J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Past and Future of Pioneer Village in Salem

Last month Donna Seger at Streets of Salem provided a long, informed perspective on Salem’s Pioneer Village, a collection of houses and other structures built to represent the town’s earliest British settlement during Massachusetts’s Tercentenary in 1930.

Seger recounted:
Pioneer Village was supposed to be a temporary installation, but it was such a popular regional attraction that it became a more permanent one, at the vanguard of outdoor “living history” museums in the United States: its claim to be the first of such museums is based more on interpretive practice than date, as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village opened up in 1929 and the Storrowtown Village Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts also dates to 1930. . . .

Judging from the succession of newspaper stories dating from the 1930s into the 1960s, Pioneer Village might have been able to sustain itself on proceeds from the gate: it was quite a busy place. But as the popularity and practice of “living history” interpretation began to decline in the later 1970s, it lost its base, perhaps even its rationale. As it has always been a seasonal attraction, the Village has been vulnerable to deterioration and destruction by neglect, weather, fire and vandalism: I believe only about half of the original structures are still standing.
Notably, Pioneer Village is a municipal property, not an independent non-profit, though it’s been run by various private organizations from time to time.

In 1985 Salem’s Park and Recreation Commission voted to dismantle the village, but that prompted a revitalization effort, and the site reopened in 1988. However, it continued to lack a solid financing base.

Salem has a new plan for the structures: moving them to another city property called Camp Naumkeag, which in the early 1900s was a site for tuberculosis patients. There it would be served by the Salem Willows trolley stop. The park around the village’s old site would have space to expand. If everything falls into place, Pioneer Village would reopen by 2026, the 400th anniversary of British settlement at Salem.

According to the Salem News, the Y.M.C.A. of the North Shore has already moved its summer camp from Camp Naumkeag to Pioneer Village. I actually wonder if running an annual camp at the village after it moves would produce a local constituency for the institution in the future.

Seger went on to consider Pioneer Village as a historian:
I always thought that the Village represented a moment in place and time, and that moment was Salem 1930 rather than Salem 1630. As someone who has dabbled in Salem history here over that last decade or so, Pioneer Village looks to me like the culmination of a long period of overtly sentimental celebration of Salem, commencing with the Centennial of 1876. Generally it is seen as an expression of Colonial Revival culture, and I agree with that, but I also see it as an example of civic pride.
Seger thus sees Pioneer Village as a monument to how Salem wanted to view itself in 1930. But does that rationale still apply? The city’s tourism industry has shifted to focus on the witchcraft scare of the 1690s, leaving less attention to the “pioneers” of the early 1600s, the Revolution, the China Trade, industrialization, and other notable developments in Salem history. Locals might well want to preserve a monument to local history beyond witchy kitsch, but is that enough to sustain a small museum village?

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