Historic Preservation Goes Rural with National Help, Small Communities Are Mobilizing to Save America's Country Heritage

Article excerpt

SAVE a scenic view? Preserve a pioneer prairie homestead? Rescue some threatened natural wetlands? Is this historic preservation? Yes, but not the more traditional urban approach to saving the built environment.

Rural preservation, now an important program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., means the protection of America's countryside heritage, with its farms and roads, hamlets and villages, fields and waterways, forests and wildlife habitats.

As thousands of communities celebrate Preservation Week from May 12 to 18, some of the "Celebrate Your Heritage" theme is distinctly rural. The Saline Area Historical Society in Saline, Mich., is, for instance, ceremoniously placing the restored cupola on the town's 1834 livery barn, a historic stable that is one of the few remaining signs of this once-thriving agricultural center. The restored barn is slated to become a "heritage center." In Yacolt, Wash., the Pomeroy Living History Farm is sponsoring a Preservation Week herb festival to celebrate the area's agrarian lifestyle.

Wayne Clements, president of the Saline society, says, "When we discovered our 1840 livery barn, it was badly deteriorated and the roof almost gone. We took it down piece by piece, then reassembled it in back of our 1870 restored railroad depot, learning a lot about mid-19th-century barn construction as we went.

"A lot of old-timers in town have come by to share their memories with us, and we've found the project a great way to keep reminding folks or our local history."

BUT the United States is losing too many records of its rural past, says National Trust president J. Jackson Walter. "We recognize that America's historic countryside is endangered," he says, "and we are receiving many requests for preservation assistance from rural communities."

It is estimated that between 1 and 3 million acres of farmland are lost each year to commercial development for shopping centers, resort and house developments, and industrial and recreational parks.

Other reasons for the disappearance of many rural landmarks are abandonment, neglect, vandalism, loss of economic viability, and changes in agricultural technology. During this century, migration to the cities has left many farm communities impoverished. This means that the towns and villages that are financial and cultural support centers for farms and ranches must be protected, too.

In 1979, the National Trust launched its Rural Conservation Project through survey studies, conferences, publications, and the development of two demonstration sites - one in Cazenovia, N.Y., and another in Oley, Pa. In each town, local steering committees conducted inventories of historic sites, farmland, archaeological sites, and recreational and natural areas. They then worked with local governments, private organizations, and individuals to implement protection plans. The two successful projects served as models for other rural towns and yielded valuable research information for the Trust.

Since then, the National Trust has been involved in numerous other projects, including the community revitalization program that revived the town of Embarrass, Minn. (pop. 822) after the closing of the iron mine that provided jobs for many residents. With technical assistance and a small grant, the National Trust helped residents not only reclaim their local identity but also preserve the 180 log houses and barns built by hand by Finnish settlers early in this century. …