Discover – or rediscover – the town of Southbridge MA, an old factory town in Massachusetts that has been revitalized by a new hotel and enlivened with a number of free family friendly activities.
Free Things to Do in Southbridge MA
Southbridge, Massachusetts, is not as well known today as its neighbor, Sturbridge. But in its heyday, Southbridge, home to American Optical, was the quintessential company town, employing most of its population at the local eyeglass factory.
Old Sturbridge Village and the shuttering of American Optical have caused Sturbridge to eclipse Southbridge, but the town has its charms, along with a deluxe hotel perfect for history buffs. It also has a few free attractions that help hold down the cost of family getaway.
Focus on Southbridge MA
The Optical Heritage Museum is free and open by appointment only. This small museum has some unusual artifacts, from vintage eyewear and microscopes to information about a failed collaboration with the CIA when American Optical developed fiber optics. The company also developed night vision goggles for use in the Vietnam War.
The museum serves as a de facto history museum for the town, with Normal Rockwell prints, photos from the factory’s early days and a video about the flood that devastated Southbridge. A room is set with American Optical silverware and china, used for company parties.
Beer Tasting and More
Rapscallion Brewery offers free tours and tastings Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. What is unusual about this place is it is on the grounds of Hyland Orchard, where you can pick apples and play disc golf (both for a fee). On summer weekends, the owners of the Orchard hire local bands and invite visitors to picnic on the grass or at the covered pavilion.
The Rapscallion tours are brief enough to hold a child’s interest and the brewery makes its own root beer, giving kids a free taste. The owners are generous with their beer samples, too, so if you aren’t a day drinker, you might want to purchase a growler for later consumption.
The Great Outdoors
A village green, across the street from the Southbridge Hotel, features a giant pair of eyeglasses. The hotel retains the facade of the American Optical factory, so the eyeglasses are a cute touch. Kids, especially those who wear prescription lenses, will enjoy climbing around the structure. The village green also has a gazebo where you can picnic.
If you walk behind the Southbridge Hotel, you can see other, un-renovated, factory buildings, plus a stream and pond with ducks. There are a few picnic tables scattered around the grounds.
Free in Nearby Connecticut
The Last Green Valley in the northeast corner of Connecticut, just a 15 minute drive, is part of the National Heritage Corridor. The road was designated the first scenic drive east of the Mississippi, but the charms of a country road are often lost on kids. What they will enjoy is walking around the adorable town of Putnam. Down by the river there is a park with a trail for biking or walking, and in town there are antique shops cafes with outdoor seating and the most charming reuse of bicycles I’ve ever seen; baskets of flowers erupting from colorful bikes around town.
Putnam has a lively first Fridays celebration, where live music and other entertainment lines the streets. The festivities start at a family friendly 5pm, and a lot of parking closes by 3pm, so either get there early or be prepared for a bit of a walk (this only applies if you don’t live n New York City, where a 10 block walk to the car is ‘around the corner.’)
Second Day Free at Old Sturbridge Village
Another thing that is free nearby – a second day at Old Sturbridge Village. There is so much to explore at this living history museum (second in size only to Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village) that you will need to return. Each day, the village offers different special events, like glass blowing or blacksmithing; it truly is impossible to see everything in one visit. Take advantage of the second day free (within 10 days; it doesn’t even have to be consecutive)— you won’t regret it.
And you can avoid the Old Sturbridge Village fee altogether if you just want to explore the herb garden, behind the gift shop.
Note: I was a guest of the Southbridge Hotel, which paid for my travel and accommodations. I did not otherwise receive compensation and opinions expressed are my own.