Well, I think it really depends on what sort of lab or school you go to. For example, at my University, there's several programs in the College of Natural Sciences that strongly encourage freshmen to join into legitimate research labs. They had several labs held open for undergrads, and the PIs had volunteered to give them projects that were doable and worthwhile.
For example, before leaving my old lab, I worked on a gene that had been implicated in cell differentiation and cell-specific splicing. No quite knows how the protein works, but we hope to find it out via a tagging method that allows us to purify a protein complex and analyze what other proteins were associated with it. We were definitely doing hands on research, and this was only in my second semester of my freshmen year. My lab was not the only one available, as I'm aware of several other friends of mine working on projects everywhere from aptamer selection and using nanomaterials for chemical catalysis to supraamolecular sensors.
Considering that most of these people I knew were freshmen at a large research university, I have to say that not all freshmen would have a bad research experience in doing grunt work only. I think that these labs have taught us much more than a normal freshmen teaching lab ever could. In the end, within a year, most of these freshmen have more research experience than many juniors and seniors who have neglected to join a lab as an undergraduate.