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A Place with a Story

A Taste for History Creates a New Hybrid

By Patti Van Tuyl | HUMANITIES, September/October 1997 | Volume 18, Number 5

What does a cruise through the desert on old Route 66 have in common with a pilgrimage across the plains in the footsteps of Brigham Young? Both are part of a new trend in travel called "cultural tourism," which is creating an unexpected alliance between historians and the marketplace.

What cultural tourism offers, says writer and peach farmer Mas Masumoto, is "a place with a story" -- a story which connects a "human face and a human voice with each place." According to a 1996 industry report, Tourism Works for America, this is what people want. In a $467 billion business, the report finds, it takes more than gambling casinos, theme parks, and resorts to satisfy people who travel. They want to "learn about a community through its historic sites, museums, theatre, festivals, ethnic diversity, artists, and more." They want a chance "to experience the `real America.'"

One place that tells a story of "real America" is the Blackstone River Valley in southern New England, which has spent more than two decades transforming its economy and self-identity.

The area had been languishing since the twenties, its economic base and population dwindling. Commuters passed through -- or passed by -- on their way to Providence or Boston or Worcester. Visitors skipped the valley entirely for Old Sturbridge Village and Mystic Seaport and Plimoth Plantation.

In the early 1970s, residents of the Blackstone River Valley took stock of their situation and began working to revive their region. They began sprucing up their historic buildings, cleaning up the river, and creating parks and recreation facilities. For their efforts, they were chosen in 1986 as one of the first National Heritage Corridors.

The Corridor Commission took two years to draw up a comprehensive plan. The Cultural Heritage and Land Management Plan for the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, published in 1989, laid out a twenty-year strategy.

What are the essential elements?

The Place

Residents see the Valley as a region having its own distinctive character. "Now," says the Corridor plan, "for perhaps the first time, residents have begun to view their towns collectively -- as part of a complex, ever changing fabric that weaves together the Valley's historic, cultural and natural resources in a unique place -- a place that reflects the major contributions to American life over the last 350 years."

The Blackstone River and Canal serve as the core, what the report calls "the natural spine of the Valley." Landscape patterns -- natural and built -- recur throughout the region, including farmland and open spaces with distinctive country roads, stone walls, and barns; the towering stacks of textile mills and other factories; self-contained mill villages with the appurtenances for millworkers and their families to work, play, trade, and worship; the government and commercial districts of carefully planned town centers; and the more congested and amorphous clusters of buildings in cities.

The Story

"This cultural landscape," says the plan, "is an organism of elements absorbed and integrated over more than 300 years." To the people who live in the Blackstone Valley, the river, the canal, and the various landscapes are woven together into a meaningful whole because they are part of a central story -- the story of the Industrial Revolution in America. Along with its broad national significance, it had great consequence for the local residents. In the words of the Corridor plan, the story to be told is "the birth, decline and rebirth of the Valley's economy and sense of self."

America's first successful water-powered textile mill was built in 1790 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, by Samuel Slater. The transition of the region and the nation from an agrarian to an industrial economy had begun.

Between the Civil War and World War I, the Blackstone gained a reputation as the nation's "hardest working river." New England had become a major producer of textiles and other goods needed by people all across the expanding nation. Much of the barbed wire that fenced the Great Plains was produced by factories in the Blackstone River Valley.

Blackstone Valley mills were among the first companies to exchange wages for labor rather than barter in goods and services. Some of the nation's earliest labor disputes took place here. Since entire families worked in the mills, child labor was an issue of special concern. Workers also organized for relief against long hours, noise, heat, and dangerous work conditions. In 1824, the first labor strike involving women took place in Pawtucket to protest an increase in hours and simultaneous cut in wages.

The region's decline began around 1880, when the textile industry began moving south. By 1923, more than half the nation's cotton production was based in the South. Of the woolen mills still in operation in the Blackstone Valley at the end of World War II, 90 percent were gone by the end of the 1980s.

The story that binds residents of the Blackstone Valley together is the same story they are striving to convey to their visitors. A traveler will be able to follow the main thread of this narrative by stopping at each of five visitors centers located along Route 46 between Providence and Worcester. At the center in Pawtucket, a film presents a general account of the Industrial Revolution in New England. Across the street is the Samuel Slater Historic Site, the crown jewel of the Heritage Area, where America's Industrial Revolution was born.

Up the road, in the Blackstone River State Park, visitors will find a restored building from the canal era, the Kelly House. The visitor center there will emphasize the story of transportation in the Valley.

In Woonsocket, the Museum of Work and Culture is scheduled to open this October with an exhibition focusing on the area's French Canadian population. With NEH support, the Rhode Island Historical Society, the Woonsocket Industrial Development Corporation, and the City of Woonsocket have joined forces to restore the Lincoln Textile Building to house the museum.

Further north in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, the River Bend Farm Visitor Center will focus on the transition of the region from agriculture. The subsequent industrial growth is picked up as a theme at the Worcester Historical Museum, which traces the change in Worcester from a small village into New England's second-largest city. The Museum is an interim site until a projected visitor center is built.

There is "continuity among and between all the visitor centers," says Albert Klyberg, Director of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Visitors to Old Sturbridge Village or Mystic Seaport or Plimoth Plantation will need to come to the Blackstone Valley to see "the rest of the story," says Klyberg.

Other towns and sites throughout the Valley add texture to the central story. On a walking tour through the historic Arnold Mills section of Cumberland, Rhode Island, for example, visitors see remnants of early mills that served local farmers; the machine shop, built in 1825, that brought the village into the Industrial Revolution; historic homes, a church, a Friends Meeting House, a Grange hall, and a school, which offer windows into the lives of village residents past and present.

Giving Voice

The peopling of the Blackstone Valley is an important thread in the story. When English settlers arrived in the seventeenth century, the land was inhabited by the Narragansett, the Wampanoag, and the Nipmuc peoples. The earliest English settlers were religious dissidents from the Massachusetts Colony. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Irish and Canadian immigrants took jobs building the Blackstone Canal. Immigrants from Germany, Sweden, and Holland helped supply the goods and services required by a growing workforce. In the second half of the nineteenth century, mills employed families just arrived from southern and eastern Europe. African Americans came to the factories in large numbers after World War II. Many of today's new residents come from Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Traveling through the Blackstone Valley, visitors will be able to hear many of these voices through the stories of individuals or families. The Kelly House will tell the story of Wilbur Kelly, who in 1815 gave up his life as a sea captain to work in the mills. The settling and development of the Quebecois enclave in Woonsocket is the focus of "La Survivance," an exhibition opening in October at the Woonsocket Visitor Center.

One of the objectives of the Woonsocket Visitor Center, Klyberg says, is to "create a new looking glass so when people come to the museum they can see their faces." Along with the "La Survivance" exhibition on the region's French Canadian population, there will be gallery space for Irish, Polish, African, Asian and other stories to be told.

Residents throughout the Blackstone Valley have helped shape the main narrative through oral histories, family documents, photographs, and family heirlooms. The Corridor plan calls the valley's residents "`living treasures' who have an enormous wealth of knowledge that is in danger of being lost or forgotten if not made part of the record."


With the growth of cultural tourism has come a concern that America's cultural heritage might be regarded as just one commodity among others. The question of how authenticity is established -- and who has authority to establish it -- is a thorny one.

One mark of authenticity for visitors is access to the original voices of the people whose interwoven lives make up the story. Another is reliance on the disciplinary habits of cultural specialists such as historians, archaeologists, folklorists, and cultural geographers. Their contributions are valuable in the first instance because they bring something from the outside.

"Until people realize that their own place has been a focus for outside attention," Indiana writer Scott Russell Sanders observes, "they may not live there with full attention." The presence of visitors of any kind can help move a community toward a "broader sense of what it means to belong to a place."

Moreover, humanities scholars bring outside attention of a special kind. They bring to bear their knowledge of how people from other times and places have structured their lives, organized their social relations, and responded aesthetically or practically to their natural surroundings.

William Ferris, Director of the Center for the Southern Culture in Mississippi, puts it this way: "The scholar frames -- intellectually -- the culture by offering comparison with other cultures."

In nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, the mill operators were young women from New England towns. Drawn to the city by the chance to earn wages, most lived in rooms in the city's boarding houses. In the Blackstone Valley, by contrast, mills employed entire families, who lived together as families in the carefully planned and structured mill towns.

Scholars also help "frame contemporary experience with historic experience," says Ferris. "In the South, for example, the Civil War is a frame for contemporary experience. Civil Rights might be another frame." Just so, historians have helped residents of the Blackstone Valley understand their present -- and their options for the future -- in light of the Valley's economic and social history.


Literature promoting travel in the valley promises more than history: to poke along country roads; to canoe or bike along the Blackstone River; to relax and see the sights from a riverboat; to sample local cuisine and shop for local crafts in renovated mills and mill villages; to tour a historic mill or hear a band concert on the town common. Its versatility makes it sustainable as a tourism destination.

What, if anything, does sustainability have to do with the humanities? The key seems to be context: planning that takes into account the life of the people who live in the region as well as the needs of visitors; a definition of culture that sees it not as a set of esoteric activities but a part of daily life; an appreciation of heritage as a learning tool for future generations; and a balanced valuation of local resources -- human, commercial, natural, historic, and cultural. There is also respect for limitations: How many tourists (or residents or businesses) can the community accommodate before the quality of life or the authenticity ot the experience is impaired?

The Blackstone River Valley Heritage Corridor is just one of many places where the visitor experience being developed is tied to the revitalization of a local community. The basic elements for success are the same for a section of a major city, like Harlem, or a declining farm community in Iowa.

The future might appear to local residents as a choice between holding on desperately to a distinctive past or being swept away into the homogeneity of mass culture. Those who stay ask themselves, "What keeps us here?" This response enables the community to "build its own future," which Sanders sees as "very healthy, both ecologically and psychologically." But he has misgivings about the urge to use a new sense of community as the basis for attracting tourists. "It's distracting," he says. "As Americans we move around too much as it is."

William Ferris is more a champion of cultural tourism, believing its popularity to be just one sign that "America has come of age" -- that we have "come to terms with what it means to be American." As a result of the maturation of our culture," he says, we "have developed a more sophisticated interest in history and culture." We are more willing and more able to recognize the diversity of America. "We now have a fuller picture of who we are and want to have a fuller picture of the place where we live." Cultural tourism is "not only economically significant, but culturally as well: lest we forget who we are as Americans."

About the Author

Patti Van Tuyl is a program officer in the NEH Office of Enterprise.

Funding Information

The Woonsocket Museum of Work and Culture opens in October 1997. The permanent exhibition, "La Survivance," received $400,000 in support from the Endowment.