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Make the pilgrimage

Visit Plymouth on American Thanksgiving

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Standing in a modest timber-framed home in Plimoth Plantation after tending to a cast-iron pot of boiled cabbage, Hester Cooke recalled the decision that brought her and other Pilgrims to Plymouth, Mass.

"It was not really to my liking," said the actress portraying Cooke, right down to her 17th-century English.

"When my husband first started talking about it, I fell to weeping, I cried. Afterwards, I think my husband made the right decision."

Over the next few weeks, Cooke will tell her story again and again, as tourists flock to Plymouth, inspired by the American Thanksgiving holiday, which this year falls on Nov. 22. Plymouth was where the Mayflower's passengers, Protestant separatists seeking religious freedom, disembarked in mid-November 1620 after the long voyage from Britain.

The first winter was brutal. With little time to build shelters and prepare before the onset of winter, half the colonists died. Those who survived were able to establish the colony and thrive, in part with help from the Wampanoag Indians. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to a traditional British harvest festival, and the tradition of Thanksgiving Day was born.

One in 10 Americans has a connection to the Mayflower, Mayflower Society historian Paul Bumpus estimates.

And so do many Canadians. The U.S. War of Independence and its aftermath drove many Americans who had opposed the revolution north to Canada, where they became United Empire Loyalists. For example, the Winslow family, which built what is now Mayflower Society House, relocated to the Maritimes. Others ended up in Quebec, or in Ontario. Set amid elegant gardens, Mayflower Society House is home to a museum and a genealogical library that tracks the descendants of the Mayflower passengers. It was in part the genealogical library and the chance to find out more about my own roots that drew me to Plymouth.

While Plymouth's sheltered harbour makes it a popular destination in the summer, one of the most interesting times to visit is in November, when the town comes alive in the run-up to Thanksgiving. Activities tied to the holiday run through much of the month. For those who like their history as realistic as possible, late November also gives you a much better idea of the weather conditions that greeted the early Pilgrims.

At Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the Pilgrims' village of 1627, special harvest dinners with costumed actors, psalms and songs run on various days throughout November, and there are special Thanksgiving dinners and buffets on the actual day. The weekend before Thanksgiving, Nov. 16-18, the America's Hometown celebration features a parade, food festival and concerts.

On Thanksgiving morning, there will be the Pilgrim's Progress, a re-enactment of the procession by the 51 survivors of the first deadly winter that killed half of the Mayflower's passengers.

Plymouth's Pilgrim heritage is easily the No. 1 industry in town -- especially in the fall after the many boat tours and ferries shut down for the season.

 

One of the most interesting things about visiting Plymouth is separating myth and stereotype from reality, thanks in part to ongoing research into the Pilgrims and the Plymouth colony.

For one, they weren't the stereotypical dour puritans of Hollywood fame. Beer was among the provisions they loaded into the Mayflower, and songs were a big part of their religious services.

Nor were they all British. The Protestant Separatists or "Saints" as they are sometimes known, moved to Leiden in the Netherlands years before deciding to head across the Atlantic, and it appears at least some of the Pilgrims were Belgian Walloons who anglicized their names over time.

In recent years, there is also more emphasis on history from the perspective of the Wampanoag Indians. At the Plimoth Plantation, a Wampanoag homesite with costumed actors lies a few yards outside the rough-hewed wood fence of the pilgrim settlement and the exhibit inside the visitor centre describes the history of Thanksgiving from both perspectives.

The key attraction of Plimoth Plantation is the recreation of the Pilgrims' village, where modest homes line the dirt road, chickens roam free and actors play the roles of the settlers, right down to speaking 17th-century English with British accents.

The same historical detail and costumed actors in character are in evidence at the full-size replica of the Mayflower sitting in Plymouth Harbour. Run by the same museum that runs Plimoth Plantation, the ship tells the tale of the Pilgrims' voyage across the Atlantic and of 17th-century naval travel. One of the things that strikes visitors is the size. It is difficult to imagine a handful of people crossing the ocean in that small of a ship over several weeks, let alone 102 passengers.

Plymouth Rock, where legend has it the first passengers from the Mayflower first set foot on American soil, pales in comparison. Despite its iconic status and ornate canopy built to mark Plymouth's 300th anniversary, the stone itself has eroded over time, has cracked and is pretty much indistinguishable from any other rock except for the 1620 chiselled into it.

Plymouth is a small town and, with the exception of Plimoth Plantation, most attractions are within a fairly easy walk.

There are a variety of walking tours with evening ghost tours being among the most popular. Colonial Lantern Tours will hand you a candlelit lantern to carry as they walk you through nearly 400 years of Plymouth's history. Native Plymouth Tours, self-guided Pilgrim's Path tours, trolley tours and pedicab tours are also available.

Pilgrim Hall, which touts itself as America's oldest museum, has a large collection of historical objects from the Pilgrims including William Bradford's bible, Myles Standish's sword and the cradle of Pergrine White -- the first baby born in Plymouth.

At the Jenney Grist Mill, educational director and tour guide Leo Martin is full of anecdotes about the crucial role the flour mill played and how a variety of words in the English language have their origins in flour mills or in pilgrim-era Plymouth -- everything from keeping your nose to the grindstone (to smell for burning kernels) to someone being earmarked for committing a crime.

After Thanksgiving, the mill, the plantation and many of Plymouth's other tourist attractions will close for the winter.

 

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 D1

History

Updated on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 1:37 PM CDT: adds fact box

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