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Re-enactors at Plimoth Plantation resurrect Plymouth Colony in its infancy

By John Bordsen

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Saturday, Nov. 10 2012 3:58 p.m. MST

The spin came in the 1840s when an English poetess named Felicia Hermans wrote "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England." Though wildly inaccurate, it spawned shoals of books and illustrations that permanently dipped the Pilgrims in prim Victorian black.

The purpose of Plimoth Plantation, a nonprofit launched in 1947, is to strip away the myths — including those about the fall harvest feast with the locals that we have come to venerate as Thanksgiving.

The sheer volume of original writings and meticulous records helps set the record straight — but also complicates matters.

Plymouth is home to the Mayflower Society, whose members are descendants of the 29 adult Mayflower passengers known to have had children. Besides validating Pilgrim descendants' genealogy, the society researches the colony's early days.

As a result, re-creating the Pilgrim experience at Plimoth Plantation is a bit like owning a restaurant where food inspectors eat.

But its cast and "stage" get high marks from both venerable organizations.

"They're interested in getting the facts as right as they can," says Carolyn Travers, the librarian of the Mayflower Society. "We have done programs in conjunction with them; their staff can use our library for free."

Travers is also aware of the hurdles character-specific re-enactors face down on the Plantation: "We at the Society can say, "Person X's parents are unknown. That's a fact. We can fudge or later change our minds." But that inconvenient reality doesn't play out at Plimoth Plantation, she says: "The person being depicted would, of course, know who his or her parents are, and if asked simply have to say, 'My father's name is... John,' or whatever."

Re-enactors learn to sidestep unanswerable questions when possible — and to know their real-life character intimately enough to stay convincingly in character.

Travers knows the drill quite well: She is a former cast member herself.

"It is like theater, in that you're always learning about the person you play."

Even on a summer afternoon, visitors outnumber settlers. If, say, Miles Standish or Gov. Bradford is absent, you may be told he's out farming, or absent on a visit to the Indians. And in truth, the Pilgrims didn't loiter around the stockade to greet curious tourists.

Plimoth Plantation is set in 1627 because it was when the Pilgrims gave up on communal economics.

If thou goest …

Plimoth Plantation, 137 Warren Ave., Plymouth, Mass. (use Exit 4 off Mass. 3), is open 9 a.m.-5 or 5:30 p.m. daily through Nov. 25, then closed until March.

Admission: $29.50; $26.50 for 62 and older; $19 for ages 6-12; 5 and younger, free — includes the 1627 English Village, Wampanoag Homesite, visitor center (introductory film and exhibits), craft center (artisans make settler/Indian artifacts the time-honored way) and Nye Barn (live animals in breeds similar to what the Pilgrims had). All are at the main Plimoth site. Included is admission to the Mayflower II, downtown in Plymouth Harbor. A wide array of special programs is offered throughout the year; check the schedule posted online.

More information: 508-746-1622 or www.plimoth.org

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