Voices From The Past

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.

These aren't ghosts -- just actors sharing park history.

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.

Joining Forces

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.

Promotion Efforts

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.

Coming Together

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.

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