The Sturbridge Life: On Common Ground
By Chryseia Brennan
Thursday evening, blanket in hand, we head to the common, that little plot of grassy green in the center of town. It’s just past six; strands of music reach our ears. A beautiful, clear evening to find a good spot, unpack a light dinner from our basket, and enjoy a concert.
Sturbridge Common was officially laid in 1738, when the town was established. People gathered weekly at the meetinghouse here to attend the daylong mandatory religious service. At noon break parishioners would visit the tavern or warming house to eat and, during winter months, to defrost; the only thing heated about the meetinghouse was the fire and brimstone sermon.
Sturbridge folks met here to vote, to muster for military service, to tether their horses while doing business in town. It makes sense that, to this day, the historic common includes the 1838 Town Hall, the 1896 Joshua Hyde Library building, the 1922 Federated Church and the old burying ground, as well as the oldest building in the district: the 1772 Publick House. For villagers of old, it was a one-stop shop.
As I bite into my sandwich I ponder the many feet that crossed this common. From the reluctant, coming to pay their taxes, to the passionate, stomping for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to the humble permit applicant – all walked this path in the course of their lives. Families recording births or burying their beloved passed here. Reminders of primitive beauty and early hardship reside as stones in the burial ground. The serenely carved stone marking the grave of Elizabeth Baker, “…who died November, 1790, in her 14th year” still haunts. Or the inscription for a little one: “AE 17 Mos. Sleep on, sweet babe, and take thy rest. God called thee home. He thought it best.”
The music playing lightens the mood; there is just something about live music that makes it special no matter the genre. There is chemistry between musician and listener, gaiety and magic in the evening air. A crisp bite of apple and the smile of a child dancing brings me back to the here and now, to the great joy and appreciation of the simplest things.
Many a sojourner met their simple needs traveling through Sturbridge. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and General Lafayette were all guests who crossed the Sturbridge Common, and it is recorded the Lafayette enjoyed a few fine brews here before setting forth. I wonder how many times the scene I am enjoying has repeated itself over the years, and I lie back, exhale, and look up through the trees.
The Common, the chosen place to swap news and gossip over two hundred years ago, still buzzes with greetings, conversation and debate tonight. I find it hard to imagine that things were very different so many years ago. Townsfolk hotly debated politics and politicians, although discussing a female candidate was certainly not on the agenda. Taxation issues rankled. We may have come full circle on this topic; but I remind myself that both the common and the free concert are complements of tax monies. People still meet, catch up on the latest, and enjoy the warm summer’s eve.
Our busy lives challenge us to find time to relax, to lie back on a blanket after a picnic dinner and look for fireflies. Even when still, our minds race or we worry, straining to live in the moment and appreciate the pleasures at hand. Problems are not so different today; we will always have problems. There are far fewer evenings on the common.
We may no longer need to worry if the summer is too dry and the crops fail, or the frost cellar too meager to withstand a longer-than-usual winter. We may no longer concern ourselves with thoughts of an Indian attack or Redcoat invasion, or if the horse might founder. Today our fears translate into concern over increasing grocery prices, climate change, the global threat of terrorist activity, and whether we can keep the old car running another year.
For the diligent forbear, hard work was its own reward. For me, here and now on Sturbridge Common, this evening of music, good food and friends is mine. As the band plays the last few notes and then packs up their instruments, I am grateful to savor the good life today made possible by others before me, by the many feet that crossed our Common, to value and appreciate the Sturbridge life.