‘Ambassadors’ to help guide Hallowed Ground travelers

Rappahannock County, among others, is for sale — and the listing agent is Journey Through Hallowed Ground (JTHG).

The nonprofit JTHG is selling tourists on visiting historic sites along the Old Carolina Road from Monticello to Gettysburg, known as U.S. Highway 15 in Virginia.

Rapphannock County may snag a share of visitors interested in making side trips.

Thirteen national parks and nine presidential homes are contained within the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. According to the JTHG’s president, Cate Magennis Wyatt, the Heritage Area has the largest concentration of historic districts in the country. But, she says, the number of visitors to these sites was dropping.

“We realized we just needed to re-brand the way people think about this region,” says Wyatt.

JTHG conducted a national survey to learn why people come and what else they might want to do in the region.

“It’s everything we have; everything Rappahannock has,” says Wyatt describing the survey responses. “It’s scenic roads, historic downtowns, bucolic settings and farms.”

Tourism in Rappahannock County generates about $250,000 each year, County Administrator John McCarthy conservatively estimates, as well as employment for residents. While revenue varies with the seasons, spring and fall are the best for the county.

Since its inception in 2005, JTHG has striven to publicize the region. The Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic Traveler and tourist publications published articles about JTHG. PBS produced a half-hour program. A special show aired on Voice Of America that was broadcast worldwide.

In order to organize gallery shows, JTHG contracted with Kenneth Garrett to photograph the four states along the Journey in all four seasons.

Garrett expanded the reach of his images. Using JTHG’s research, he successfully pitched the concept of a book to National Geographic.

“The Journey Through Hallowed Ground: Birthplace of the American Ideal” outlines Rappahannock history and describes the Inn at Little Washington, Sperryville and Mount Vernon Farm. Readers purchased 25,000 copies.

JTHG staff realized that in this region the contributions of Native and African Americans, and American women of all races, are inadequately appreciated. After securing necessary funding, they hired 34 African-American scholars to delve into what life was like for African-Americans in the four states. More than three years of research was compiled into the book, “Honoring Their Paths: African-American Contributions Along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground.”

“We happen to have several places that they’ve isolated as destinations,” says Bob Lander, president of the Scrabble School Preservation Foundation. These are Scrabble School, Shiloh Baptist Church in Woodville, the slave quarters at Ben Venue, the Sperryville and Washington Historic Districts, Freetown outside of Flint Hill and the John Jackson historical highway marker in Woodville.

JTHG tries to guide visiting tourists. Visitor centers near the road and the Commonwealth of Virginia received 140,000 tear-off maps, which are also available free of charge through the web site.

Four years ago, JTHG published a travel guidebook that sold 5,000 copies. It spotlights regional history, and describes communities and farms. Included are suggestions for hiking and bicycling along the Journey.

The nonprofit’s current project is adding information to its web site about working farms and how to buy from them, farmers’ markets, and points of interest in towns.

The Sesquicentennial of Civil War begins next year. “We are so fortunate. It’s almost like hosting the Olympics,” says Wyatt. “We know that people from around the country, in fact, from around the world, will be coming to these battlefield sites.”

Wyatt aims to persuade visitors to extend their stays, spend more money, and go to more sites. She wants them to “at least leave with bragging rights — ‘I did this part of the Journey this year. I can’t wait to come back next year.’”

JTHG developed a Certified Tourism Ambassador Program to train individuals who work in jobs that bring them in contact with the public, such as wait staff and cashiers. They will be taught about historical sites and recreational opportunities in their area. At the end, they will be prepared to answer questions like ‘I have five hours here. What would be interesting?’

“What we’ve been doing is preparing ourselves so that when a visitor comes, perhaps to see a battlefield, they will leave with 10 reasons to come back,” says Wyatt.

The training costs $45 per student and lasts half a day. After passing the test, the student is a certified “ambassador.” Loudoun County and Charlottesville have hosted the training.

While many skirmishes occurred, no significant battles in the Civil War were waged in Rappahannock County. But Union and Confederate armies crisscrossed the county, and made use of Thornton and Chester Gaps. According to Civil War history enthusiast John Tole, the Southern army marched through the county en route to Gettysburg.

Tole and McCarthy are county representatives for the Virginia Civil War Trails program. Tole plans to install about 30 roadside markers describing sites associated with the war and noteworthy events.

A kiosk near the county library introduces the visitor to the sites, nine of which are in place.

“I’m feverishly trying to get more markers done so as to get them on the July map,” Tole says.

Five of the markers tell of African-Americans in Rappahannock County. Lander notes a growing interest in the culture, education and life of African-Americans in the past.

“Rappahannock has the African-American niche,” Lander says.

Scrabble School Foundation has partnered with JTHG since its launch. Lander is eager to participate in JTHG’s “living legacy” of honoring those who died in the Civil War by planting trees along the corridor. The foundation has asked for trees to be planted at Scrabble School.

Five years ago JTHG presented a business plan to Rappahannock residents to create the national heritage area. Wyatt sought input from the county, and wanted to gauge Rappahannock’s level of interest in the project.

The board of supervisors responded by adopting a resolution encouraging the organization’s development, remembers McCarthy. He attends JTHG’s annual meetings. Wyatt updates the board about progress and recent activities. Rappahannock County and JTHG link to each other’s web sites.

“We decided from the beginning — we don’t promote the JTHG partnership,” says Wyatt. “We promote the partners within our partnership, and Rappahannock County certainly is one.”

“One of the things we’re hoping is that by maintaining our ties to regional groups that generate a lot of tourism we will get some spillover business from it,” McCarthy explains. “Like I said, if you’re going to Fauquier County on the JTHG, maybe you’ll take a half-day side trip out 211 to Rappahannock. Particularly if you’re interested in the Civil War, now that John (Tole) is developing these Civil War marker locations that will be worth the extra drive.”

U.S. 15 runs through neighboring Culpeper and Fauquier Counties, but no cooperative efforts are planned. However, the counties do promote each other’s tourist sites.

“We figure once we’ve got someone driving all the way out from the city to one of our counties, and they’ve got an extra couple of hours, we’ll have them spend it in the other county on their way home,” McCarthy says.

McCarthy has not discussed JTHG with local businesses. “Because we’re not exactly on the corridor, a lot of local businesses don’t have a direct tie to it,” he says. “They’re not marketing James Madison’s home or Thomas Jefferson’s home or Gettysburg Battlefield.”

Rappahannock County has spent the past year and a half ramping up its efforts to attract more tourists, says McCarthy. Businesses are targeting tourists in their advertising, and working with the tourism advisory group to establish the visitors’ center.

“By honoring our past and responsibly commemorating it, we do tend to have some financial reward that comes from it,” McCarthy says.

JTHG stands ready to lend a hand with the effort. “Rappahannock County has done everything right and has really been working so hard over the years to ensure its cultural landscape, its heritage, is respected and shared with future generations,” Wyatt says.

To inquire about the Certified Tourism Ambassador Program, contact Esther Turner 540.882.4929 or visit www.jthg.org.

About Alisa Booze Troetschel 30 Articles
By some folks' standards, Alisa Booze Troetschel is a newcomer. She moved to northwest Virginia two years ago after completing graduate studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. She has photographed, written and edited for local, regional and national magazines and newspapers, while delighting in the beauty surrounding her new home.