Coggeshall Farm returns with a new look

Bristol’s 18th-century living history museum has reopened to visitors

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 8/13/20

For a museum whose mission has long been to preserve an authentic depiction of late 18th-century farm life, Coggeshall Farm has seen a lot of changes in the past year or so. Long before the …

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Coggeshall Farm returns with a new look

Bristol’s 18th-century living history museum has reopened to visitors

Posted

For a museum whose mission has long been to preserve an authentic depiction of late 18th-century farm life, Coggeshall Farm has seen a lot of changes in the past year or so. Long before the coronavirus crisis forced a rethinking of their public spaces, and even before an innovative partnership with Old Sturbridge Village helped put the museum back on a more solid financial foundation, infrastructure issues — the urgent need for a new animal barn — forced the farm to relocate their animals and begin to rebuild their barn, prior to the winter of 2019.

Then, in late 2019, a deal was struck with Old Sturbridge Village, a Massachusetts living history museum with a mission much aligned with Coggeshall Farm. Sturbridge Village has long been seen as a model for living history museums, both regionally and nationally, and the partnership which brought Coggeshall under its wing at the start of 2020 has already proven to be the right move at the right time.

“This is exactly what we needed,” said Eleanor Langham, the Coggeshall Farm program coordinator, who also served as Coggeshall’s executive director prior to the partnership with Sturbridge Village.

“A lot has changed,” said Ms. Langham this week, referring to the visitor experience at Coggeshall, which recently reopened under Covid-safe guidelines. Where before a visitor would drive to a small parking area with a view of the Mill Gut and enter by the old farmhouse, now the road is closed about halfway down from the Poppasquash road entrance, and traffic is directed into a much-larger area in a field on the right of the road (though closer access can be arranged for guests with different mobility needs.)

A new welcome booth has been installed to provide information for visitors, as well as an electronic sign-in system. Visitors first encounter the “Field of Flags.” Visitors can purchase flags to adorn the field, each in honor of a member of the military, veteran, or first responder, and every $25 donated provides year-round complimentary admission to Coggeshall Farm Museum and Old Sturbridge Village for blue-star families. This year through Thanksgiving, it also provides complimentary admission to essential workers.

“Sturbridge has been doing this for many years,” said Ms. Langham. “It feels right to be doing this here in Bristol, too.”

A new plan, a new path

Prior to reopening, like all museums, Coggeshall submitted a plan to the state. With 48 acres at their disposal, you would imagine their capacity for crowds would be quite high, but what planners realized was that visitors tend to cluster in a few specific areas. So an interpretive pasture walk has been mowed  and prepared, with signage focusing of sights and issues like field management and grasses, and wildlife including birds, deer, turkeys and coyotes. The signage will be up soon, but the resident deer herd means odds are good for a live sighting.

The tour continues to the gardens and the farmyard area, where visitors will find staff in period costume using historic methods to demonstrate fence-building, domestic daily life, a textile exhibit, and depending on the day, perhaps blacksmithing or woodworking. A full programming schedule can be found on their website at Coggeshallfarm.org.

“There’s going to be something different every day,” said Ms. Langham.

The animals, as always, are part of the Coggeshall experience, and with the new barn nearing completion, the farm will soon be reintroducing even more animals.

New Covid creativity

One of the critical challenges the farm faced in re-imagining the visitor experience during Covid was the fact that the experience has always been an immersive one, with no ropes or barriers between guests and the exhibits. How do you maintain that experience safely? One way, with the help of generous donors, is the farm created individual weaving kits for visitors. Included in the price of admission, small touches like that can maintain the hands-on experience while giving visitors a memento to bring home with them.

For now the farmhouse remains closed to visitors — and it has been emptied for a deep clean — but the Sturbridge Village team has leveraged even that into a teaching experience, showing guests what might have gone into a move for a typical family of tenant farmers when oxcarts and not U-hauls were the available conveyances.

“Covid got in the way a bit, but it forced us to get creative and make new and innovative programs, and reconsider how to make this experience accessible for all,” said Ms. Langham.

Now through September, Coggeshall is open Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; then weekends only in October and November. Adult admission is $10; up to three kids 17 and younger are admitted free when accompanied by an adult paying full admission now through Labor Day.

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