Plimoth Plantation: An Interpreter's Tale
Yankee Classic from November 1983
Read about a 2008 visit to Plimoth Plantation.
The little village hugged the cleared hillside under the crude wooden fortress and the one heavy artillery piece that faced seaward across the salt marshes. The defensive position told the visitor that this was wartime. The lone street was a long, unpaved rut of clay and stones between unpainted wooden thatched huts dark with dampness and lichen.
Inside one of the dark huts, fire crackled under an iron kettle, and a young woman crouched, daubing the cracks in the rough wall with a gray clay mixture to keep out the winds. From the beams hung brittle gray branches of dried herbs to ward off sickness and keep evil influences at bay. The woman looked up at the visitor and smiled. Under the white linen cap, her hair was fine and gray-blonde. “And how are you faring this day?” she asked.
From April through November, nine to five, she is Mistress Brigid Fuller, wife of Plimoth Plantation’s surgeon in the year of Our Lord 1627. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1983, she is Pat Baker, mother of a three-year-old, wife of Plimoth Plantation historian Jim Baker, and caretaker of two goats and a flock of chickens. In season, like the other “interpreters” at the reconstructed Pilgrim settlement not far from the actual Mayflower landing site, she does whatever her 17th-century character would have done during the day, even down to cooking with contemporary recipes (interpreters are not, however, required to eat what they cook and can brown-bag it in the lounge and workshop 30 yards from the village). But the bulk of her time is spent answering questions from camera-waving tourists, schoolchildren, and — just before Thanksgiving — newspaper reporters. Though Thanksgiving is still one of the biggest weekends, every year the Plantation’s public relations office and the 15 or 20 interpreters on duty must explain that there was no Thanksgiving at Plimoth in November 1627. The Pilgrims’ harvest festival would have been held in October, as it still is in England.
Although Plimoth Plantation is now a year-round operation with a budget of about $2.5 million and a work force of close to 150 (making it, after the Pilgrim I nuclear power plant, one of the town’s largest employers), the village began as a small, open-air local history museum and still has no endowment or big financial backers. The land, whose topography closely resembles the original site (now downtown Plymouth), was donated by the Ralph Hornblower family, and construction of the village began in 1957 to coincide with the arrival from England of the Mayflower replica now anchored near Plymouth Rock. The year 1627 was chosen because the settlers, who had been operating as a communal farm, divided up their property in the “cattle division” that year, and in the process, took a complete inventory of all their possessions.
“We started out with costumed wax dummies in the houses,” Rosemary Carroll, the Plantation’s public relations director, explained, “then costumed guides. Then the guides became more experienced, and we went to first-person interpretation, in which the interpreter actually plays the role of a specific person. We were the first museum to do this on a grand scale, and, more than anything else, it is what has given us a national reputation. This and our realism, which still shocks people,” she smiled. “But they seem to be getting over it.”
Jim Baker, a young man with longish gray hair and leather sandals over his thick socks, looks as though he could easily function as an interpreter in the village, but he is now one of the official historians. A Mayflower descendant and Plymouth native, Baker has been to England eight times to do research on what 17th-century English men and women spent their lives doing. “The Pilgrims left a great many records of their thoughts about theology, but unfortunately they didn’t give much indication of such mundane matters as what they ate, how they dressed, where they washed or went to the bathroom,” Baker explained. Most of the information used to create the present Plantation came from Dutch genre paintings, local records, and contemporary English diaries and letters.
“We are constantly revising,” Baker said, waving to the stacks of folders labeled Fishing, Animals, Clothes. “When you see the village today, you have to remember that this place started out as a typical American outdoor museum: clean little cottages, nice oyster shell walks, a 1950s suburban view of the Pilgrims. Then in 1967 an archaeologist named Jim Deetz from Brown University came in and got rid of the dummies and everything that was obviously wrong. He couldn’t modify the existing houses, but he wanted middens (trash piles), dirt roads, pigs and chickens wandering around, and men with long hair.
“I suppose you could say that was the 1960s image of the Pilgrims, but it is, as far as we know, quite historically accurate, whether one likes it or not,” Baker said. “We know, for example, that the Pilgrims threw their trash out the windows, because you can tell where the windows were in an excavation of a 17th-century house by the fan-shaped piles of trash. We know that they were dirty because at that time frequent bathing was considered unhealthy and even sinful, since the public bathhouses of the Middle Ages had become associated with the spread of syphilis and had given bathing a bad name.
“Some of the locals and a great many of the Mayflower descendants became very upset,” Baker sighed. “They eventually recovered from Deetz, especially since he would document everything he did. But even today, middle-class Americans still complain either that the village doesn’t meet modem American health standards — which it doesn’t, but since no one actually lives there, it doesn’t have to. Or that their ancestors, whom they know from formal portraits in pinned collars and cuffs, didn’t look so scruffy. Actually, the village is much cleaner than it should be. When we tried creating middens, visitors took the trash away for souvenirs. And only one interpreter really got into the part so much that she didn’t bathe, but she gave it up after one summer month.
“When the new Disney Epcot Center was researching the American history exhibit, we got a request to send photos of our costumes,” Baker went on. “Now, some of our reconstructions are just educated guesses, but we are very sure about the clothes. They phoned back indignantly and told us they could never portray Pilgrims like that because ‘they look like pirates.’ ” Baker threw back his head and laughed. “I suppose it never occurred to them that the Pilgrims were contemporaries of Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Donna DeFabio is Assistant Supervisor in the Interpretation Department in winter, and Priscilla Alden in summer. “I think we’re making progress in people’s understanding,” she commented when the season was over. “This Thanksgiving there were record crowds, but almost no dumb questions like where’s the canned cranberry sauce?” About half the Pilgrim interpreters seem to take the job because of an interest in explaining history, but for DeFabio the appeal was acting. “But acting that isn’t as pressurized as on the stage. Like actors, though,” she added, “most of us get laid off, although I was lucky enough to stay on as a supervisor.”
Pat Baker (also known as Brigid Fuller), with a degree from the Massachusetts College of Art, came into the program via her interest in crafts. “You can act out all your arts and crafts fantasies on this job,” she explained. “The funny thing is that I’ve seen many of the acting-oriented people later get into gardening and keeping animals in their private lives. One carry-over for me is that I make herbal medicines for minor illnesses. Herbal cough medicine is just as good as the $8 stuff you buy at the drugstore. For a real illness, though, I’ll take the 20th-century remedy.”