Willowbrook: A Turn of the Century Village

For those of you folk who like all things vintage and worn…who enjoy gazing at antiques while a certain Je ne sais quoi ripples through your being…who just feel more comfortable around things of a bygone age…

Do you know why? What is it about connecting the past with your present that draws you like moth to flame?

When one is at Camp, there really is no need to go anywhere else, except perhaps to the grocery for…well let’s be honest here…donut holes, or to the creamery for ice cream, or…er…there’s a pattern here. Anyway, one becomes loathe to leave. You are much too busy holding stock still to get that dragonfly to land on you because it almost did a second ago, or watching the little fish approach your toes with curiousity, or lying in the sun with your daughter while the earth beneath wafts up the most incredible aromatherapy. In other words, you can’t be bothered.

But then, after a while, you’ve counted all the new mushrooms that arose during the night and you’ve already gone swimming twice this morning and the chipmunks are taking a siesta and you haven’t taken a shower in about 5 days. So you clean yourself up a bit and head down the road to Willowbrook to experience The Way Life Used to Be.

You take a left at Moussam lake and go through Shapleigh Corner.

Within 20 minutes you are in the little town of Newfield.
And you have also arrived to a pocket in time. Two adjoining homesteads and their barns, plus a schoolhouse have all been preserved in the name of capturing a moment of history, when mechanization came to the rural towns, but life was still communal, rustic and slow.

Also, when candy was a penny each and pickles lived in barrels. (We came here every summer as a kid, and I would go home with bags of strawberry candy and taffy and rock candy and peppermint sticks. I was disappointed to discover that while the museum has improved its grounds and exhibits, the penny candy now consists of skittles.)

After buying a harmonica for your little girl and a honey stick for yourself, climb the stairs in the back to visit the ballroom.

Pause here…that shiver…that swoon…that wish that you could reach through the case and touch that silk slipper…that’s what I’m curious about. What is that, for you? Because I know I’m not alone here.


Then around the top of the barn to that revolutionary invention of the 1800s…the bicycle.

Oh for Fern to have a tricycle like this!

Woefully, the barns had low light and it was hard to get depth of field, so there is so much I couldn’t quite capture. But when it’s too snowy for bicycles, you must turn to other methods of transportation.

(Hey Brigit, I think this the sleigh that the White Witch rides around Humboldt making it always winter and never summer?)

Moose drawn cart. (source)

Hearse. Were people really short, or did they chop off the legs to fit ’em in?

Meat wagon.

Life in a turn of the century village meant you had to manufacture everything yourself. Like brooms.

Built before planned obsolescence became the way of the world, an apple press like this would still function today. I’ve had the honor to use one, many moons ago, and it was charming and effective.

Irons are called such because…they are made out of iron. They had one you could pick up, used to press sheets. I couldn’t even lift it. That image of the buxom and buff washerwoman is true.

I am not naively romantic. There are many aspects of the past that I am thankful we are evolving away from. At least a little bit. Unfortunately, not as much as I would like. The Maine woods were flush with wildlife of the small and luxuriously furry kind. In less than 50 years, the forests were stripped and now I feel lucky if I see a weasel.

Jaws of death. For shame.

When I was in town buying “No Hunting” signs to put on our property, an eccentric farmer was standing in line behind me. He said, “I put up no huntin’ signs all on the back of my woods. The huntahs just ignored ’em. So then I put up signs with a bunch of weird symbols and words in Chinese, and now they’re too scared to step foot on my property.”. Ha! (By the way, I know not all hunters are disrespectful. I’m referencing the kind that are.)

Some inventions just make you smile.

Perhaps the  most wonderful invention displayed at Willowbrook is their carousel. It is the second oldest in the country, and features horses with human hair tails and an unfortunate minstrel animatron. They cranked up the engine and showed us how it works. We were entranced.

The carousel was featured at the Acton fair in 1909, and it toured around New England for many years, until it broke down and was kept in a barn. The man who ran the carousel had a little boy who never got to ride because his feet didn’t reach the stirrups. It was finally donated to Willowbrook by the son of the original owner, on one condition. That it be completely restored. It took 14 years and the son, now 78 years old, took a ride for the very first time….trying out every single horse.

The carousel engine.

I was absolutely gleeful after the carousel.

Then we walked to get lunch.

This photo is a nod to Milla’s recent post Dream Boat Annie, about the projected perfectionism of blogs. I was doing a hair swoosh for Jeff…my hair that I hadn’t washed or brushed for a week and a half. But I was feeling pretty in my new dress from FHF. (Was late to the conversation on that post, Milla, but I’ll still comment…I will, I will!)

Waiting for lunch while Fern played the harmonica.

Then it was off to explore one of the homes. Swoonage galore.

There was no way to get a picture of it, but the quick bath was in a tiny closet, with a wooden washtub underneath.

Fern was pissed she couldn’t go in.

On our way out, we stopped by the school house.

And so friends, to bring us back to the beginning, what is it about vintage that makes you high? I can’t quite put my finger on it for myself, and in a way, I don’t want to. Bring too much rationale to magic and you get science. But one thing this trip made clear for me is how important being connected to the past, to ancestry, to bygone eras is for me. It helps me to feel more grounded, more secure in the world, and part of the web of life. Filaments of DNA like mycelia create a net beneath my feet. I gain support and nourishment, and I experience a physical and a mental relaxation, as if everything suddenly makes sense. For me, the jury is still out on whether or not I believe in reincarnation…but my love for this time period, into the 1930’s, goes beyond aesthetic desire. Sometimes I feel lost in our modern world, a time traveler who got stuck. Places like Willowbrook feel like going home.

Tell me your thoughts?

(Also, don’t worry if you haven’t received an email re: the swap yet. I haven’t sent them out! It’s a top priority, never fear.)


16 thoughts on “Willowbrook: A Turn of the Century Village

  1. When I was Fern’s age back in Mass we used to visit a place called Old Sturbridge Village. My sister and I loved going there, probably in large part due to the penny candy, haha!

    I love how evident craft is in the everyday items from those bygone times. Everything from your dancing shoes to the broom you swept the dirt off the dance floor with. I mean how beautiful are the labels on those canned goods?! Also, the complete absence of plastic and other synthetic materials. The sense that things were made from natural materials. I think that feeling of being taken back to a time when we were that much less removed from the natural world itself is definitely an undercurrent that draws me.

  2. i don’t know why either mary. but what just came to mind is my grandma. and boy did i love her. certainly old things somehow feel related to her. and to photos i’ve seen of her in her youth and of her parents. maybe thats partly why i love the old. but also, the artistry! the handmade obviousness, or the way it was forged in a way that could not be from mass production. and the way they last!!

    you were looking lovely with your dirty hair. seeing how you dress, and then how jeff dresses reminds me a bit of david and me. made me smile….

    1. The way they last…yup. Well forged objects are imbued with the spirit of the maker, i think. plastic crap is just…well, crap! And the grandma connection…big time!

  3. “I experience a physical and a mental relaxation, as if everything suddenly makes sense” you described it perfectly. I feel a great sense of quiet and peace myself, and wish to stay there always when i’m in such a place. I wonder if it’s detail though too, such attention to detail, it isn’t all brashy bold primary colours shouting “look at me! look at me!”….it’s the finer points that you discover gradually as you stay slowly looking; like beautiful little surprises that you want to keep pointing out to whomever is around. Maybe the aesthetic side of olden-times things is also part of the magic for me. Beautiful post, wish I were there. x

  4. I love that you asked this question. I’m always wondering how much of my fascination is from current interest or curiosity and how much of it is somehow from my past. Past life kind of stuff. Sometimes I feel like I must have enjoyed my time during those decades, because I feel so at home with things that’ve been around collecting dust from a century ago. I completely agree that they actually speak to me on a cellular level. I tingle, feel remarkably honorific, and so curious about how some of these things can either be re-incorporated into my life today (which is usually completely unrealistic) or at least be understood and reflected on.
    I’ve been known to hold up the kids as I study children’s book illustrations, which can show some of the greatest detail of simple old-style home life. Richard Scary sometimes. Elsa Beskow. Oh, so many. I can get lost looking at the way a mantle or a side table was designed, or candles, or chests, or napkins.
    I haven’t found others in real life who seem to have this fascination/connection, so it’s so nice when a fellow blogger says it aloud. Yes, me too. I’m so glad you guys had a great trip. Man, each post I’m waiting to here what’s keeping you guys from moving out that way.
    PS Love the dress. And your hair looks great. Funny thing. I always say, it’s been a week hon, I gotta wash this greasy hair and hon always says, it’s my favorite. Your hair looks so alive at that point. On your picture i have to say I completely agree.

    1. jeanine, i felt such a resonance with your comment. thank you. i’m so glad you “get it”. something unwound inside me after reading what you wrote. and yes, i find children’s illustrations totally transportive too.

      what is keeping us from moving there is two fold…i am mid-internship and need to finish my hours. thats not a deal breaker…i can do it in maine too, but i’d have to rebuild my clientele. the other piece is that jeff’s son is here in the bay area, and we need to be wherever he is.

      otherwise, believe you me, i am ready to pack it up!

  5. What a neat old village, I love it! I live in northern California and when I was a kid my grandparents took my sister and me to Sonoma, where we explored the old Spanish missions and some houses that had been restored or preserved, and I remember noticing that the beds were too small and the ceilings too low. I guess people were smaller back then. Maybe it’s all the hormones in the meat & milk nowadays making us giants. Not sure how my theory applies to vegans ;).

    I think what fascinates me about looking into the past like that is realizing that even though the trappings were different than now, the people were still people just like us. They still met and fell in love and raised their children and bickered and worried about stuff and everything, just like we do. They just also had to raise their own food and make their own brooms and utensils. And irons… my gram has one of those old, actual iron irons and it IS heavy. She uses it as a doorstop, haha.

    And one last thought… ok two. Mary, you look beautiful in all these pictures, with your fancy dress and your wild, dirty hair. And thank you for mentioning the swap! I’m eagerly awaiting my email. 🙂

    1. I had one thought I wanted to FOR SURE put in my comment, and I forgot. Ha. It is this: that picture of you in the old, worn out mirror is amazing.

      OK, now I’m done.

  6. i think i suffer (and maybe you do too) from what woody allen calls “golden age syndrome”–the belief that the present is basically worthless, because all great things occurred in some previous golden age. haha! ok i don’t think the present day is worthless but i sure love the past. the 20’s and 30’s have always been my favorite. mostly because of jazz, oil lamps, the fashion and page boy hair cuts 😀

    these pictures are beautiful! i agree with jen (above) that picture of you looking the mirror is just awesome! the brooms! my gosh, i wish i could learn how to make those like they did back then. they are just amazing as is the machine used to assemble them.

    yet another wonderful post dear mary! love your dress too, can’t forget to mention that!

    1. midnight in paris! ooo, anne, you nailed it. i totally related to that movie. 🙂 like you, i don’t find the present to be worthless, but i do see in the past some qualities that have been lost, that i think our world would be better off keeping. it’s also an exchange since there have been many improvements…women’s suffrage not the least!

      i think you would be ADORABLE in a page boy cut!

  7. I just starting reading a book called “Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers”. I’m only in the first couple chapters which talk about how culture around the world (both human and animal) is usually transmitted from parent to child, but since WWII children are growing away from their parents and relying on their peers for all aspects of guidance, including learning about one’s culture. The author describes it as the blind leading the blind. I definitely feel like I fit into this new norm when I was growing up and now I do love all things vintage. I think maybe we are looking for a connection to our roots and to who we are, especially if we aren’t happy in mainstream modern society. I know I’m not. And unlike you, I don’t even really know who my paternal grandparents were and not even the names of family a generation before that. When I really think about it, I feel really lonely and lost. Exploring the past in a tactile way like your trip to Willowbrook is extremely grounding. Even just walking through a flea market or an old neighborhood with a sense of history feels right.

    I really hesitated to reply in fear of diminishing some of the magic, but the timing of your post and me starting this book felt too right for me to not say anything.

    1. your experience and explanation doesn’t diminish the magic! what diminishes magic is a western psychology perspective that doesn’t leave room for anything but the material. what you are speaking to is the importance of family lineage, tribe, belonging and being tied in to your place on earth. that’s the good stuff! my heart hurts to think about the way you feel disconnected and i’m glad that you seek out ways that help you feel grounded. i’ve read a bit of that book and agree with a lot of the points. i’ll move it up on my reading list. 😉

  8. down here is san diego there is the old point loma lighthouse (at the cabrillo national monument)……it was in use from 1855-1891 and was also a family home. the lighthouse and grounds are restored to look as they did in 1887…..and i get those feelings you wrote about when i’m there looking into those rooms. it’s such a trip!
    i have to agree that you look very beautiful in these pics…..the mirror one is especially cool…..it almost looks as though you have an owl perched there with you!!

  9. mary, yes.. i am another soul who gets everything about this wonderful post.. i agree about the olden days, the mystery of it all, days of a bygone era.. and what exactly draws us to it? i am an old soul.. my husband is, as well. everyone has always told me that, and i never realized or saw just how so, until i really got around my early thirties.. my husband, i really knew was.. i have always related much better with older people than people my own age. the communication was different, the ways of life were so different… what was of importance and value was so different, than our society now… yes, old things draw me to them.. and, i , like you and so many others, have said… feel such a peace while in that type of environment… a calming, a happiness, that has such a feeling to it that it is hard to describe.. a belonging. yes, i believe that the picture of you in the mirror is so pretty. your dress is so lovely on you… you can sense the joy and fun that you were having on that day. it looks like such a wonderful time.. i am so happy to have found your blog and so happy that i was fortunate enough to be in the bioregional swap! thanks, mary…… janet
    Magnolia Wind

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