With modern maps charting every inch of the planet, it’s hard to imagine setting sail into the unknown. Yet the 102 people who crammed into the Mayflower braved uncertainty to find a better home. They finally landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.
Their story is America’s story, which is why Plymouth is referred to as “America’s Hometown.” The seaside destination retains this vital part of its past with several fascinating historic attractions, including one of the United States’ oldest continually operating museums, the Pilgrim Hall Museum. Visitors can enjoy historic architecture, tasty cuisine, intriguing festivals and both past and present at local shops.
To discover the town’s pilgrim past, gardening heritage and current charm, groups can tour these four historic sites.
Pilgrim Hall Museum
The Pilgrim Hall Museum walks guests through the dramatic tale of the Pilgrims’ hazardous voyage, their 1620 landing and the eventual end of the Plymouth Colony in 1692. The Pilgrim Society opened the museum in 1824 to preserve the area’s Pilgrim heritage.
“To me, the Pilgrim Hall Museum should be the first stop,” said Paula Fisher, interim executive director for Destination Plymouth County. “It is a gem of a museum whether you are interested in the Pilgrims or not. The 15-minute orientation movie shows you the basics of how it all started. It puts history into the forefront of your thinking.”
Groups can see real Pilgrim possessions, such as William Bradford’s Bible, Peregrine White’s cradle and Myles Standish’s sword. The museum also reveals the history of the Wampanoag, the Native Americans who inhabited the area for 10,000 years before the European settlers and still reside there today.
Visitors can touch a piece of the iconic Plymouth Rock, which marked the spot of the Mayflower landing. The museum also goes into detail on the Pilgrims’ harrowing first year in Plymouth, as well as the first Thanksgiving.
At Plimoth Plantation, visitors can meet “Pilgrims” in person to talk about their religious beliefs, education and child rearing theories. Costumed interpreters fully embrace their roles at the living-history museum with dialects and period sayings while cooking, planting, blacksmithing and practicing animal husbandry.
The museum’s English Village re-creates the small farming and maritime community built by the Pilgrims on the shores of Plymouth Harbor. Third-person or modern interpreters answer guests’ questions that those in character are unable to answer while in character.
“It doesn’t take a visitor long to feel like they have really stepped into the 17th century,” said Fisher. “The site also has a Native American homesite that represents the native people who lived in the area prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival. They focus on the culture of the Wampanoag people and why they befriended the Pilgrims in this area. The two groups became allies to each other for the first 50 years.”
Native Americans guide guests through the Wampanoag Homesite from a modern perspective. They invite guests inside a mat-covered wetu, or house. These guides also explain what’s growing in their native garden and demonstrate how to play hubbub, an ancient tribal game still enjoyed by many Wampanoag today.
Groups can examine re-created historic crafts at the Craft Center, a water-powered corn-grinding mill at Plimoth Grist Mill and rare animal breeds at the Nye Barn. A replica of the Mayflower II is now under repair in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the 1620 landing at Plymouth.
Heritage Museums and Gardens
When doctors told Charles Owen Dexter at age 59 he wouldn’t have long to live, Dexter purchased a farm and began tinkering with hybridizing plants. He ended up living another 22 years, and in that time, he became well known for his hybridized rhododendrons.
The glowing colors of thousands of rhododendrons continue to light up the Heritage Museums and Gardens, where Dexter once experimented in the early 20th century. Groups can see Dexter’s world-renowned rhododendrons as well as other impressive horticultural collections of holly, daylily and hosta plants.
Located 20 minutes from Plymouth, the gardens also hold more than 1,000 varieties of trees, shrubs and flowers.
“If you only walked through the gardens, you would be happy,” said Fisher. “The exhibits there change quite frequently. You can explore sprawling botanical gardens, unique art installations and antique automobiles.”
A later owner of the site, Josiah Lilly, opened it to the public in 1969. Lilly added his collections to the site, such as his car collection, now on view in the Automobile Gallery. The antique vehicles sit inside a replica of the Shaker Round Barn in Hancock, Massachusetts.
Other highlights of the site include a special exhibits gallery, the American Art and Carousel Gallery, nature trails and themed gardens. Groups can reserve tours and on-site meals.
Jenney Museum Tours
Did the Pilgrims really land on Plymouth Rock? Groups can learn the answer to this question and more on a walking tour with Jenney Museum Tours. The museum’s tours tell Plymouth stories from the Pilgrim era and beyond.
The museum’s Discover Plymouth’s History tour walks participants through the historic district for an overview of the city’s past. The tour stops by Town Brook, Brewster Gardens and monuments along the waterfront, including Plymouth Rock.
The Forefathers Monument Tour reveals details behind one of the largest free-standing granite monuments in the country. The Forefathers Monument honors the Pilgrims with statues representing faith, morality, law, education and liberty. Guides discuss how the Pilgrims’ faith shaped the founding and development of the United States.
“Leo Martin gives the tours in period clothing, and he is very entertaining,” said Fisher. “He uses a lot of Pilgrim phrases that we still use today. He tells where they came from.”
Martin will also deliver talks in period costume at indoor presentations or as a step-on guide.
Groups can combine a guided tour with the museum’s indoor exhibits. The 1749 Jenney Museum building once belonged to Pilgrim John Jenney and now houses three exhibit rooms and a gift shop. Located in the heart of the historic district, the property backs up to Town Brook, which carried the Pilgrims’ original water supply.
Exhibits delve into Plymouth’s past with themes focused on what happiness meant to Pilgrims, the Underground Railroad movement in Plymouth and the Pilgrims’ emphasis on family.