PLYMOUTH, Mass. — The blustery sky hung low over Cape Cod and stiff winds alternated with sputtering rain. Fog blended with the smoke of a dozen chimneys to create a monochromatic landscape, echoed by a somber, silver-gray sea.
The drizzly morning was made for reading by the fireplace or snoozing under a quilt.
But the hardy Pilgrim men and women of Plimoth (original spelling) Plantation were out and about despite the inclement weather, feeding white-bearded goats with freshly sickled grass, scattering corn to hens underfoot and talking to one another in broguish accent about "the uncivilized climate of the New World."
Today's costumed interpreters of Plimoth go about their daily tasks with a resolution that echoes that of the original Pilgrims. Now, as then, there isn't much time to dillydally, what with fields to clear, crops to plant, fish to catch, homes to build and prayers to say.
At this living museum you can walk down the sandy street lined with rough, thatched-roof cabins, past the gardens, animals, outdoor ovens and fishing nets that made survival in the New World possible, and step back to the hardships of three centuries past.
Life in 1627
The compact, stockaded village represents life in 1627, seven years after the Mayflower landed. By that time the original 102 colonists were supplemented by another shipload of settlers; together they mastered the rudiments of survival in an inhospitable land.
Homes were often shared by two or more families; with no replacements available, shirts and trousers were patched and repatched; children learned to read from tattered Bibles but had no time for other schooling, as "it's more important that that they learn to work."
The biggest surprise now is to find women garbed in heavy wool skirts (in summer, they wear three; in winter, they wear all they own) of many colors--russet, teal blue, saffron, even soft red.
I asked a white-bonneted matron why she wasn't wearing "Pilgrim black," as tradition had led me to believe she would. Her practical answer? "Only the gentry wear black, as the cloth must be dyed twice--once blue, then red. Most of us don't have the time for such luxury," she said, excusing herself to continue mending a flaxen shirt.
But the village's work-filled routine must have seemed a blessing to those who survived the nightmarish voyage from England aboard the Mayflower. With a hundred colonists crowded aboard the wave-tossed, square-rigged, 100-foot merchant vessel, at least one voyager begged the ship's master to turn back before they all become "meate for ye fishes."
A 66-Day Voyage
Their 66-day voyage can be recalled with a visit to the Mayflower II, anchored steps away from iron-fenced Plymouth Rock. The replica ship sailed the Atlantic from England in 1957.
The original passenger load was almost evenly divided between "Saints" and "Strangers," the Pilgrim's names for themselves and the rest of the world. Both Saints and Strangers spent most of their two months on board in the dankly dark 'tween decks area, sandwiched between main deck and hold.
Cramped cabins and narrow bunks, built along the ship's sides, surrounded a common area cluttered with bedrolls, chamber pots and cooking utensils.
I asked a role-playing sailor about the darkness. "Aye," he said, "we had candles, but couldn't use them on the heavy seas."
No wonder the first harvest was cause for a three-day thanksgiving celebration, with Indians, Saints and Strangers entertaining one another and feasting on venison, corn, turkey, bread and wine. The pioneer colonists, challenged by brutal conditions, now had every hope of surviving, even prospering, in the New World.
Perhaps they sang from one of the hymnal verses written by their governor, William Bradford: "In wilderness He did me guide, And in strange lands for me provide, In fears and wants, Through weal and woe, A Pilgrim passed I to and fro."
Both the ship and village are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, April through November. The ship is docked near Plymouth Rock; the village is nearby, off Massachusetts 3A, on a sandy hummock overlooking Cape Cod Bay.
Adult tickets to the plantation are $6.25, to the ship, $3; an $8.25 combination ticket includes a visit (summers only) to Wampanoag Indian Program, which interprets native life of the period.
For more information, contact Plimoth Plantation, Box 1620, Plymouth, Mass 02360, phone (617) 746-1622.