Living History: Top 10 Places Where History Comes to Life

PHOTO: Reenacting the Battle of Gettysburg.
Gettysburg.travel

America is awesome. Aside from the United States of fast-food and Six Flags, this country has exciting history, legendary personalities and larger-than-life attitude. And leading into July Fourth is the time to remind yourself of that legacy.

At the 10 top "living history" attractions in America, you can step back into another era where pilgrims, Wild West lawmen, Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War heroes still walk, and ride and, occasionally, fire cannons.

PHOTO: Boston Tea Party Ships
Michael Blanchard Photography
Boston Tea Party Ships, Boston

The term Tea Party may have been hijacked by modern politics, but Boston's out to reclaim it. The newest buzz-maker in living history is winning popular votes in its first summer for its innovative treatment of textbook U.S. history. Visitors step off Congress Street Bridge in Boston and board a ship, where they get a rousing refresher course in colonial politics and Revolutionary War-era strife. The experience incorporates some Hollywood-style effects, some hands-on participation and, as often as possible, the kind of rousing waterborne theatrics that Vegas has employed for 20 years.

PHOTO: Plimoth Plantation
Plimoth Plantation
Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Mass.

Two miles from modern-day Plymouth Village, Plimoth Plantation is a replica of the Pilgrim settlement as it was in 1627. The English village portion is built according to the 1627 census, and inhabited (during open hours) by period-history experts who fully inhabit their characters, to the point of tending their gardens by hand, and speaking the dialects of the 17th century settlers.

The Wampanoag Homesite area is staffed by Native Americans of various tribes, who are required to know Wampanoag lore well enough to speak extemporaneously to guests for hours on end. Attractions in town include the Mayflower II and Plimoth Grist Mill.

PHOTO: Walter Grieves Brewery, Genesee Country Village.
Genesee Country Village & Museum
Walter Grieve's Brewery, Genesee Country Village, N.Y.

Independence Day is a big deal at this lively replica of a 19th-century working village. Located in Upstate New York, Genesee is a living history museum comprised of 40-plus historic buildings, most of them inhabited by period characters. On July 4th, Genesee celebrates multiple Independence Day anniversaries, starting from the 50th. While the wealthier townspeople of Genesee don elaborate finery for formal house parties, the working class parties with cups of ale and period games like the sack race and pea-shooter contest.

PHOTO: Monticello
Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Jack Looney
Monticello, Charlottesville, Va.

The former plantation home of former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, Monticello is notable not only for its stunning architecture and beautiful gardens, but for its historic significance. Jefferson was a fascinating character, a founding father and key author of the Declaration of Independence who also kept slaves and, in his presidency, was in the habit of using the U.S. Army to enforce his authority over citizens.

Love him or hate him, Jefferson was a larger-than-life U.S. icon, and his estate – now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site – is well worth a visit, especially around the Fourth, when it hosts the country's oldest continuous naturalization ceremony outside of a courtroom.

PHOTO: Tapping Portsmouth, Strawbery Banke Museum.
Strawbery Banke
Tapping Portsmouth, Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth, N.H.

So you thought living history was all costumed history nerds talking in accents? Allow this photo of the 2013 season's special exhibit at Strawbery Banke museum on the New Hampshire waterfront to change your mind. Four local breweries teamed up with the museum on "Tapping Portsmouth: How the Brewing Industry Shaped the City." Celebrating the city's excellent microbrew legacy, the exhibit will showcase three specialty beers that the four participating brew-masters created collaboratively, using hops and other ingredients grown at Strawbery Banke.

PHOTO: American Innovations, The Henry Ford.
thehenryford.org
American Innovation, The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Mich.

There's nothing more American than a Ford, so it makes sense that the 200-acre Henry Ford campus in Dearborn, Mich., would strive to be the epicenter of U.S. history. The automobile showcase is only a fraction of the experience.

Many eras of U.S. history are represented, dating back to before the auto was invented, and progressing up to innovations of tomorrow. There's a living history village, a section of a factory open for touring, an IMAX theater and many special events throughout the year. But the exhibit everyone remembers is American Innovation at the Henry Ford Museum, featuring vehicles that were part of the biggest moments in U.S. history .

Among the collection is the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. The bus, including the exact seat, is now open for museum guests to board.

PHOTO: Cattle Drive, Celebrate Bandera.
Bandera County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Cattle Drive, Celebrate Bandera, Bandera, Texas

Though not a museum or organized attraction, the main drag of Bandera, the self-styled "Cowboy Capital of the World," draws fans of Texas and Southwest history from around the world. Tourists come to kick up trouble in the honkey-tonks; residents stay because of the beautiful land and the history.

But the events are a delight to one and all, whether it's the near-daily shootouts on Main Street or the weekly summer rodeos or the annual longhorn cattle drive re-enactment that occurs on Labor Day Weekend and reinforces Bandera's status as a key stop on the original Western Trail.

PHOTO: Fourth of July, Columbia State Historic Park.
Michael Sharps
Fourth of July, Columbia State Historic Park, Sonora, Calif.

Possibly the best-preserved Gold Rush town in the West, Columbia is a museum inside a Sierra Nevada town, and most of the people who live in the town and move around the streets by day are part of the living history experience overseen by the California State Parks system.

You'll see an authentic candy kitchen, a blacksmith and multiple historic hotels in Columbia, all staffed by educated history enthusiasts. You won't see any motor vehicles on normal days, although the rules change a bit during the annual July Fourth festivities. The Fourth brings a parade, games and more multiperiod fun to this interesting Gold Country landscape.

PHOTO: Farmers Museum, Cooperstown.
farmersmuseum.org
Farmers' Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.

New York State is not lacking in early American history preservation, as reflected for the second time in this roundup. Not too far from Genesee, the Farmers' Museum living history park at Cooperstown employs costumed characters to create context for its incredible collection of nearly 25,000 18th- and 19th-century items. The Historic Village here is more authentic than some better-known destinations on this list: Each building was located in a different rural community, relocated to Cooperstown and then restored to be part of the village. With various July Fourth celebrations beefing up the normal "village schedule," this is a great place to take kids for the holiday.

PHOTO: Reenacting the Battle of Gettysburg.
Gettysburg.travel
Re-Enacting the Battle of Gettysburg, Gettysburg, Pa.

The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is the occasion for some large-scale and quite moving re-enactments, slated to take place at Gettysburg National Military Park from July 1 to 4. Demonstrations and drills from both army camps, ranger-guided specialty programming and intense first-person accounts from soldiers, rangers and others will make this an altogether memorable experience.

Although some contend that the Revolutionary and Civil wars should not mix, we think this particular chapter in U.S. history spans several generation gaps.

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