The last time I visited Colonial Williamsburg, I was about half as tall as I am now. Would it still be worth seeing-or as fantastic as I remembered-now that I’m a grown up? I drove south from Washington, D.C. to find out, without doing a lick of planning or advance research. This would be a visit informed only by my fuzzy memories of hiking around in the heat and talking to people dressed in period costumes.
It turned out to be just as cool as I remembered, even if it was nearly 100 degrees.
The city spans 301 acres, and it’s accurate to describe it as a village, since people actually live here around the clock. Staffers occupy buildings in the historic section and artisans working in Williamsburg create the tools, clothing and even beer that’s needed on site. While it sounds like a marketing line, it’s true that this place is much more than a theme park. It’s a sort of living museum, and what they’re preserving is the knowledge and history of small-scale American manufacturing and handicraft.
Take the milliner’s shop, where I met a tailor who’d been apprenticing for seven years, showing off a dress crafted in 60 hours of stitching. I learned about movable type from a printer, probably running one of the most profitable presses in the country, given the current state of publishing. A youngster was talking the trade with a blacksmith, the former an avid hobbyist in the art of mashing metals, picking up tips from the professional. A wheelwright described how to build an ox cart. (They can last years as long as you scoop the manure out and bring it in from the rain.)
As I’ve found stories of resurgent places, the made in America element of Williamsburg captivated me in its historic rather than innovative focus. In other words, there’s a difference between Korean tacos and hand-hammering a pewter cup. But by quietly building things by hand, the craftsmen and women of Williamsburg are doing something very, very cool-and something I didn’t have the chance to appreciate as a kid.