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Time passages ...


Close-to-home vacations of yesteryear



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This photograph of a tug-of-war at the Sturbridge Fair is courtesy of the Southbridge Historical Society appears in Brian Burns’ 1988 “Sturbridge: A Pictorial History.” Courtesy photo. (click for larger version)
July 28, 2009
STURBRIDGE — As families continue to struggle in the unstable economy, municipalities everywhere are promoting recreation opportunities close to home, using buzz words like "staycation" and "daycation" taking the place of a good, old fashioned vacation.

For years Sturbridge, too, has relied heavily on the tourist dollars brought in by Old Sturbridge Village (OSV), the town's many restaurants and conventions or events at places like the Host Hotel and Publick House.

At the turn of the 20th century, before costumed interpreters and a split-lane highway, Sturbridge really made its name as a tourist destination.

What stands today as the Central Mass South Chamber of Commerce office and tourist information center on Route 20, across the street from the entrance to Old Sturbridge Village, was once the home of Charles Tatman, one of the first tourism-minded entrepreneurs in Sturbridge. The home itself was originally located on the other side of Route 20 in the earlier part of the 1900s in what is now a parking lot, but was moved during the creation of OSV.

Along side Tatman's home was a row of small cabins, which could be rented for overnight stays.

Tatman's cabins lasted in the center of Sturbridge until the 1940s, when the operation folded, right along side the biggest attraction of the time, the Sturbridge Fairgrounds.

One of Tatman's cabins still stands though, battered by nature, in the shallow woods on the corner of Leadmine and Vinton roads, where it was relocated after the sale of his property.

The Fairgrounds were longer-lived.

Agricultural fairs were regular events on the Town Common beginning in 1843. In 1855, the Worcester South Agricultural Society began sponsoring events on the Common, which was previously known as the Training Grounds, where militia musters and drills would take place.

Backed by the Agricultural Society, the fairs quickly outgrew the Common, and in 1869, the land on the south end of Cedar Lake was designated as the Sturbridge Fairgrounds.

The Fairgrounds included a convention center, which featured an open hall in the bottom floor, and an exhibition space in the top floor that included a wrap-around balcony with space for agriculture displays.

According to Brian Burns' 1988, "Sturbridge, A Pictorial History," "The Fair was first and foremost an agricultural exhibition."

That building still survives as the Piccadilly Pub in what was the hall, and the aptly named Fairground Antiques upstairs in the exhibition space.

Former Selectmen and local historian Bob Briere recalls living across the street from the Fairground's racetrack, which was a half mile course, extending approximately from the rear of the convention center to the where the Ox Head Tavern now sits.

Briere, who lived there from 1936-1941, remembered riding around the track on the tractor pulling the "drag," to smooth out the dirt between races with his father, the caretaker of the Fairgrounds.

"He took care of the whole [thing]," Briere said.

He recalled watching his father "whitewash," the track's fence, inside and out, and pack the corners of the track with clay so it wouldn't get torn up by motorcycles. In the early years, the track was used for sulky races, in which a rider was pulled in a two-wheeled cart by a thoroughbred.

Near where the Sturbridge Host Hotel's carport is today, was a great grandstand where people would sit to watch the races, automobile shows, acrobatics and athletic competitions that all took place on the grounds below.

Next to the grandstand, was a judge's booth and a bandstand that Briere watched get torn apart as a child.

"There was an addition to the bandstand," he said, which was fitted with a flat roof. "We watched that blow off in the Hurricane of '38."

The Hurricane of '38, which struck the area in September of that year, proved to be too much for the Fairgrounds to handle.

An April 5, 1939 newspaper clipping reprinted in Burns' pictorial reads, "One of the last survivors of its kind, the Sturbridge Fairgrounds, today passed into oblivion with the announcement of its manager Samuel T. Sheard, that the grounds would be cut up into house lots."

The article went on to cite damages caused by the hurricane as the reason for closing the Fairgrounds.

In 1941, the area's first ride-in movie theater was built on the site of the former Fairgrounds.

"We used to go there on our bicycles," Briere said, explaining the different between a ride-in and a drive-in is the fact that instead of small individual speakers for each car, the soundtrack of the film was played through one central speaker — sometimes, Briere said, to the dismay of surrounding neighbors.

By the mid 1950s, the ride-in was a thing of the past as well, and a few name changes and relocated buildings aside, the streetscape along Route 20 began to take the shape it has today.

Look for more installments of the ongoing summer history series in future editions of the Southbridge Evening News and Sturbridge Villager.

News staff writer Christopher Tanguay may be reached at (508) 909-4132, or by e-mail at ctanguay@stonebridgepress.com.

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