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Central Massachusetts - The Heart of New England
By Bob Difley
I had many good reasons to visit central Massachusetts, among them a visit to my grandmother Josephine’s stately old three-story Victorian home in Worcester, complete with a “widow’s walk” on the roof where the wives of fishermen gazed out to sea searching for their seafaring husbands, some of which never returned.
But I also wanted to stand knee-deep in the waters of Lake Chargoggagogmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, which possesses the longest geographic place name in the United States. Known locally as Webster Lake, the original Indian name means “I fish on my side of the lake, you fish on yours, and no one fishes in between.”
Beyond the lake, however, there was a lot to see and do in Worcester County, Massachusetts’ largest (and for statistic lovers, 43% larger than the entire state of Rhode Island), so I began my quest with a search for a suitable and central base camp. I found an ideal location, a lakefront campsite at Pine Acres Family Camping Resort (winner of the 2003-2004 National Park of the Year award) at 203 Bechan Road, in Oakham, a few miles northwest of Worcester.
The park stretches along a mile of shoreline on 70-acre Lake Dean and campsites vary from knoll-top to lakefront in the pines. The only trouble with Pine Acres is that you may not want to leave. Besides its convenient location, the plentiful activities such as a mini-golf course, three beaches, boat rentals, tennis court and lots more will keep even the most active campers busy.
Worcester helped lead the way into the American Industrial Revolution, developing, among other things, the nation’s first mechanized carpet weaver and envelope folder. Where would we be without those inventions? And what would we know about the moon had not Worcester native, Dr. Robert Goddard, launched in 1926 the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket? Today, several high-tech companies operate bio-tech research and biology facilities, so if you see some strange beings wandering around Worcester, don’t be alarmed.
Experimental biology, however, does not account for the preponderance of strange place names. Take Quaboag Pond for example, or Quabbin Reservoir; or how about Quacurnguasit Pond, not to mention Quinsigamond State Park. Actually, you could blame the Nipmuc people who lived here before the Europeans arrived in the 1670s. They started the whole “Q” thing by naming the area Quinsigamond (renamed Worcester in 1684). Central Quabbin (Indian for “land of many waters”) northwest of Worcester is called the gateway to the Watershed Wilderness. Quabbin Reservoir’s 39 square miles and 118 miles of shoreline are surrounded by thousands of acres of forest providing a refuge for a variety of wildlife. Quabbin Park, at the south end of the reservoir by the dam, is popular for bird-watching (look for bald eagles), picnicking, hiking, great views, and to simply commune with nature.
Since you’re in the neighborhood, stop for a stroll around Barre’s picturesque common, in the geographical center of Massachusetts. My father grew up in Barre and my aunt Bessie (who at 91 wouldn’t miss her aerobics exercise class), still lives in the family house built in the mid-1800s.
Central Massachusetts is known for its museums, and the Great Museum Adventures brochure, available from the Central Massachusetts Convention & Visitor Bureau (see information box), provides discount coupons to six of these museums, including the four listed below.
Old Sturbridge Village is one of the most popular museums is the Living History Museum of Old Sturbridge Village. Just a stone’s throw south of Worcester, the village is a re-creation of an early 19th-century New England village. The town is populated by village people in period dress conducting the business of the day, like spinning and weaving, tending cattle, growing vegetables and herbs, baking bread, shelling peas and husking corn.
Visit shops operated by the cobbler, potter, carpenter and blacksmith, or chat with the farmer driving his oxen through town. And every one of these villagers will talk to you in the language and style of the early 1800s. It’s a fascinating history lesson for young and old, and it brings the period to life-especially for school children who have that magical quality of comfortably blending in and adapting as if it really was 1805 instead of 2005.
In a Gothic-castle setting the Higgins Armory Museum’s more than 70 suits of armor, multitude of ancient weapons and artifacts date back to medieval and Renaissance Europe, ancient Greece and Rome, and even feudal Japan. Young museum goers are allowed to suit-up from the try-on costume collection and transform into the hero of their own video game.
At the Ecotarium, a center for environmental exploration, you can scuttle along a tree canopy rope bridge through the treetops to experience an entirely different ecosystem of a variety of birds, insects, and mammals that live in the tree canopy high above the ground, hidden from easy view by us earth-bound humans. The Ecotarium helps develop understanding of the environment and its wildlife through changing displays and programs, such as the frog exhibit (all shapes, sizes, and colors hopping around like Mexican jumping beans gone wild). Interactive exhibits invite hands-on learning experiences (no, there are no rattlesnakes) and stars fill the sky at the planetarium. You can order a calendar of events at www.ecotarium.org/events. It’s always summer in the Orangerie greenhouse in the 132-acre Tower Hill Botanic Garden, 10 miles northeast of Worcester, where hundreds of sub-tropical blooming bulbs and plants banish winter to a mere memory.
Several unique gardens are dedicated to specific kinds of plants, such as the 350 species of trees and shrubs in the Lawn Garden, perennials chosen for their delicate texture and fragrance in the Secret Garden, and plants popular in the 1700s at the Cottage and Vegetable Garden. Three miles of Woodland Trails wander through the woods and by the half-acre Wildlife Refuge Pond for a natural world experience. Check out www.towerhillbg.org.
Hike the many miles of trails at Mass. Audubon’s 400-acre Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center & Wildlife Sanctuary for nature study and peaceful solitude. The visitor’s center conducts educational programs and exhibits and is also the hub for the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor and Industrial Revolution Heritage Trail. Information is available at www.massaudubon.org.
Even if you are not into winter sports, you can still ride the SkyRide ski lift to the summit of Wachusett (gesundheit) Mountain – one of southern New England’s most scenic viewpoints – on special fall weekends.
The picturesque town of Sudbury, 22 miles east of Worcester, was founded in 1638 and is home to a number of historic sites, including the First Pariah Church (circa 1797) and the Loring Parsonage (circa 1723). Wayside Inn, one of the nation’s oldest inns, was built in 1686 and immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Tales of a Wayside Inn. In the 1920s Henry Ford purchased and restored the building, filled it with antiques, and surrounded it with other relocated period structures, such as a rustic gristmill, a schoolhouse and a general store.
And who can pass up the opportunity to fill a bag with delicious, just-picked New England apples? At the 200-acre Berlin Orchards (200 Central State Route 62 in Berlin) you can pick 20 different varieties of apples, including Fuji, Gala, Jonagold and Macoun, as well as peaches, pears, pumpkins and berries. The indoor farmers market also offers a variety of fresh produce, honey and jams. And if you still have some energy left, pay a visit to the 500 wild animals representing more than 100 different species at Southwick’s Zoo-New England’s largest-at Mendon. Animal shows, environmental programs, elephant and camel rides, and a 35-acre deer forest make a visit to the zoo an all day option.