If you’ve been researching your family tree on Ancestry, chances are you’ve stumbled on a relative or two who has worked in agriculture or experienced the challenges of pioneer life. If you are looking to get a feel for how they actually lived, living history farms and museums scattered all across the U.S. that use costumed interpreters and demonstrations to bring these time periods to life in ways that just reading about them can’t.
Sure there’s the famous Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which re-creates the Colonial era, but there are plenty of other places that will give you a slice of historical day-to-day life. It’s about as close as you can get to time traveling without a DeLorean.
Living History Farms (Urbandale, Iowa): If your family settled in Iowa or the Midwest, this 500-acre outdoor museum is a must see. It doesn’t focus on taking you back just to one era but has three completely separate farm sites highlighting different times: 1700 Ioway Indian Farm; 1850 Pioneer Farm; and 1900 Horse-Powered Farm. You can also visit 1875 Town of Walnut Hill, which features a blacksmith, general store, and print shop. While you’re there, you can see how farming techniques changed over the course of 200 years with demos on how oxen and horses were used to revolutionize agriculture.
Old Sturbridge Village (Sturbridge, Mass.): If you’ve got New England blood running through your veins, take a visit to the largest outdoor history museum in the northeast (at about 200 acres). It boasts 40 original buildings — including meeting houses, a school, country store, water-powered mills, and trade shops — that take visitors back to a rural New England town in the 1830s. Interactive exhibits feature period-costumed staffers doing everything from food preparation in a typical 19th-century kitchen to milking cows or creating goods in a blacksmith or pottery shop.
Mission San Luis (Tallahassee, Fla.): Whether you have Apalachee roots or you just want to learn more about their heritage, this Florida museum will transport you to 1703 when the Native Americans and the newly arrived Spanish settlers lived together at this mission. They have special events that recreate a traditional Thanksgiving and a Winter Solstice Celebration, as well as daily exhibits with staffers cooking traditional foods and teaching visitors about a soldier’s life at the fort.
Genesee Country Village and Museum (Mumford, N.Y.): In upstate New York, this 19th-century country village focuses on small homes and farms as well as grand estates and inns, all of which have been reconstructed to give an accurate look at their era. This museum progresses through three time periods: The Pioneer Settlement (1795-1830), The Village Center (1930-1870), and Turn-of-the-Century Main Street (1880-1920). There’s even a re-creation of a Civil War-era helium balloon, the Intrepid, that visitors can ride in. But one of the most unique aspects is the vintage baseball (or base ball as it was known in the 19th century) reenactments that take place throughout the summer.
Kona Coffee Living History Farm (Kona District, Hawaii): Coffee and Hawaii? Even if your own ancestors have no direct correlation to either, this place might be worth a visit, as the 5.5-acre spot is the only living history museum that features a coffee farm. The setting is 1920-1945 and brings to life the daily grind of Japanese immigrants. Visitors experience the hardships of farming life, see traditional crafts being created, and tour the coffee and macadamia nut orchards.
Conner Prairie (Fishers, Ind.): What challenges did pioneers face in 1836? This Indiana museum (located at the historic William Conner homestead) depicts day-to-day life to demonstrate the struggles the residents would have faced. There is also an 1863 Civil War Journey, where visitors can become completely immersed in the war, and a Lenape Indian Camp, where you can learn how to strike a deal with fur traders. And for the adventuresome, there’s an “1859 helium balloon voyage” visitors can take.
Stuhr Museum (Grand Island, Neb.): This living history village focuses on pioneer life from the late 19th century and has been used as a location for movies like My Antonia and Sarah, Plain and Tall. Some of the highlights are the 1894 railroad town; 1830s Pawnee earth lodge; a 1960s log cabin settlement; and the historic Taylor Ranch, which originally belonged to “Sheep King” Robert Taylor and was visited by President Theodore Roosevelt. And if any of your ancestors were mechanically inclined, there’s an antique farm machinery collection and trains from the Union Pacific.
This Is the Place Heritage Park (Salt Lake City, Utah): Located near the monument of Brigham Young (where he declared that his group of Mormon pioneers had found their home), this Heritage Park blends a little bit of amusement with their living history. In addition to a full village of buildings from Utah’s earliest settlements, authentic Native American teepees, and pioneer chores, there are also mini-trains, petting zoos, train robberies, salt-water-taffy cannons and a splash pad. But who says you can’t learn about how your relatives lived and still enjoy some modern day fun?
If these are too far to trek to, or your ancestors settled somewhere else, there are a host of other of local living history museums, heritage farms and other historic spots that create an immersive and interactive experience, scattered all around the country.