The Rural Backwaters of History: Remote Museums & Historic Sites
Prior to departing on our Grand Tour of the South, we were given a question to consider: “What is the South?” During our car ride we even made bingo boards of things that we may see that to us represent the South. Some of our ideas were stereotypical objects and phrases like the confederate flag and the phrase, “bless your heart.” Other items on our boards conjured southern food traditions like boiled peanuts and pickled pigs feet. Some of our bingo spaces were things that were steeped in cultural traditions, like a swept yard. While there are many aspects of “the South” that define the region, I could not help but reflect on how much of its character is defined by the rural nature of many of its communities. I grew up in rural upstate New York, and I would joke that my area was a mix between “The South” and Canada. Perhaps my upbringing led me to be most interested in the visits we made to museums and historic sites in rural areas.
Our trip did not make stops in the major coastal cities of the south, but we did visit several major cities like Birmingham, Nashville, and Memphis. Between these cities, we made stops in some out-of-the-way yet important and interesting sites. Often these sites tell important regional stories with national significance, but they face public accessibility challenges that city sites do not.
Our first stop on the trip was Prestwould Plantation near Clarksville, Virginia, over 100 miles from Richmond. This site is a true gem of preservation with ample documentation that links existing furniture with pieces originally purchased for the house. In addition, structures that were once the living quarters of enslaved laborers have survived on this site. The survival of this plantation is, in part, due to its remote location, which allowed it to escape some of the ravages of the Civil War.
Prestwould Plantation in southern Virginia was the first stop on the 2017 WPAMC Southern Trip. Image by author.
Later on our trip we made a stop at the Chief Vann House Historic site. We made this stop in Chatsworth, Georgia located in the rural northwest corner of the state on our drive from Asheville, NC to Birmingham, AL. This early 19th century house was the largest and most prosperous plantation in the Cherokee Nation. James Vann of the Cherokee Nation built the house, and his son owned it until the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) via the the Trail of Tears. This site involves a complicated narrative of racial and ethnic relationships in the early 19th century in respect to complex historical actors. It is an important story both regionally and nationwide.
Chief Vann’s House in Georgia is a fascinating site with complicated narratives of multi-racial interactions featuring slavery, murder, money, and relocation. Image by author.
Fittingly, our final destination on the Southern trip was another rural stop, this time in West Virginia at the Arthurdale Heritage, Inc. Here we explored the first New Deal homestead subsistence project established through the work of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. This site, a flagship of the program, has national significance with respect to coping with the economic devastation of the Great Depression, but it is primarily an intimate local story. Class photographs with only a couple dozen students are featured in the exhibits. Families who lived in the prefabricated houses continue to live there today. This planned community—and the historical society’s representation of it—emphasizes the romantic notion of close community ties in a rural setting. While rural America is often negatively stereotyped today, it historically and currently plays an important role in the shaping of the American identity, especially in the South.
WPAMC ’18 Fellows join in a discussion of Arthurdale and its creation as a New Deal planned settlement outside of Arthurdale’s Central Hall.
The interesting route we explored allowed us to visit many disparate and relatively remote locations. It is admirable and important that these sites are preserved and open to the broader public. We were not locals to any of these sites, but there were major aspects of national historic significance in all of them that connect to our broader interests. Thus these sites balance the local story with the national historic significance. In order to counteract their remote location, these sites will need to further engage with local communities for visitation and support. Trips like the one our class took are rare, and these small sites cannot rely on large numbers of tourist visitors. Nevertheless, I would recommend an excursion to any of these sites even though they may take you off the beaten path.
By Sara McNamara, WPAMC Class of 2018