Tourism Through the Ages: The Inland South

Vintage Postcard, Image courtesy of

As we made our way over winding mountain roads, gulf coastal plains and fields of rolling bluegrass, I began to see just how much of an integral role tourism played in the development and continued survival of the inland South. As tourists ourselves, we were also visiting as students of history and material culture – eager to experience new places, ideas, and objects. But why did people of the past come to this region, and how did tourism shape these communities?

The welcome sign of Berkeley Springs, highlighting the spa culture heritage of the town.

Of course, the answers are different for each locale. But they all share qualities that inspired people to travel, a much more perilous prospect in the past. Heading into the interior was difficult, mostly overland with geography limiting rail or water travel.

Despite these prospects, the pursuit of health and rehabilitation was worth the trip – a sentiment quite visible during our short stop in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. First incorporated in the Colony of Virginia as the town of Bath, a nod to the eponymous British Spa town, Berkeley Springs had been a locus for relaxation and the enjoyment of the natural mountain waters throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Virginian elite – even George Washington himself – were frequent patrons. Remnants of the nineteenth century bathhouses bring to mind this prosperous time in West Virginia’s history. While Berkeley Springs still attracts visitors, it does not enjoy the level of tourism that it once did. The Grand Hotels and swarming crowds are gone, and the idea of “taking the waters” no longer resonates with the general population as a cure-all for health problems. Despite being created and shaped by the allure of the spa, Berkeley Springs is a shadow of its eighteenth and nineteenth century former glory – the lasting dependence on tourism is closely entwined with its present success.

The Gentleman’s Spring Bathhouse, one of the remaining nineteenth century structures of the Spa.

Also once seen as a haven for health, Asheville, North Carolina, was revered for the benefits of mountain air. During our stop in the city, we paid a visit to the Grove Park Inn, a lasting remnant of the days of mountain retreats featuring an abundance of Roycroft furnishings. Why did the Grove Park Inn stand the test of time? Contemporary survival, in many of these cases, is unsurprisingly due to modernization. While the lure of the Blue Ridge is steadfast, Grove Park is now fit for 21st century consumption with more rooms, expanded amenities (including a renowned Spa and Golf Course!), and the cessation of the strict rules and requirements of the Edwardian Era. Like Berkeley Springs, Grove Park is entirely dependent on visitation.

The granite-encrusted exterior of the Grove Park Inn, now owned by the Omni.

Making concessions in the name of tourism is often necessary for continued survival, a quality many of us felt was present in Cherokee, North Carolina. As the headquarters of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, the town is dependent upon tourism – featuring everything from casinos to museums and cultural theatre. While the museum of the Cherokee Indian tells a thorough tale of the Tribe’s history, the theatre tells another.

Eagle dance from Unto these Hills, Image courtesy of

Entitled Unto These Hills, the outdoor play has been running for over fifty years. Now an integral part of the Cherokee community, it fosters local involvement and bolsters programs to keep elements of the Cherokee nation – such as the spoken language – alive. Focusing on the events between the Cherokee and Federal Government leading up to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and the eventual return to North Carolina, the show broaches an incredibly dark chapter of American history. While the play has undergone changes over the course of the last fifty years, the question remains – is this how the Cherokee of the 21st century would like to tell their story? How much has been augmented for modern consumption in order to attract tourists? The balance between these two questions is inherently debatable – but the influence of tourism on the creation and sustained popularity of Unto These Hills is undeniable.

Examining the various stops on our trip through the lens of tourism was a revelation in what museums and historic sites must do to survive in 2017. To face the challenges that come with shifting generational, social, technological and political climates, they must strike a balance between history, education and visitation – and possess the awareness and flexibility to enact change over time. As emerging young professionals, these sentiments are of the utmost importance to us as we prepare to take on the ever-evolving world of museums and figure out the best ways to educate others about material culture.


By Allie Cade, WPAMC Class of 2018

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