Switch it off; OSV rekindles powerless living.
STURBRIDGE -- Sometime in the months to come, a nor'easter will buffet Central Mass.; limbs will come down and neighborhoods will be plunged into cold and darkness.
Some will instinctively scramble to find candles, flashlights and the folding Sterno stove tucked away with the tent and sleeping bags. Others will huddle by the wood stove, and many will flip a switch, firing up an emergency generator, waiting impatiently for the lights to come back on. For most, it will last but a few hours, more of an inconvenience than hardship.
For New England villagers in the 1830s, this condition was a way of life.
"Contrary to popular myth, our forebears didn't crawl beneath the blankets every day when the sun set,'' said Tom Kelleher, curator of mechanical arts and archivist at Old Sturbridge Village. Reprising an annual event popular for nearly a decade, OSV Saturday night welcomed 150 visitors for an after-dark meet-and-greet with costumed interpreters in the shops and homes clustered around the common.
The curator said the program could be called an Evening of the Lack of Illumination, as all outside safety lighting throughout the village is turned off to replicate conditions as they would have existed nearly two centuries ago.
"Today we are so used to turning night into day, winter into summer, summer into spring with artificial controls. What we offer on this night is a different perspective on the past, not just in terms of illumination devices, but how folks spent their hours after dark,'' he said.
Mr. Kelleher said the diaries that many would write by candlelight or firelight reflect the range of activity that included drinking and music at the local tavern, weaving and knitting at home, group singing and group dancing.
Each group leaving the Visitors Center first encounters Rhys Simmons with a team of oxen, Doc and Blue, in the field between the cider mill and the Towne House.
Mr. Simmons explains that especially during the harvest there isn't enough daylight to accomplish all that needs to be done, and for that reason he's harnessed the oxen to a cart to go and dig potatoes by moonlight.
At the Towne House, Will Contino is playing the pennywhistle at the dining room table, sight reading tunes from sheet music of the period, while Victoria Belisle offers insight into other evening activities of the household.
In the sitting room of the Fitch House, Debra Knight works at a spinning wheel, explaining that transforming wool into yarn is something done more by feel than by sight.
Shoemaker Peter Oakley likewise is comfortable working in the soft glow of lamplight in the shoe shop, stitching together the uppers of men's shoes and boots.
"As long as I can see enough to not stick my hand with the awl,'' he said.
Mr. Oakley noted that shoemakers of the period were paid by the piece, and for that reason, some might be found still at work after sunset.
Phil Eckert, the tinsmith, crafting pierced lanterns, said while he didn't enjoy working after dark, when there was an order to fill; one worked as long as necessary.
Blacksmith Rob Lyon in the Small House described the lamps and candlesticks commonly in use during the period to provide light for activities such as Old Sturbridge Village Singing School in the Meetinghouse, entertaining visitors a cappella by the light of a candelabra. In the parsonage, Mr. Kelleher demonstrated a device known as a magic lantern, a precursor of the slide projector.
"European performers early in the 19th century would gather folks in a darkened room and then project images painted on a glass slide onto gauze or smoke in ghost-like fashion, giving the impression they were able to summon the spirits of the dead,'' the curator explained.
He described the device as a small oil lamp with lenses and mirrors that allowed images painted on a glass slide to be projected onto a white surface.
"You could see images of the Seven Wonders of the World. Today we think nothing of being able to see images from the far reaches of the globe with a simple mouse click, but two centuries ago, you might have heard of them, but had virtually no chance of ever seeing them,'' Mr. Kelleher said. "You might have heard of the great falls at Niagara, or the wonders of a triple-masted sailing ship, but living 60 miles from the coast, you might live your entire life without ever seeing one firsthand. This was a novelty that allowed one to escape the routine of their daily lives,'' he added.
Mr. Kelleher said while some commerce was done after dark, it wasn't that common except in the larger cities, where gaslights illuminated the streets for greater public safety.
"Since the advent of electricity and technology, we are able to live our lives to the mechanical rhythm of the clock as opposed to the natural day and night rhythms of the earth. That was not possible then,'' he said.
The tour concluded at the Bullard Tavern, where Walter Buckingham and Jim O'Brien entertained with guitar and fiddle tunes, and visitors sampled refreshments popular during the early 19th century.