Over the weekend, in my constant quest for free things to do that require little or no driving, I went to visit one of my town’s two historical museums. It’s a dandy museum, set up to show how life was lived in a New England Village from the 1700′s through the 1800′s. This is not just a decorating exercise with art and furnishings but a terrific collection of the tools and equipment that made life livable before the advent of the age of oil. Naturally, my preparedness thinking turned my mind to how this stuff could be resurrected to meet the needs of a community should the apocalypse happen. It was an interesting intellectual exercise.
The first thing that struck me was how creative and intelligent the minds were that thought of these things. I think many people tend to think of problems as things we solve by throwing money at. We also assume that somebody, somewhere is working on whatever it is which gets us off the hook for putting energy into designing solutions, at least at a community level. For instance, there was the problem of snow removal. I live a hilly area of New England with frigid, snowy winters but even in the 1800′s people had to get to town and to school and to distant fields. Pushing snow aside was not an option so the snow was instead rolled with heavy wooden rollers pulled by teams of horses. This left a hard packed surface that could be walk on or that a horse and sleigh could easily navigate. In later years, kids went to school in horse drawn buses so a storm did not mean shutting down the schools for weeks at a time. Kitchen equipment was beautiful and durable and meant to be used daily. There was no room in those days for the glitzy clutter that defines many current American kitchens.
The second thing that occurred to me was how much community effort there was. Many tasks such as cider making and cutting ice for the ice house was done as a group. The cider presses were massive as were the the grain mills. People brought their apples and grain to the mills and took home cider and flour. This is a far more efficient way to use equipment and had the added benefit of providing community gathering places.
I also noticed how local the world was. Our town is small by any standards, only about 800 people, which is the same population that existed 200 years ago yet it supported several schools. First the cider mill went up and then the school. There might have only been a dozen kids but having schools so close to home made sense when most kids walked in what was often terrible weather. I wish the proponents of large, central schools could think in such concrete terms.
I am not going to pretend that life was perfect in early America. Old cemeteries are filled with the grave of little children, sometimes several in one family who all died withing weeks from diseases that are now just history. Life demanded constant, hard work as the pictures of hunched and weather beaten men and woman give testament to. I have no desire to return to those times (well, I do actually but I know I would miss a lot of conveniences of this life). I like easy access to medical care and my computer and telephone. Still, I think it behooves us all to remember that we didn’t always have those things and lives were live that were full and rich and rewarding. Every chance you get to visit these places that hold and preserve our past should be grabbed. New England has many and I expect that the rest of the country does as well. It will help illustrate that we don’t have to buy but rather innovate our way back to the future.