Old Bethpage

“The Village is alive with the sights and sounds of the past; the life and work-styles of our forebears.” – Old Bethpage Museum Guide

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The Old Bethpage Village Restoration in New York is not a depiction of town that actually existed in the nineteenth century. Rather, it is a recreation of a village meant to give visitors a sense of what life on Long Island in the 1800s would have been like. This does not mean that the site is without authentic material culture. The structures that make up Old Bethpage Village are all authentic, nineteenth century homes. With the exception of the Powell farm, the houses began their existence in towns across Long Island, ranging in time from 1765 to 1875.

In 1963, Nassau County gained possession of the Powell farm and began to develop plans for the historic restoration with the intent of preserving landmarks that were quickly being eradicated by post-World War II development.[1] Over the past forty-seven years, the County has fostered a successful living history site. Spread out over one hundred acres, the site has the opportunity to showcase a number of different aspects of nineteenth century life. Rather than focusing on one house or one family, Old Bethpage illustrates how a community, and the individuals in it, would have functioned.

Interaction between interpreters and visitors is a very important part of the site's educational experience.

As the site uses very minimal signage to lead visitors through the town, the role of the interpreters is particularly important. While they are costumed, the interpreters of Old Bethpage provide third-person interpretation, discussing aspects of the town with visitors from a twenty-first century perspective. They educate the audience, not only about where and when the structure was originally from, but also about the individual’s that once lived in them.

The material culture is also essential to the educative nature of the site. Upon entering the site, visitors are presented with a map and pamphlet for a self guided “Architectural Walking Tour.” Each building has a rich history. Visitors can look to the architecture, in addition to the personal stories of the families to better understand the time period. Once inside the houses, visitors can examine the rooms and what is in them to gain insight into the people who lived there. The Cooper house, containing a large loom in the center of the main room can be seen as speaking to the centrality of work in Richard Powell’s life. Whereas, the Kirby house contains the tools of the trade for Richard D. Kirby’s tailoring business in a back room. The rest of the house, however, highlights the presence of the rest of the family. The Powell farm, complete with livestock, tells a much different story than that of the Layton store and house.

The Powell farm continues to be home to a variety of livestock.

Old Bethpage has a strong educational outreach program. Schools and scout groups are invited to come to the site participate in the History Alive Program, which provides a hands-on exploration of “the daily lives of rural Long Islanders.”[2] Part of school trips to the site include participating in a class in the one room school house. Children are given the opportunity to compare their education with that of their contemporaries in the nineteenth century. By making this connection with the past, children get the opportunity to view their historical education from a new perspective.

Most of the educational outreach is focused on children. This does not mean that children make up the site’s audience in its entirety. The site enjoys visitors of a wide age range. Outside of school groups, there are many people who come to experience the site who are unaffiliated with any organization. Their museum guide invites, “Discover your heritage!,” and many Long Islanders choose to do just that.[3] Using this site to educate them on the history of their home allows visitors to better ground themselves in their own time and society.

[1] “Exploring Long Island’s 19th-Century Living History Museum.”

[2] Nassau County Department of Parks, Recreation & Museums, Old Bethpage Village Restoration; Long Island’s Living History Museum.

[3] Ibid.

Published on December 1, 2010 at 7:29 pm  Comments Off on Old Bethpage  
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