Marketing our treasure of history

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Time for the incessant wind to blow away the last of winter’s chill. Nature has finally freed us from cold, wet weather. The question on everyone’s mind is “Where should we go this summer?” A valid question, but for some, it’s as much a question of “when” as “where.”

My youthful summer trips brought my family to Gettysburg and Williamsburg, to Greenfield Village in Michigan, and to historic sites in Canada. My initial impression that cities with three-story brick buildings were prettier than today’s congested mess started me on a lifelong quest to understand our national past.

Perhaps it is the “over and done” of history that makes it feel safe. By taking me to different times and places, my parents ignited a spark of curiosity in me that I hope I’ve passed on to my children through our summertime adventures to this continent’s wheres and whens. Steeping ourselves in historic surroundings satisfies a common human longing to experience life as our forebears did – at least for awhile. Regardless of how fond we are of the present, most of us enjoy at least a glimpse at the past.

We are also gratified to experience the past in our own back yard. Dunkirk and Fredonia offer a July spectacular that recently took us back to Victorian times but now goes beyond that to pioneer days and the War of 1812. The lighthouse at Point Gratiot is a rightful focus of civic pride. Many of us are schooled about other local facts: Zattu Cushing’s perilous trip from Buffalo with oxen and sleds on a frozen Lake Erie; the first gas well; temperance activities; the Grange; abolition struggles and escapes down the Canadaway. All one need do is plow through old digitized newspapers for enriching tidbits.

Yes, Dunkirk and Fredonia have a profound history.

But in terms of tourism, it’s not enough to have history; it must be developed and marketed. News stories about waterfront development and exuberant comments from community members tell us how wonderful our assets are: the lake for fishing and boating, the new bike trail, the lighthouse, beautiful hills and hiking trails, occasional special events, such as the lighthouse re-enactments a few years ago.

These are certainly worth our pride, but they are not unique or ongoing. If we are serious about tourism, we need to create regular attractions that capitalize on our unique assets and history. We need to find out what it is about other small communities that makes people say, “You know, next time we’re passing through Town X” or “visiting our family in X, let’s make sure we stop at shop Y or attraction Z.” Our pride is not enough to draw others. For instance, consider the number of lighthouses between Michigan and Syracuse; do people around those seaside communities really need ours?

As a frequent visitor to Rochester, I can attest to the beautiful hiking and biking trails in every canal town from Brockport to Pittsford. But that isn’t enough for tourism. While we’ve rested on our laurels, these small, relatively obscure village communities have been busy creating regular attractions. Brockport-a canal village whose population swells to 8,000 because of its college-offers a theater, independent shops selling everything from artisan soaps sliced to order to books to work clothes and boots. Brockport also has a canal museum and a website whose motto – “The Victorian Village on the Erie Canal” – says “Visit me.”

To the east lies Spencerport, population 3,600. The canal museum and historic boat rides to Adams Basin, where Melvil Dewey of the handy decimal system was born, are enough to make me stop. Then again, maybe it’s the Texas Barbeque or the seafood restaurant I patronized in its previous incarnation as a ragtime piano bar offering good food and a view of the sparkling canal. Still unique. Ongoing.

Further east, Pittsford has made much of its canal space. Yes, it’s a wealthy port, but still a village of only 1,355. The community has gentrified the old mills and warehouses by the canal to create a boutique shopping village with diverse restaurants and a bike rental facility. Who would go out of their way to stop there? A gourmet crepe lover like me with an eye for historic buildings.

Big and small communities alike draw people by folding the past and present together into year-round fun. Waterfront entertainment, interesting and varied restaurants, independent stores, events like sidewalk sales coupled with history days, and tours to the forgotten past enliven a community and inspire outsiders to join in.

What if a cadre of volunteers led quirky tours throughout the year, such as “Fredonia’s Nineteenth-Century Taverns and Groceries”? Bars could sell cider and flip – a frothy sweetened mixture of rum and beer. Microbreweries might create a beer from a 200-year-old formula, as Genesee Country Village has done. How about turning an old building into a museum-maybe a museum of sea lore, including steamships, battles, and shipwrecks?

Some inventive minds put together could expand what we already have, with ongoing maintenance to our community websites proclaiming “Visit me, world.”

It’s great to love what we have, but if we want to be a tourist haven, others have to love it too.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com