Less than a three hours’ drive from Portland is a portal into the past of our country’s first permanent settlement.
Plimoth Plantation was created nearly 70 years ago, only a few miles away from the original site where the Pilgrims landed in 1620, as a way for people to experience the “living history” of our roots. Warm summer days are the best time to visit because most of the exhibits are outside. Many Mainers have a direct connection with Plymouth Colony through ancestry, culture, history and religion. The numerous Congregational Churches throughout Maine are of the same denomination of Christianity established by the Pilgrims who fled England aboard the Mayflower to escape religious persecution.
Plimoth Plantation features a 17th-century village with period-appropriate homes and businesses and an American Indian (Wampanoag) settlement with actors portraying those who lived, worked, and died during the early years of our country’s history. Special attention is paid to period dress and dialect. This summer, the year 1624 is being replicated by actors portraying Pilgrims and American Indians in a natural, historic-detailed setting. Norah Messier, the director of living collections, crafts, trades and domestic skills, is portraying Sarah Horton Conant, wife of Roger Conant, a salt-maker and first governor of Salem, Mass. Her real-life husband Christopher portrays Roger Conant.
“Preparing for a new character is always an exciting challenge, and it takes quite a bit of time to do it right. Some of the people we portray have detailed biographies from which to draw while others, we know almost nothing. The challenge in either case is to flesh out a character that is typical of our time period and his or her place of origin,” said Messier. “New hires usually get about two weeks of training behind the scenes, studying everything from primary sources written in Plymouth in the early 17th century to English worldview, religion and specific regional dialects. Once on site, new interpreters (actors) are paired up with someone more experienced to finish up training and help put all that research into practice. And every spring, just like the Red Sox, the interpretive staff returns for spring training in all things Plymouth Colony before we reopen for the season.”
There are many threads of history uniting Maine and Plymouth. In 1607, English colonists sponsored by the Plymouth Company attempted a settlement in Phippsburg (Maine), called the Popham Colony, but it was abandoned a year later. The eventually successful Plymouth Colony in Cape Cod encouraged more settlers to arrive and explore other areas of New England, establishing the village of York a few years later. In 1625, William Bradford, a separatist leader in England, signatory to the Mayflower Compact and five-term governor of Plymouth Colony, purchased a patent making Maine essentially the property of Plymouth Colony because of its wealth of beaver and other furs.
“When Plymouth is subsumed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1690s, that patent is part of the transfer, hence why Maine was called Massachusetts for so long,” said Messier, who has found a lifelong career at Plimoth Plantation. “As for my own background, it’s mostly on-the-job learning, since my education (masters degrees in social work and education) doesn’t exactly reflect my career choice. I fell into working at a museum when I was a teenager, and despite a period of time when I thought I’d pursue politics, I’ve never really left, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a unique job in a unique field, and it’s very rewarding work. In our case, it’s also becoming the family trade. Christopher, my husband and I met here, were married aboard the Mayflower II, and now his son Phillip works as an interpreter, too. Even Phillip’s son Machias, has made a couple of cameo appearances as a baby Pilgrim.”
In addition to the village, Plimoth Plantation includes a visitor center, Wampanoag Home site, Mayflower II, craft center, cinema, grist mill, cinema and exhibits of rare breeds of animals. During the summer months, each house in the village contains a kitchen garden where different herbs and vegetables are grown. For example, the Fuller House features a medicinal herbal garden, containing the pharmacy of the 17th century. The craft center has artisans working on English and native textiles as well as pottery, candles and lace and the recently added, “Plimoth Bread Company,” where bread is baked using a historic recipe and method. The rudimentary houses are modeled on those built and used in the 17th century, and the reproduction water-powered grist mill is based on one built by John Jenney on Town Brook in 1636. A replicated Pilgrim wedding also will be performed during warm weather.
“In the summer, you have the beautiful weather as well as ocean views. With all of the exhibits, you are spending a lot of time in the outdoors,” said Rob Kluin, director of marketing and communications for Plimoth Plantation.
The historic village of Plymouth features shops, restaurants, Colonial homes, museums and monuments including the statue of Massasoit and the legendary Plymouth Rock, known as the Landing Place of the Pilgrims. The ocean front offers opportunities for whale watches, deep sea fishing, harbor cruises and miles of beautiful beaches. The Mayflower II is located in Plymouth Harbor, which is open for tours and is undergoing a $2 million restoration. It will be completed in time for the 400th anniversary in 2020, celebrating the landing on Plymouth Rock.
“The ship is a reproduction of the original Mayflower. There is incredible skilled craftsmanship that goes into the repairing and remaking. About 50 percent will be new parts,” said Kluin.
Plimoth Plantation is any easy day trip for Mainers looking to explore near – and historic regions. In doing so, they may meet some historic family members – or at least those portraying native New Englanders.
IF YOU GO
For a complete list of events, hours of operation and prices, visit plimoth.org
PLACES TO STAY
Pilgrim Sands, 150 Warren Avenue, Plymouth, plymouthsandshotel.com; 508-747-0900
John Carver Inn and Spa, 25 Summer St., Plymouth, johncarverinn.com; 888-906-6181
Seabreeze Inn Bed and Breakfast, 20 Chilton St,, Plymouth, seabreezeinnbandb.com; 508-746-0282
The Beach House Bed and Breakfast, 45 Black Pond Lane, Plymouth, beachhousebandb.com, 508-224-3517
Along the Harbor Bed and Breakfast, 86 Water St., Plymouth, alongtheharborbedandbreakfast.com; 877-746-6898
The Rev. Dr. Cathy Genthner is a registered Maine Guide and a hospice chaplain at Hospice Compassus in Scarborough.