Plimoth Plantation portrays the interwoven stories and histories of the encounters between the English settlers and Native American cultures upon the settlers’ arrival to the New World and the years following. Based upon real residents of the Plymouth Colony, each character in the English Village – re-created from a 17th-century farming community – has their own story to tell. The Wampanoag Homesite, an outdoor exhibit nestled along the Eel River, shows how this Native tribe lived during the 1600s. Other noteworthy sites include the celebrated artisans at the Craft Center, The 1636 Plimoth Grist Mill, and the Mayflower II – a full-scale reproduction of the boat that brought English settlers to America in 1620.
Plimoth Plantation, 137 Warren Ave, Plymouth, MA, USA, +1 508 746 1622
Living History Farms, Iowa
This 500-acre open-air museum dedicates itself to educating visitors about Iowa‘s agricultural history over the past 300 years. The three farm sites – the 1700 Ioway Indian Farm, the 1850 Pioneer Farm, and the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm – dictate Midwestern rural life during the early beginnings of America. Living History Farms‘ Town of Walnut Hill, a recreated frontier town from 1875, has 18 shops, businesses, and homes to explore. Visitors can choose how many exhibits to venture through, but for the entire experience, it takes roughly three to four hours to complete.
Living History Farms, 11121 Hickman Rd, Urbandale, IA, USA, +1 515 278 5286
Genesee Country Village and Museum, New York
Situated approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Rochester, this 19th-century living history museum boasts over 40 furnished historic buildings and over 600 acres of land. The Genesee Country Village and Museum offers fascinating classes and living history experiences, such as coopering, blacksmithing, and cheese-making, as well as programs for the kids. Walking through the historic village, find costumed interpreters, livestock, and live demonstrations of activities commonly seen from the late 1700s all the way to the 1920s.
Preserved as much as it was 130 years ago, Tombstone, founded in 1879, is a historic city and one of the last frontier boomtowns of the Old West, the streets once paraded by the likes of Western legends Wyatt Earp, Johnny Ringo, and Ike Clanton. The city takes visitors back in time with gunfights, shows and re-enactments, underground mine tours, stage coach rides, and a handful of history museums. Looking to get into character? Head to one of the old photo studios where you’ll be dressed in period costume and photographed.
Landis Valley Museum, Pennsylvania
Landis Valley Museum, which opened in 1925, includes 100 acres of history and culture from an early Pennsylvania German rural farming community. Learn how to graft apples, or head on a Victorian tea tour guided by costumed interpreters, culminating with tea at the original 1856 Landis Valley House Hotel. Landis Valley is a working museum that not only aims to educate and preserve but also to interpret Pennsylvania German material culture from 1740 through 1940.
Landis Valley Museum, 2451 Kissel Hill Rd, Lancaster, PA, USA, +1 717 569 0401
Heritage Farm Museum and Village, West Virginia
This open-air museum, which features 15 log structures with authentic artifacts, a blacksmith, and seven museums, preserves the history and culture of the Appalachian region. And with year-round activities, an Artisan Center with folk craft artisans, a blacksmith shop, petting zoo, and five miles (eight kilometers) of hiking trails, there’s plenty to keep you busy. Stay overnight at the Barn Retreat Center, an original dairy barn from the 1800s, or at one of the rustic log cabin inns.
Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts
As an 1830s living history museum, Old Sturbridge Village preserves 19th-century life in rural New England. There’s a working farm with heritage breed animals, historic buildings, horse-drawn sleighs (during winter), costumed historians, and water-powered mills. The Village offers several events throughout the year – Winter Photo Walk, Sunday Brunch, and Dinner in a Country Village – as well as youth programs. And if you want to spend a little extra time in the town, there are historic lodges and homes in which to stay.
The Farmers’ Museum, New York
A historic village and farmstead, The Farmers’ Museum educates visitors on 19th-century American farming and agricultural practices, such as crop cultivation, harvesting hops, caring for farm animals, shearing sheep, and weaving wool. The community is composed of buildings gathered, relocated, and restored from rural communities in the state. On the site, there are two barns, a smokehouse, an 1800s farmhouse, tavern, blacksmith, and church. This one, however, is only open seasonally, so be sure to book during the warmer months.
The Farmers’ Museum, 5775 NY-80, Cooperstown, NY, USA, +1 607 547 1450
It doesn’t get more historical than Gettysburg, PA. The location for the infamous battle in 1863 that rocked the Confederate forces during the American Civil War, this historic town has a wealth of activities to be transported to an era past. Visitors can tour the battlefield – now known as the Gettysburg National Military Park – by car, bicycle, horseback, or on foot (spring through fall, demonstrations are reenacted on the field). Also in the park: the Gettysburg Museum featuring an impressive display of Civil War artifacts and the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Don’t miss the memorial that marks the site of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address.