Kansas heritage sites can help save rural communities

July 13, 2021 3:33 am

The Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie is used by educators from throughout the region to introduce youths to the stories of the Underground Railroad and settlement of Black families in the area. These young people from the 2016 Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area’s summer youth camp are hiking back to their buses after visiting the ruts and swales of the historic Topeka-Fort Riley road. (Submitted)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

On a recent trip to Nebraska I decided to find a place to hide, a place to turn off the phone and relax for a while. A quick search brought up an historic home listed by the National Willa Cather Center. Once owned by Cather’s parents, and often visited by the venerated writer herself, it sounded like the perfect mini-vacation getaway. My family warned me, however, there wasn’t much to do in Red Cloud.

They could not have been more wrong. Red Cloud’s effort to capture the spirit of history and heritage and mold it into an economic boon is a lesson for dying rural communities. So I was disappointed to read in the Kansas Reflector of such resistance to opportunities being offered through a National Heritage Area designation.

Though the Cather Center itself is not designated a National Heritage Site, our northern Kansas counties could learn to similarly highlight their own contributions to history by utilizing the funding and support offered by such a program. As it stands now, creating a National Heritage Area in the region has become such a fight between those wanting to bring tourism-based economies to endangered communities and those fearing such a designation as the first step to federal takeover of private lands that it may be a possibility that dies before it is thoroughly considered. This would be a loss for the state as a whole.

Few issues in Kansas fire the emotions like those of private property rights, which is understandable. Many families have owned these lands for generations. It is not just a cliche that they’ve soaked the earth with their blood and sweat for centuries. But property rights protections are specifically written into the laws designating heritage sites. And why cling to fear when your community is dying around you and a lifeline is at hand?

“I couldn’t take someone’s property if I wanted to,” said Jim Ogle, executive director of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. Established in 2006 by George W. Bush, Freedom’s Frontier represents 41 counties across the Kansas-Missouri border, 29 of which are Kansas counties taking advantage of the opportunity.

“(President Ronald Reagan) felt that it was critical to create a new kind of heritage park with the federal government and private investors working together,” Ogle explained. “But private property rights are protected by law.”

He also explained that when a National Heritage Area is designated, landowners have the option to allow their property to be used or not. There is also a stipulation that if land owners opt in but change their minds later, they can opt out and have their land removed from the designation area.

A designation provides a community the freedom to renovate, preserve and market local places that are of state and national significance. For example, Freedom’s Frontier directly supports its sites in two ways. First, it offers grants to fund on-the-ground projects. And second, it works to promote the entire region in a way that smaller entities could never afford on their own. One such tool is the Freedom’s Frontier App, where tourists download themed maps such as the Underground Railroad, Santa Fe Trail, or Civil War. Visitors can then travel to each site learning Kansas history and adding to a town’s economy as they go.

“Tourists stop and eat and then pick up a knick-knack to take home with them to remind them of their trip,” Ogle said.

He points to the community of Lecompton, which has seen its downtown, and its economy, grow because of increased visitors to its historic sites.

But Lecompton is situated in a fairly urbanized region. Would tourists make their way to rural communities that are less accessible to interstate traffic or nearby cities just for an historic tour?

Ana Armstrong, owner of On the Brix, a wine bar and gift shop in Red Cloud, says they do — and her business reaps the benefits.

“The amount of people that come to visit Red Cloud because of Willa Cather is astronomical,” she said. “Most come to stay overnight and most average a two-day stay. When they do that, they look for new experiences and new places to eat and drink. That is where we come in.”

Often overlooked by the rest of the country, it’s time for Kansas to tell her stories. And it’s time for those who seem to be so proud of their heritage to loosen their grip, thereby preventing the loss of our rural communities to forgotten relevance and financial despair.

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Shawna Bethell
Shawna Bethell

Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. Before returning home, she wrote for several publications in the southwestern United States.