It's not difficult to imagine an idyllic New England village. At dusk, lamps in the windows of white clapboard homes cast a soft glow on the snow-covered ground. Wreaths hang over the entrances to covered bridges located throughout town. The town square, adorned with Christmas lights, is home to neighborhood pubs where locals' mugs hang from hooks on the walls.

Cozy storefronts beckon you to pass your hours mulling over shelves of books, perusing handmade crafts or indulging in a repast filled with local staples like Indian pudding with real maple syrup. Still-working farms and water-powered mills dot the countryside.

Each season brings its own distinctive charm. Come springtime, the warmth encourages a picnic or leisurely stroll down a shady street. The summertime is perfect for a round of golf, horseback riding or canoeing on a nearby lake. And the fall months, undoubtedly the most special time of year, bring fall foliage, visiting leaf-peepers, a harvest of cranberries and an annual lineup of much-anticipated delicacies -- not to mention a slew of celebrations and festivals paying tribute to stunning fall colors and the bounties of local orchards.

Incorporated in 1738, Sturbridge, Massachusetts, brings all of these visions to life and more. A first-time visit to this town is in many aspects a surreal experience; it's hard to imagine that such a place exists in our time-pressed, "knock it down to build something new" society. How many towns in the United States host an annual scarecrow contest or celebrate the arrival of snow with sleigh rides? These pastimes are those that time has forgotten -- except in Sturbridge, a town whose past is deeply rooted in its identity.

Sturbridge, a town of slightly more than 8,000 residents, is located in south central Massachusetts on the Connecticut border, 45 miles southwest of Boston. You may be tempted to breeze through Sturbridge because it's small. But this a town in which you must take your time and smell the roses in order to experience all of its charms. Old Sturbridge Village, reminiscent of 19th century New England, is the heart of the town. Much like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Sturbridge locals possessing both a sense of pride in their town as well as a sense of humor don period clothing. And their appearance seems quite appropriate, given their setting. It's not long before you find yourself chatting with the owner of an authentic country store, and all the while you hardly bat an eye at his period clothing.

In every sense, history lives on in Sturbridge. And that includes local commerce. In Sturbridge, you'll still witness industries you thought had long become extinct, such as weaving and spinning, blacksmithing, pottery, glass-blowing and shoemaking. For families, a visit to Old Sturbridge Village is a prime opportunity to teach children about history first-hand.

Where else will they watch and even participate in the chores of local farmers? Visitors can stop by the village's farms and help milk a cow, husk ears of corn and learn about local crops and harvesting procedures. There are no shortcuts here when it comes to the production of staples such as cheese, milk and produce.

One of the most vivid examples of local pride is Sturbridge's devotion to a virtual year-round roster of festivals that recognize the seasons and the town's rich history. Picture an authentic Independence Day celebration, complete with a parade of townsfolk. Or the annual Family Fun Days, which teaches children the favorite games of their historical predecessors.

In terms of its historical and natural points of interest, Sturbridge is packed with opportunities despite its relatively small size. It's hard to do this town justice without having at least a week to wander the village and explore its relics, traditions and local delicacies. Among them: the birthplace of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross; and a myriad of orchards, including Breezeland Orchards Farm and Cider Mill (which invites visitors to pick their own apples and peaches and offers tractor rides and a petting zoo for the younger crowd), Brookfield Orchards, Cheney Orchards and Cook's Farm Orchards (all of which grow apples). Hyland Orchard and Brewery offers beer as well as apple-filled goodies. A literal treat for visitors of all ages, Hebert Candies is dubbed America's first roadside candy store. This nearly 84-year-old confectionery is known for its fudge and its sundae buffet, the realization of everyone's chocolate-covered daydreams.

Historical nature preserves are everywhere in Sturbridge. It's difficult to budget time to visit them all, but nevertheless, it's well worth your time to see the 4,000-acre Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary; Quabbin Reservoir; Tantiusques Reservation, listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and Rock House Reservation, which derives its name from the rock house that once served as a hunting camp for Native Americans. Surrounding Rock House are a network of hiking trails and a scenic pond.

Sturbridge's economy is supported in large part by the civilian, professional/managerial and technician/sales, service and farming/fishing sectors. The hospitality industry, in particular, is a vital and growing economic contributor. Bed-and-breakfast accommodations, many of them in homes listed in the National Register of Historic Places, have increased in number. Small retail shops and restaurants, too, have benefited from tourism, which swells during the fall months. Home prices in Sturbridge cross a broad range, including modest, Cape Cod-style, two-bedroom homes priced below $100,000 to larger historic homes and even new construction priced in the upper $200,000s and up.

The charm of Sturbridge is undeniable. It's is an experience to be savored, indulging visitors with its natural and historical beauty -- and perhaps most important, its strong sense of community and an unshakable pride in its history. Old Sturbridge harkens back to an era in which neighborly, hospitable ways were the norm ... and most of us find ourselves missing those charms when we leave this town that time, thankfully, has forgotten.

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