A place that has been on my bucket list for a number of years is Plimoth Plantation – the living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts where Peter Follansbee worked for 20 years, and cut his teeth as a 17th-century New England joiner. Sadly, most of the museum’s long-time reenactors departed in what seems to be a less-than-amicable split a few years ago, and Peter was among them.
Nonetheless, I decided to swing by on my way to Greenwood Fest a couple of weeks ago, and I wasn’t disappointed. Peter’s fingerprints are all over the place.
A few of his pieces (including the court cupboard and the chest with drawers pictured below) are housed inside climate-controlled buildings. These painted pieces are admittedly a bit garish to modern eyes, but they give you a chance to see the pieces as the would have looked when they were brand new, 350 years ago:
Most of Peter’s work can be found in the village: a collection of mostly one-room timber frame cottages. The buildings are as quaint as you can imagine: sheathed in weathered, riven oak clapboards, topped with roofs of thatched cattails, each one with a neat kitchen garden in the back yard. If someone had a bed-and-breakfast that was set up like this, I’d be the first to sign up!
The home’s interiors are dimly lit but surprisingly welcoming. There are no “fireplaces” to speak of – just a rocked wall in a corner where the cooking and heating fires are built. Some of the homes have real chimneys, but others just have a small vent atop the gables that keep the smoke moving out of the house. It was more effective that you might imagine! All of the homes were appointed with a bed and basic kitchen implements, not to mention a slew of joined oak furniture.
There were chairs of all kinds from basic joint stools…
…to proper joined and turned chairs:
Not to mention carved boxes of all kinds:
For me, the best part about the visit to Plimoth was the opportunity to appreciate the visual impact of Peter’s work in situ. When you see 17th-century carving as it is meant to be seen – i.e., in dim dwellings primarily illuminated by raking light from small windows or lamps – it makes perfect sense. The shallow relief carving stands out proudly in these conditions. The chests and cupboards looked alive in the humble cottages, as compared to similar pieces in the immaculately lighted and air-conditioned environs of the museum.
I was also reminded that homes from this period, with their hewn timbers and organic wattle-and-daub walls, were not deprived of texture as we are with our sterile sheetrock boxes. It doesn’t take much to stand out against a blank slate. These pieces that seem garish or “busy” against a plain background fit cozily into the more lively interiors of their day.
So, while I don’t necessarily intend to switch my focus to Jacobean carving after my visit to Plimoth, I can certainly say that it was an inspiring and informative visit. The chance to touch this furniture, to open doors and drawers, and to photograph (without getting yelled at) is a rare opportunity at any museum. I wished very much that I had been able to visit five years ago, when Peter and Paula the rest of the Plymouth Craft gang still inhabited the grounds. But it’s safe to say that their spirit is still present, and it will be for a long time.