21 July 2014

Museums and historic sites tell the story of your ancestors’ occupations part 1

Samuel Adams Brewery, Boston, Mass.
In 17th century Boston records, William Gibson is often referred to as the cordwainer, apparently so people did not confuse him with another William Gibson whose wife also was named Hannah. But what’s a cordwainer? A shoemaker. If you didn’t know that old-fashioned term, check out the glossary of old occupations and trades.

If you’re wondering what your ancestor did all day and what tools he used, you can learn more at Massachusetts museums centering on occupations. For example, a bunch of local museums have shoemaking displays, but the city of Lynn was particularly known for it, which is why Lynn Heritage State Park includes a shoemaking exhibit. (While you’re there, you may want to explore Lynn’s connections to the world-famous Lydia Pinkham’s medicinal cure-alls.)

Below, you’ll find suggestions of places to visit (or, if you’re not local to Massachusetts, explore online) to learn more about your ancestors’ occupations. Some of these places feature live demonstrations of their craft, while others have tours, displays, classes, and/or hands-on activities. This is not an all-inclusive list; there are many historical societies with great collections and larger community museums (such as Plimouth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village) that cover multiple occupations in one location as well.

Before you go, contact the museum about hours and admission fees. Some have seasonal schedules and limited hours.


Harpoon Brewery in Boston.

Samuel Adams Brewery in Boston. Founded in 1985 with old family recipes. 

Canal Worker:

Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park in Uxbridge. 

Candy Maker:

Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop at the Clough House in Boston. In the same building as the Printing Offices of Edes and Gill. Demonstrations, history, and samples.


Willard House & Clock Museum in North Grafton. Three generations of clockmakers, starting in 1766.

Cordwainers and Other Leather Workers:

Peabody Leather Workers Museum in Peabody. Adjacent to the George Peabody House Museum and Library. At one time, Peabody was known as the Leather Capital of the World. 

Customs Collector:

Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport. Includes displays of famous shipwrecks, model clipper ships, and the history of the Coast Guard. 

Salem Maritime National Historic Site in Salem. Includes the U.S. Custom House where author Nathaniel Hawthorne once worked; replica of the 1797 tall ship Friendship of Salem; the 1675 Narbonne house with artifacts from archeological digs in its backyard; and the 1762 Derby house. 


Appleton Farms in Ipswich. America’s oldest working farm. 

Hadley Farm Museum in Hadley. In the 1782 barn, see vehicles and equipment used from late 18th to early 20th centuries. 

Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm in Newbury. 1690 manor house and hands-on activities.


Boston Fire Museum in Boston. Also see the links page for other fire museums. 

Furniture builder:

Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture is a web site that brings together almost a dozen cultural institutions. Includes a list of exhibitions and events. 


Sandwich Glass Museum in Sandwich. Watch glassblowing demonstrations. 


Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site in Boston. House and office of landscape architect famed for the Emerald Necklace parks.

Lyman Estate Greenhouses in Waltham. Includes some of the oldest surviving greenhouses in the country, with its 1804 grape house, 1820 camellia house, 1840 orchid house, and a 1930 greenhouse.  

Reconstructed forge and mill at Saugus Ironworks by Daderot


Saugus Iron Works. Reconstruction of the first successful iron works in the Colonies, in operation from 1646 to 1670, plus the 1680 Iron Works House.

Lighthouse Keeper:

Bass River Lighthouse in West Dennis. Part of the Lighthouse Inn and restaurant.

See also New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide web site. 


Cape Ann Harbor Tours’ lobstering/harbor tour from Gloucester features a boat tour and lobstering demonstration.

Read Part 2 for more museums and historic sites M through Z.

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