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Places to test a child’s zest for the past in years, centuries, or millennia

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / March 28, 2010

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I spent a summer in high school giving tours of the Mark Twain House in Hartford. True to the author’s spirit, the tours were filled with entertaining anecdotes about him and his family. For a young, aspiring writer, nothing could top the mystique of the third-floor billiard room where Twain worked on many of his famous manuscripts. The humor in the stenciled balls and cues on the ceiling didn’t hurt, either.

With its rich history, New England gives children ample opportunity to step back in time, to explore the lives of famous people, places, and eras. Across the region, kids can interact with the past in a variety of ways, whether touring a living history museum, climbing into caves left by glaciers, riding an antique carousel, or tasting traditionally harvested maple syrup.

Mark Twain House and Museum With its inventive architectural choices, the historic, 19-room Victorian mansion built in Connecticut’s capital in 1873 uniquely captures the author. “Walking in the front door, kids are blown away by the size and the shapes and the colors,’’ said Jeffrey Nichols, executive director of the house and museum. “Kids come in and they all go, ‘Oooooh!’ ’’ With this year marking the centennial of Twain’s death and the 175th anniversary of his birth, his house will play host to Tom Sawyer Day on June 12. It will be a day filled with “Tom-foolery,’’ including performances by dancers, singers, and a magician, as well as a frog exhibit by the Connecticut Children’s Museum in honor of Twain’s story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.’’ 351 Farmington Ave., 860-247-0998, www.marktwainhouse.org, adults $15, seniors $13, children ages 6-16 $9.

Bragg Farm Sugar House (East Montpelier) For eight generations, the Bragg family has produced maple syrup at their sugar house, using traditional sap buckets and a wood-fired evaporator. Visitors who tour the 50-acre farm can see the whole process from collecting sap in 2,000 buckets to boiling it down into syrupy goodness. “The energy that’s in the sugar house creates quite an interest, but what excites kids the most is tasting the maple syrup,’’ said Barb Bragg, co-owner with her husband, Doug. There are free samples of different maple syrup grades. Until the end of April, there is sugar on snow — a cup of warm syrup poured over crushed ice — every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from noon to 5. The hot-cold combination turns the syrup into a taffy-like treat ($4.95). 1005 Route 14 north, 802- 223-5757, www.braggfarm.com.

Old Sturbridge Village (Sturbridge) Touring the 40 original buildings that comprise a rural New England town in the 1830s and talking with the costumed staff at Old Sturbridge Village, it’s easy to forget in what century you live. “There’s a chance to engage all your senses and put yourself in the past,’’ said Tom Kelleher, village historian. The blacksmith shop, daily hearth cooking, and animals from oxen to lambs are popular with children. The height of lamb season comes in April and May when kids are able to pet the soft-coated newborns. Throughout the summer, visitors can participate in “base-ball’’ games the way they were played in the 1830s: ax handles for bats, rag balls, and bases run from third to first. 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, 800-733-1830, www.osv.org, adults $20, seniors $18, ages 3-17 $7.

Polar Caves (Rumney, N.H.) For the budding spelunker, the Polar Caves offer a labyrinth of passageways for exploration. Approximately 50,000 years ago, the third continental glacier left behind a rock obstacle course. Man made the caves easily accessible with interior lighting and winding wooden staircases. A kid favorite, said general manager Rob Arey, is the “Lemon Squeeze’’ cave with a 16-inch-wide opening. In addition to the caves, children can visit the rock garden, waterfowl display, deer yard, covered bridge, and the Klondike Mines. Short hiking trails take explorers between sites. 705 Rumney Route 25, 603-536-1888, www.polarcaves.com, 11 and older $15, 4-10 $11.

Slater Mill (Pawtucket, R.I.) The Industrial Revolution is given its due at Slater Mill, the country’s first successful cotton-spinning mill. In old mill buildings, visitors can see vintage machinery and tools, including the 16,000-pound wheel that turned the Blackstone River below it into a power source. Slater Mill offers children a hands-on experience where they can operate small machinery. “In modern times, there’s so many things that we can’t see how they work,’’ said curator Andrian Paquette. “In our museum, you can see how one gear turns one thing that turns another.’’ Costumed staff members tell young visitors about all aspects of the Industrial Revolution from child labor to women’s rights to the role of immigration. 67 Roosevelt Ave., 401-725-8638, www.slatermill.org, adults $10, seniors $9, ages 6-12 $8. USS Constitution (Charlestown) The world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat is practically around the corner at the Charlestown Naval Yard. The majestic, three-masted frigate is old enough to have had its original copper fastenings created by Paul Revere. As “Old Ironsides’’ gears up for the bicentennial of the War of 1812, kids can tour the ship and learn about its history from active-duty sailors. Free tours cover the top deck, gun deck, and berth deck. If visitors want to learn more about the history of the warship and US Navy, they can stop at the nearby USS Constitution Museum. Building 5 Charlestown Navy Yard, 617-242-7511, www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution, admission free.

Bushnell Park Carousel (Hartford) and New England Carousel Museum (Bristol, Conn.) The Bushnell Park Carousel showcases antique, wooden horses that transport visitors in circles and back in time. The 48 hand-carved horses with bright-hued armor and roses are jaw-dropping works of art from 1914. “Today, kids don’t know the carousel quite as well because they’re too busy being high-teched to death,’’ said Louise DeMars, museum executive director. Less than a half-hour away by car, the New England Carousel Museum exhibits one of the country’s largest collections of carousel pieces from the “Golden Age of Carousel’’ (1880-1920). Carousel Museum, 95 Riverside Ave., Route 72, 860-585-5411, www.thecarouselmuseum.org, adults $5, seniors $4.50, ages 4-14 $2.50, Bushnell Park Carousel open end of April-end of October.

Shelburne Museum (Shelburne, Vt.) Where else can you find a luxury railway car that once transported presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Dwight Eisenhower near a 220-foot steamboat near a 19th-century jail? “We find that kids like to lock up their parents at the jail,’’ said Hannah Weisman, academic programs coordinator. “And they also liked being locked up themselves.’’ Overall, the museum is a true tour de force of US history from the 1700s until the present day, emphasizing art and architecture. The structures housing exhibits are part of the museum collection. 6000 Shelburne Road, 802-985-3346, www.shelburnemuseum.org, daily from May 16-Oct. 24, adults $20, ages 5-18 $10.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.