As parks and recreation professionals, it is easy for us to get caught up in building the biggest and best new parks and facilities, and implementing the newest fads and trends into programming.
However, the goal of the parks and recreation department in Westfield, Ind., is to highlight and celebrate the historical figures of the past.
The inspiration to host “Voices from the Past” came about when another committee was looking for a project. In 2010, the Heritage Committee was asked to research the history of the city’s park names. Several of the parks have names based on historical figures from the community–such as Asa Bales Park and Simon Moon Park, two of the founding fathers–while other parks pay tribute to the role the community played in the Underground Railroad–such as Freedom Trail Park and Liberty Park.
These unconventional park names often leave residents wondering about the origin of the names.
When the Heritage Committee wanted to share its research with the public, I was reminded of the Voices from the Past fundraiser hosted by the historical society in my hometown of Winona, Minn. The event led attendees through a scenic local cemetery where actors portrayed past citizens.
Offering a similar event seemed the perfect way to utilize the completed research and educate the community on its rich history in a new and exciting way.
Partnerships were necessary to accomplish this, as both the Heritage Committee and the parks and recreation staff are small groups. The Westfield-Washington Historical Society and the Westfield Playhouse–a local theater group–seemed to be the perfect choices.
The society volunteered the help of people passionate and knowledgeable about history to develop the scripts and tour-guide information, while the playhouse contributed a group of seasoned actors with a talent for connecting with people–a crucial element in the success of the event.
Similar partnerships could be made with any local or regional museum or historical group, or even a high-school drama club.
With all of the groups on board, planning started immediately: establishing the tour route, tour sizes, a timeline, ticket prices, and marketing strategies. The timeline was critical and fixed the amount of time a group of people could walk from site to site, the length of the scripts, and the number of interpretations.
Marketing, an essential element of any new event, included the following:
• Banners hung around town
• Fliers posted at local businesses
• Information posted on the park website, Facebook, and Twitter
• An ad and article run in the local weekly newspaper
• Tickets sold at the Farmer’s Market each week.
Opting initially to use the same name as the Minnesota event, the group quickly discovered that people did not understand the concept, so it was explained as a living history walk, which people seemed to understand better.
All of the preparations and planning paid off on the night of Voices from the Past. The event began at the entrance to Asa Bales Park, where tents and displays were set up to represent each of the organizations involved.
The historical society also arranged several demonstrations, such as corn shucking, bucket making, and pioneer games. This gave attendees something to do while waiting for their tour to begin, and the activities were a hit with the kids.
Once on the tour, groups were led to the first cemetery by a volunteer guide dressed in period-appropriate clothing. Along the way, attendees were greeted by a guitarist on a hay bale and other points of interest to keep the walk entertaining. The guides told the history of the 1830s cemetery and other tales about Westfield’s role in the anti-slavery movement, the Underground Railroad, and the Quakers who founded the town.
At Asa Bales Park, guests met the park’s namesake and his wife, one of Westfield’s first doctors, a Civil War soldier, and his mother.
The groups next traveled to Hadley Park, a pocket park in the heart of downtown, where they learned about the history of homes and businesses from the guides along the way. At the park, they met namesake Roy Hadley and another former business person and active citizen, both born around the turn of the century.
The tour continued on to Old Friends Cemetery Park, site of Westfield’s first cemetery and a park that recently underwent a major renovation. Here, the tour groups heard from another founding father and benefactor of the cemetery, another Civil War soldier, and one of the most educated women of the late-nineteenth century and namesake of the garden area of the park.
Two elements that made the event truly special were the connection to the actors and the park settings. It is one thing to read the story of founding fathers on a plaque or a website, but it is an entirely different experience to have someone telling the story as that person and being able to interact, allowing people to connect to history on a personal level.
In the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, it would be difficult not to be moved by a young man in uniform talking about doing his part for President Abraham Lincoln and revealing he did not make it back home, and his mother relaying how proud she was of his courage and sacrifice.
Making the experience even more of a reality was listening to the stories told at the headstones or burial sites of the people being portrayed. One attendee even spoke about feeling the presence of the people in the parks–not in a frightening, paranormal way, but in a way that made her think they were happy to be remembered.
Some attendees said they would never think about the city the same way and had never appreciated history more. Mission accomplished. Voices from the Past not only brought people of all ages and backgrounds to three parks in one day–a goal of any parks and recreation department–but the citizens learned a great deal.
“All of us are connected to the past, and that link helps us enjoy more fully the present,” said the president of the Westfield-Washington Historical Society.
So, when planning your next events, don’t just consider the latest trends, but look to your community’s past for inspiration. You do not need a pre-Civil War cemetery to host a living history event because every community has voices to be heard that should not be forgotten.
Stephanie Fix is an administrative assistant for the city of Westfield’s parks and recreation department. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.