A Trip to Colonial Williamsburg
At age 8, my daughter Michaela is a die-hard history buff. She can name the state quarters in the order they were issued (the order the states joined the Union, of course), and one of her favorite games at recess is Time Travel. My husband thinks she loves history for the same reason she loves Harry Potter: It's full of people who are more interesting than the ones in her everyday life. (Hmmm, thanks.) So I proposed a trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. We'd get to the bottom of that hoop-rolling thing, meet George Washington (or Patrick Henry — we weren't picky), and, as Michaela put it, check out the clothes: "I really want to see the costumes!"
For Michaela, Williamsburg turned history into a big play, complete with sets and supporting cast. She threw herself into the role playing, speaking in character, getting caught up in a gripping reading of the Declaration of Independence, and jeering at Benedict Arnold as he rode into town.
Now that we're home, her mobcap hangs on her door, and her interest in Colonial America seems to have been temporarily replaced by Hannah Montana. But just the other day I was talking about going to Hyde Park to see the home of FDR — and her eyes lit up. I guess that's next on the agenda.
Yes, you can rent costumes for the whole family, and no, I didn't get suckered into it. But dressing up was the highlight of Michaela's trip. Costume rental, recommended for kids ages 4 and up, is at the visitors' center or Market Square in the middle of town.
Michaela was fitted for an outfit appropriate for an 18th-century 8-year-old: a white lawn dress with the colored sash of her choice. Boys get a white shirt, a haversack bag, and a wooden rifle (which, a representative was quick to assure me, doesn't fire). The costumes slip on over clothes, and both boys and girls can buy a souvenir hat. At $20 for the day (hats are an extra $10 to $19), it felt like a bargain.
The people in period costumes at Colonial Williamsburg aren't staff or actors; they're "character interpreters." Character, indeed — every single one of them speaks in the style of an 18th-century Virginian, to each other and to visitors. When two men bid us "Good day" as we walked along the main street, I stammered out a "Hello," but Michaela responded "Good day" with a little curtsy.
In one history-making event, I watched while an interpreter taught Michaela how to plant turnips and had her hoeing and watering with nary a complaint. I can't get her to pull a single weed at home. Maybe I should dress in pantaloons next time I need her to do a few chores.
The Witching Hour
Another way history and Harry Potter are alike: the possibility that evil (or at least a witch or two) is just around the corner. Michaela says one of her favorite parts of the visit was an enthralling evening program called "Cry Witch," a mock trial about witchcraft charges brought against a Virginia resident in 1706. I'd gone back and forth about whether to take her and made sure she knew that if it got too scary, we could always leave.
We sat on a horseshoe-shaped bench in a courtroom, where Grace Sherwood, the accused witch, was brought in shackled. It was our job to listen to the testimony — which included shrieking and finger pointing — and decide on her guilt or innocence, a job Michaela took very seriously. So seriously that when the governor called for questions, Michaela raised her hand and asked, "Has she been accused of any other crimes in the past?" She's ordinarily a fairly reticent kid, but I think playing a role gave her the nerve to speak up.
Grace Sherwood's future was in our hands. The surprise verdict: Michaela, along with the majority, actually voted guilty. (A historical note: The real Grace Sherwood also was found guilty and subsequently dunked in what's now called Witchduck Point — happily, she survived and lived to a ripe old age.)
Where to stay: Colonial Williamsburg operates five hotels and 26 restored guest houses. We stayed at the Governor's Inn ($49 to $109 per night; colonialwilliamsburg.com).
What to do: The Tavern Ghost Walk is a nighttime stroll led by a guide who tells stories about the town's (mostly friendly) ghosts (visitwilliamsburg.com). And the mansion of Governor Dunmore, Williamsburg's last British governor, boasts a curtsy-worthy ballroom.
Where to get lost: The grounds of the governor's mansion are an exhausting thrill. In the boxwood maze, adults follow the path — and lose their bearings — while kids slip through gaps in the bushes and beat their parents out.
More Living History Museums
Where we might head next time we get in the Wayback Machine:
Boot Hill Museum and Front Street, Dodge City, Kansas
A trip back to the Old West. Highlights include the collection of original guns and the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Dallas Heritage Village, Dallas, Texas
A working farm of the Civil War era, complete with livestock and blacksmithing.
Calico Ghost Town, Yermo, California
An authentic silver-mining town by the side of a mountain. There's an operating narrow-gauge railroad and, if you're lucky, burro runs and parades.
Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts
See the Mayflower II, a reproduction of the Pilgrims' vessel.