Historic Preservation Goes Rural

With national help, small communities are mobilizing to save America's country heritage

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 sponsor ing 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 ser ved 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. Workshops taught residents how to care for the log structures and Finnish craftsmen with the right skills were located and put to work to help restore them.

Margaret Kinnunen, town clerk of Embarrass, has since 1985 been the enthusiastic leader of Sisu Heritage, the group that includes almost everyone in town, and sees years of work still ahead. ``Our aim,'' say Ms. Kinnunen, is to establish an outdoor museum that will show off our fine old log stuctures, many of them yet to be restored.''

She says 150 volunteers turned up two weeks ago to pour the concrete floor on the new log pavilion that will be used as a community center. ``Being encouraged to look at our community with fresh eyes, to take pride in who we were and what we had, was a real turning point,'' she says. ``Things have really begun to turn around in our town.''

Meanwhile, another heroic effort is taking place in San Luis, the county seat of Costilla County, Colo. It has the oldest Hispanic community in Colorado, and though poor and isolated, this county is identifying its heritage, nominating structures to the National Register, and rehabilitating adobe churches and other structures to improve community life. Community church leaders have undertaken the preservation efforts with private donations and volunteer labor. At present, several restorations of adobe c hurches are in progress, and a 1904 convent has been rehabilitated into an artisan's cooperative and a bed-and-breakfast inn.

Marilyn Fedelchak, coordinator of the Rural Heritage Initiative at the National Trust, says that Costilla County had the most ``can-do'' attitude of any county visited by her staff, as they did research in 13 states. San Luis, she says, is now in the process of developing a local preservation ordinance.

Ms. Fedelchak, who has been in rural preservation work for over a dozen years, says saving the rural landscape is now an integral part of the preservation movement. Educating the public and getting the word out to preservationists remains the challenge of the 1990s, she says. ``We are broadening our outreach to work with Cooperative Extension agents, regional planners, Farmers Home Administration staffs, locally elected officials, and a whole network of other public agencies and private groups.''

RANCHERS and farmers who have little knowledge of traditional preservation, Fedelchak observes, do have a keen sense of history about their family farms and the surrounding areas, and most are willing to support the saving of vintage county courthouses. Many have come to see the importance of saving historic agricultural buildings, and the Trust's ``BARN AGAIN!'' program has meant the salvation of many of these fine old structures that dot the rural landscapes across America.

Trust advisers have taught residents how to survey their resources, apply for grants, place important sites on the National Register, and organize coalitions of citizen groups that can carry out preservation endeavors at the grass-roots level.

For information, publications, and source guides write: Marilyn Fedelchak, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1785 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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