Ape Culture Visits Boston and the World Headquarters of Thanksgiving, Plymouth, Massachusetts!
For Thanksgiving 2001, Ape Culture decided to take a field trip to Massachusetts and check out Thanksgiving as presented ersatz style in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home of the very first Thanksgiving feast, at least if certain Brady Bunch episodes are to be believed.
Ape Culture invited many to share this exciting weekend of history but only Julie’s father, Joe Wiskirchen, was brave enough to take the perilous journey with us. We covered many historical Boston sites while we were there, from Plimoth Plantation to Boston’s Freedom Trail to Lexington’s battle grounds, tavern and writer’s museums. Julie even revolted and snuck in some low-brow kitsch, forcing us to visit MOBA - the Museum of Bad Art in Dedham, MA. Also covered, earlier trips to Salem, Cape Cod, Cape Ann, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.
Traveling to and in Boston
Traffic from the rest of the country up to New England can be hellacious, most definitely if you are coming from the eastern seaboard. From New York City you have basically two options: Interstate 95 (more of a parking lot than an interstate) or the Hutcheson Parkway (a more scenic parking lot). If you make this trip often, as Mary did while in graduate school, you will come to hate the coast of Connecticut, a state which allows its few major thoroughfares to be clogged with traffic by strangers just trying to get through. They don’t call it the Northeast corridor because it's roomy. Give yourself lots of extra time. By the time you get to Mystic, the worst of it should be over. We didn’t stop there but you should. It’s supposed to have a great little aquarium and, judging by what we saw en route to acquiring snacks and gas, it looks fun in a little seaside kind of way.
Also, you may want to take a side trip over to Newport, Rhode Island if you want to tour the insides of some mind-bogglingly huge mansions representing the hey-day of high New York society.
When you get close to Boston, you’ll start to hear some of the best radio in the country. When Mary lived in the Middlesex area, she got groovily into R&B but Boston offers all shades of rock, retro and alternative. Check it out.
Once you get to Boston, you will find it almost impossible to get around by car (it can be done but consider sparing yourself). Boston drivers are the rudest, most ruthless in the country ("don’t look anybody in the eye," Mary's brother once advised her); plus the colonialists sucked as efficient city planners and the downtown roads are haphazard and haywire. So stick to the subways, which are cleaner that NYC's but not as easy to understand intuitively.
Dissection of a monster cranberry; Mr. Wiskirchen sampling from the juice bar.
We passed many cranberry bogs on the way to Cranberry World. A bog looks like a flat swamp, basically. But there are no bogs directly around Cranberry World, which, far from being the factory of cranberry making we expected, was just a couple of rooms with pictorial displays and dioramas about the history and uses of cranberries. Mary found the material very dry and disappointing, while Julie was enchanted by the juice bar offering unlimited samples of a variety of Ocean Spray products. Julie grew up touring Anheuser-Busch, where you only get one free beer. She went cran-crazy! Free juices and Craisins couldn’t appease Mary's disappointment in not being able to actually see real berries being pressed, squashed and mutilated in a chamber of cranberry torture. The Willy Wonka factory this ain't! However, all the cranberry merchandise you could want can be found in the two (count 'em two) gift shops nearby. While Julie felt the freebies, coupons, and cran-education added up to a true Cranberry World or at the very least, a Cranberry Experience, Mary would like to rename the place Cranberry Room because she grudgingly admits that Cranberry Shack is too harsh.
Disappointment with Plymouth Rock is part of the American Experience. No one is pleased because it’s a small rock (really small) and because no one knows if it’s the real rock or if that’s where the rock really sat. Historians have argued about the proper location, moved the rock around a bit and in the process, broke it. So, what you get is basically a battered, possible historical item, possible imposter-rock. In other words, on ebay, it couldn’t be listed as MIB (mint in box) and couldn't be sold with any certificate of authenticity. But in spite of all that, the rock is housed in a sort of temple and separated from the masses with the kind of awkward, oversized security often reserved for liberty bells.
Plymouth Wax Museum
Despite Mary's doubts about the learning potential of wax museums (usually dirty, abandoned and run by retired couples), we must say we enjoyed this museum. The dioramas were very informative and seemingly historically accurate (although what would we know) and the gift shop was a good combination of fun crap and educational-ware. All we are saying is give wax a chance.
Because it was Thanksgiving, an interesting demonstration was happening in front of the ersatz Mayflower (a.k.a., the fake Mayflower), a moderate protest against Thanksgiving itself. The protesters paraded around, spoke with loudspeakers and carried their message on signs: basically, Thanksgiving should be a National Day of Mourning instead of a Holiday. Wake up and smell the genocide. They have a point. As a vegetarian, Mary is no lover of Dead Turkey Day, but we both have a soft spot in our heart for what has become the Hallmark version of “Let’s all get together in thanks and stuff our faces and have dysfunctional family episodes for a Holiday that doesn’t mandate that we purchase a lot of gifts or decorations.”
To the credit of the museums and gift shops in Plymouth, material on this point of view is well represented. In fact, in the large, multi-roomed gift shop of the Plimoth Plantation, a small room is filled with bookshelves of alternate viewpoints and theories on Thanksgiving and American history.
One thing to keep in mind about Massachusetts and their historical sites: these are no kitsch historians, such as you will find in the Midwest (Hannibal being the most embarrassing case in point). Museums here never try to oversimplify American history or try to pass off elementary schoolroom versions for the masses. For those who bother to seek out the museums here and listen to the historical interpreters in Salem, Boston, Plymouth and Lexington, guides spend a large portion of their tours trying to debunk common myths about colonialism. They don’t try to sugar coat anything. For the most part, their aim seems true.
This is really one of the best interpretive museums in New England. The historical interpreters (really actors with a profound knowledge of colonial life) who populate this recreated Plimoth village never break character although they are challenged daily by the thick-headed dolts who visit. There’s a dolt in every group, someone who finds themselves incredibly amusing and infinitely smarter than the actor and tries in annoying ways to stump them with stupid comments and questions. As it turns out, Americans are just as annoying in-house as they are abroad. If you can dodge the screaming, running amok children who think they’re in an outdoor funhouse and the aforementioned smart-asses, you can stand by and watch the real history buffs solicit interesting and obscure material from the guides who are amazingly quick on their feet. You will learn all sorts of stuff about every aspect of colonial life: sex, drugs and rock and roll!
Don’t miss the living history re-enactment of the Native Americans digging out a canoe and their narrative interpretations of the historically oppressed. Just as interesting, if not more so.
Thanksgiving at Plimoth Plantation
Ah….Thanksgiving at Plimoth. We were envisioning more historical interpretation with servers in full colonial regalia (regalia is actually a bad word for the drab nature of Pilgrim-ware) serving traditional Thanksgiving food and making chit chat about colonial topics of the day. Not quite what we got. You can opt for a more traditional Victorian menu (with items like mussels) or the modern fare (turkey, stuffing, etc). We opted for the modern menu. Overall, it was much like being at a wedding with no dancing, wedding party or cake. We were served buffet style in a boring sort of modern buffet room , one step less interesting than those partitioned hotel wedding rooms. The food was average, aimed to please the widest range of folks, therefore with no panache. Still, we encountered an unbelievably picky couple at our table who complained about not liking the two main course options: turkey or beef. It makes you wonder if starving colonialists whined as much as modern imperialists do.
At right: A colonialist interpreter prepares for Thanksgiving by plucking a dead bird.
The Freedom Trail
The Freedom Trail is basically a walking tour of some of the most famous historical sites in downtown Boston. You start the tour in America's oldest public park, Boston Commons, in the middle of the city. Aimlessly wander around the park or follow the arrows on the sidewalk backwards until you get to the Freedom Trail visitors center where you will be able to get a free map which will guide you on your walking tour. Then just follow the arrows on the sidewalk from historical spot to the next.
Granary Burying Ground & Old Corner Bookstore Bldg.
The first interesting thing you will come to is this old cemetery with such illustrious corpses as John Hancock, Paul Revere and Samuel Adams (yup...the guy on the beer bottle).
From there, move on to The King's Chapel, the Old Corner Bookstore building, which was frequented by Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Henry David Thoreau.
Then take a quick visit into The Old South Meeting House, where angry colonialists first protested British taxes and other oppressions.
Soon, you'll pass the Old State House and the site of the Boston Massacre, but the massacre site is in the middle of an intersection and you'll probably miss it. Don't worry about it. Press on.
Another big meeting house (they had a lot of meetings, those colonials) is the famous Faneuil Hall. Visit Quincy Market right in front of the Hall, smell the fresh smells of chocolates, cheeses and seafood. Build up your appetite for the next stop.
Ye Olde Oyster House
Here’s a good lunch break for you, the oldest continuously running restaurant in the united states. Soak up the atmosphere, oozing with history from former customers such as Daniel Webster and John F. Kennedy. Also, apparently, US toothpicks were first used here. Click here to see the first menu served here in 1826. The building itself dates back to 1742.
Paul Revere’s House
You can’t miss this because it’s the only historical building you probably remember from grade school. The tour is quick and painless. Just DO it.
The Old North Church
One of the more informative sites, the North Church offers guides who will tell you all about the logistics of the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Basically, this is where the lanterns were lit to warn Paul Revere that the British were coming, the British were coming! It’s hard to time your visit for the talks, but it’s worth a little wait. Bide your time by sitting in church box pews in the oldest church in Boston while pretending to slander the British, as in days of yore.
At this point many people drop off the walking tour, but you can continue on to the last leg if you cross the Charles River. In November, it’s cold and windy in Boston so if you do continue on, you’re one of a rare breed of true colonialist stock, a real puritanical masochist!
Above: the skinniest house in Boston - a freedom trail bonus!
Across the Charles River head toward Old Ironsides to your right. On the way, stop by The Bunker Hill Museum to view the theatrical “Bunker Hill Experience,” a reenactment of the first few battles of The Revolutionary War. This “experience” is hard to describe. It’s somewhere between very low budget entertainment and very high budget education. It's a lethally boring combination of edu-tainment, Mary says. Basically a slide presentation gussied up by dramatic lights, a few dioramas and melodramatic soundtrack re-enactments. The whole thing is a bit chaotic and it made Mary sleepy, while Julie appreciated that it was indoor, heated, and kitschy.
USS Constitution/Old Ironsides
Because no one is hardy enough to make the long trek back across the Charles River, tourists are ripe for the picking when Water Taxi people try to overcharge them for a ride on a tiny, overcrowded ferry back to downtown Boston. You do get a nice view of the skyscrapers from the river, though.
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