GLEN, N.H. -- Massachusetts residents, and Bostonians in particular, may think they have the US history market cornered. Tourists flock to the Freedom Trail, the USS Constitution, and Bunker Hill Monument right in the city; just outside, there are the Revolution battlegrounds in Lexington and Concord, and of course Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth.
New Hampshire, best known as the land of skiing, leaf-peeping, presidential primaries, and bargain outlet shopping, doesn't have Boston's cachet when it comes to Colonial history. Yet, Heritage New Hampshire, an unpretentious and family-friendly interactive exhibit in Glen (three hours from Boston), manages to make the Granite State's roots and place in the founding of New England as vibrant as a stroll through Beacon Hill.
Heritage is owned by the Morell family, who since 1955 have operated Storyland, the venerable amusement park/storybook exhibit. The Morells opened Heritage in July 1976 to commemorate the nation's bicentennial celebration. Housed in a 20,000-square-foot building adjacent to Storyland, with scads of free parking, Heritage is a tour through 350 years of New Hampshire history beginning with the first settlers and concluding in the present day. Taking its cue from similar reenactment/historical attractions such as Plimoth Plantation and Sturbridge Village, Heritage offers costumed tour guides who narrate the journey back in time via low-tech, theatrical "sets." Visitors can proceed at their own pace, using an illustrated map through the exhibit. It takes about two hours to complete, but those who want to stop and read the text that accompanies the displays, or answer trivia questions about the state's history on flip-boards that dot the walls throughout, should allow closer to three hours. While Storyland is geared to the younger set, Heritage will easily appeal to young and old and, for relatively modest cost, provide a day's activity for the entire family. After a daily summer schedule, it is now open weekends only to Columbus Day; fall visitors will encounter reduced crowds, which makes the tour more leisurely. (Since Heritage is entirely indoors, it is a good option for a rainy day.) Children enjoy the sets and costumes, the interactive moments like guides letting them mark their hometowns on a wall map, and the rockin' ride aboard the sailing ship Reliance that simulates the long journey from England to the New World. Older visitors can home in on the finer points of the historical narratives and the more sophisticated exhibits, such as an assemblage of stunning, austere Matthew Brady photographs in the Civil War-era section.
The turbulent voyage to the New World is emblematic of the clever/quaint theatricals that make Heritage so charming and accessible. While the young captain in period dress leads visitors onto the ship, a video screen displays sea and sky, sound effects spill onto the darkened deck, and the wooden ship creaks right and left to mimic the sickness-inducing voyage. Once on land again, visitors are guided through early frontier life, through the uneasy relationship between the settlers and native Algonquins, and get a lesson in ecology and history as the guides describe the decimation of New Hampshire's forests by the British, who claimed the majestic pines for use as masts on the King's fleet.
Many of the 25 detailed sets feature animatronic models, which gives Heritage an inviting blend of old and new technology. Life-size figures fish and pitch camp alongside running waterfalls, accompanied by stuffed wild animals. George Washington's speech from the balcony of the state capitol is played while the life-size figure of the new president turns and gestures to the crowd. The role of Amoskeag Mills on the Merrimack River during the Industrial Revolution is commemorated with the ghostly faces of the women and children who made up the labor force floating past replicas of looms.
Costumed actors narrate specific portions of the route, adding a touch of local color. The re-creation of Portsmouth circa 1776 features grandmotherly types in bonnets and aprons who enjoy answering guests' questions about village life. The operator of the print shop is right out of central casting, offering a history of the role of the press in Colonial America and examples of print jargon that have become part of everyday vocabulary (upper and lower case, for one) as he sets the type for the New-Hampshire Gazette, circa 1779 (everyone gets a copy hot off the press).
Another crusty character is the sharply-dressed train conductor who guides visitors through New Hampshire at the turn of the 20th century, when it was a magnet for the rich, served by sprawling hotels, many of which still exist to serve tourists. After a stroll through photographs of the summer playgrounds for the well-heeled, visitors are ushered onto a train that simulates an autumn ride through Crawford Notch. This is a highlight of the Heritage experience, as the train rocks, a wind blows, and film of seasonal colors in the majestic mountains whoosh by. Children will think they are on a moving train; it's hard for adults not to believe it as well.
Modern-day New Hampshire is represented, though given rather short shrift, in a cavernous room that houses an exhibit of photos and news clippings about the famous Old Man of the Mountain, the natural rock sculpture that recently crumbled. There is a demonstration and a ride (for guests over age 18) on the Segway Human Transporter, the battery-powered two-wheeled scooter invented by New Hampshire native Dean Kamen and manufactured in Manchester.
Heritage's stately building looks more like a town hall than a tourist attraction, except for the antique car and bicycle and covered bridge featured at the entrance that provide nifty photo backdrops. Before or after their visit, guests will want to spend a bit of time studying the huge outdoor mural that is one of Heritage's signatures. Painted by New Hampshire artist Ernie Brown, the mural depicts seminal events over 350 years of New Hampshire history rendered in panels, along with the faces of historical figures from Daniel Webster, Horace Greeley, and Mary Baker Eddy, to more contemporary famous natives such as the poet Robert Frost and the astronaut Christa McAuliffe.
First-time guests should note that there is no food facility on the site. Of course, there are lots of restaurants in nearby North Conway village, just 10 minutes away, or bring a picnic lunch. The front lawn and picnic tables near the building are available for dining, and soda and snacks can be purchased on the premises. There is a large, well-stocked shop at the end of the tour that offers many apt, historically-themed souvenirs.
Loren King is a freelance writer in Chelsea.