For many New Englanders the words Strawbery Banke evoke images of 18 th-century New England - craftsmen in their shops, boatbuilders surrounded by wood shavings, blacksmiths forging hinges, nails, or ship hardware, women gardening and tending the home fires, and impish children running along the docks.
Today, Portsmouth's Strawbery Banke is still an active community. But what you see here is unique. This historic area is more than a reproduction of a Colonial village. Instead, it preserves one of America's oldest neighborhoods as it has evolved over four centuries of cultural and architectural change.
Richard Cutts, the Banke's public information officer, says that the concept of preservation shaping this ''living museum'' has changed over the past 25 years. ''If we had had a wealthy benefactor early on, Strawbery Banke would probably be very similar to Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village. Instead, because we've always been short of funds, the museum is constantly changing its approach to restoration and preservation.''
These constant changes are evident in the fascinating variety of approaches Strawbery Banke takes to its historic structures. Some of the structures are used for educational exhibits on archaeology, traditional trades, and the evolution of architectural styles and construction techniques. Other buildings have been preserved and adapted for use as offices, shops, and apartments for the museum staff. Of the 37 structures open to the public, five are furnished showrooms.
As you enter the historic neighborhood, the 17th-century home of Capt. John Sherburne sits directly in front of you. The house has a haunting post-medieval appearance: steeply pitched roof, large central chimney, double gables, and small, leaded, diamond-paned windows.
Its interior, open to the public as an exhibit, is fascinating: Different sections have been cut away and detailed inscriptions tell how the home was built, what materials were used, and which part of the house is original. In one room is a model of how the house looked during the 18th century, when it had been renovated to look like a Georgian house.
As lead interpreter Allison Fleming and I pass one building, her eyes light up: ''This was the site of the Abbotts' Corner Grocery Store during the 1930s. Although the house is much older than that, we're planning on restoring it and re-creating a depression-era store. But we don't have the funds yet to do that.''
One of the most distinctive features of the house is the very large bay window addition above the store entrance. When the Abbotts decided to turn the house into a store, Allison explains, Mrs. Abbott asked her husband to build the window so she would have a front living room. That way she could see what was going on all up and down the street.
Of the five furnished houses, perhaps the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial is the best known. The rooms in this house were immortalized in Thomas Aldrich's well-known children's book, ''The Story of a Bad Boy.'' The book is a barely fictionalized collection of Aldrich's adventures as a young boy. The house appears almost exactly as it is depicted in Aldrich's book.
Wandering along the gravel streets and brick walkways, one cannot help being impressed by friendliness of the Strawbery Banke employees. Guides greet you as you walk by and patiently and enthusiastically field the endless questions put to them by schoolchildren here for a day trip. Visitors smile tentatively, and tied up in the shade of a large tree is a very large golden retriever puppy, its tail wagging constantly. Clearly, Strawbery Banke is much more a living community than a museum caught in time.
To get to Strawbery Banke from Boston, take Route 1 north to I-95 north. When you get to the Portsmouth exits, take Exit 7, Market Street, to downtown. Then follow the strawberry signs. The museum is open daily, April 15 to Nov. 15, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5.50 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $4 for students 17 to 22, $4 for chldren 6 to 16, and $15 for families.