Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 3 · April 2002
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Pamela H. Sacks is a writer based in Worcester, Mass., and a contributing editor to Animals magazine.

 

 

"[I]n late March, just days before Plimoth Plantation's village of 1627 was to come to life for the 2001 season, the museum's 130 head of livestock were rounded up and removed to a modern breeding barn at the back of the property."

Gems in the Pasture
Pamela H. Sacks

Part I | II | III | IV

The farm staff at Plimoth Plantation agonized over what to do. A main attraction of the living history museum is its assortment of heritage animals--cows, goats, and pigs painstakingly bred to resemble their seventeenth-century ancestors. But the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease among cloven-hoofed animals across the Atlantic presented a terrible threat. At the start of the English outbreak in February 2001, a dozen farms a day were reported to be infected; soon the number climbed to fifty. Up to ten percent of the visitors to Plimoth Plantation come from Great Britain, and many of them arrive within a day or two of landing at Boston's Logan International Airport. The aphthovirus that caused the disease can live for thirty days and can be spread through the air--a sneeze will do the job nicely--or tracked in on shoes. When members of the plantation staff considered their situation in light of the ironclad agricultural policy in force both in the United States and in England, which calls for eradicating livestock known to have been exposed to foot-and-mouth, few options presented themselves. So in late March, just days before Plimoth Plantation's village of 1627 was to come to life for the 2001 season, the museum's 130 head of livestock were rounded up and removed to a modern breeding barn at the back of the property. Over the next few weeks, many of the animals were transported to foster farms in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, where they would remain safely tucked away until the threat had abated.


Fig. 1. Illustration from the Massachusetts Agricultural Register for Jan. 2, 1818. This cow, from the broad horned Norfolk breed and sired by a bull of the Bakewell breed, was considered extraordinarily fine and became known as "The Westbrook Heifer." The accompanying article states that "some advantages and indeed important ones, may be derived from introducing the improved breeds of other countries." Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

A few hundred miles to the south, the granddaddy of living history museums was in a similar quandary. Colonial Williamsburg, which is modeled on life in Virginia during the decade leading up to the American Revolution, is a community with full-time inhabitants who need to come and go at will. Its cows, sheep, and horses are fenced in, but they often greet visitors. Colonial Williamsburg's overseers decided there was no practical way to control contact between animals and people, and they held their collective breath. Much the same strategy prevailed at Old Sturbridge Village, which depicts life in an agrarian community of 1830. The village, in Massachusetts just north of the Connecticut border, has two farms, one typical of a family of middling means and another representing the circumstances of a wealthy landowner. Over the years, the museum has moved toward providing a hands-on experience with the animals, and some visitors have even watched its ewes give birth to their young. "This year, with foot-and-mouth, we asked them not to touch the animals," explained Rich Pavlick, who serves as project coordinator for agriculture. "Ninety-nine percent of the visitors were very understanding. One or two people were a little bit annoyed."

Was the hand wringing really necessary? It is hard to argue the fears were misplaced. In the last quarter century, heritage animal breeding has transformed living history museums and challenged both the public and historians to reconsider colonial Americans' animal world.

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