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Capitalizing on Heritage


Unique historic showcases continue to draw new visitors to the community in an emerging tourism niche

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch 

Museum (myoo zee’ um): Noun, tomb-like building that houses items of art, science or history and other boring old stuff. Touching or photographing said boring old stuff is strictly prohibited.

Not that long ago, history meant sepia photos and dusty old houses filled with rooms full of uncomfortable-looking chairs and oddly dressed mannequins, all roped off with velvet cords.

“There’s still a perception out there (about museums and typical history attractions) where, you go in and it’s no touch, no photographs, the guy’s got the white gloves on, and I’ll just talk to you for 45 minutes,” said Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You can’t participate.”

Seidl said her industry sources indicate that history tourism may be on the wane.

“I think history travelers are a dedicated set of travelers, but industry-wide what we’re seeing is a decline, especially for historic homes,” she said. “That segment of the market is not as robust as it used to be.”

Even The History Channel seems to have given up on history: Swamp People, Ax Men, Chasing Tail. What’s up with that?

Still, the majority of travelers to the Fox Cities (54.3 percent) listed historic attractions as important in a 2011 survey done for the Fox Cities CVB.

And industry pros, including Seidl’s local colleague Matthew Carpenter, executive director of History Museum at the Castle, disagree with her downtrodden assessment.

“It may be hard to swallow but more people attend museums in America than attend all professional sporting events,” Carpenter said. “At the History Museum we see, over time, stable visitor numbers with an occasional dramatic bump. For example we saw a dramatic increase in admissions dollars from 2011 to 2012 when we hosted a successful traveling exhibition, ‘Leonardo daVinci: Machines in Motion.’ Our admission dollars increased 204 percent.”

He cited a recent National Endowment for the Arts survey suggesting that the share of adult heritage tourists – people who travel 50 miles or more to attend museums, cultural performances and historic sites – remained stable from 2008 to 2012.

And museum attendance overall in the United States is up, according to the American Alliance of Museums.

Could it be that our definition of history tourism is changing?

Getting into a row over history

People might not think “history” when they see a shiny new kayak, but when it’s paddling the same route Native Americans and French fur traders took before Wisconsin gained statehood, it’s all about the past.

“People are still interested in history, but in a different way,” said Candice Mortara, president of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway, a water trail for boaters, kayakers and canoeists currently being developed on the Fox and Lower Wisconsin rivers between Green Bay and Prairie du Chien, following the historic route navigated by Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1673.

Along the 280 miles of river that comprise the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway, there are landmarks and sites with stories of the past to be told, Mortara said.

“Most of the people that live here don’t quite realize the extent of (the history associated with the river), let alone the visitors,” she said. “There is so much history associated with this river.”

  • Did you know that Neenah Foundry has manhole covers in every U.S. state and every continent except Antarctica?
  • Or that, between Menasha and Green Bay, the Lower Fox River drops down as much as Niagara Falls does? It just does it over the course of 30 miles.
  • Or that the Fox River lock system is one of only two hand-operated lock systems still functioning in the country?

Mortara hopes tidbits like these will awaken travelers’ curiosity.

“If you start there, that could pique their interest and they’ll want to find out more about it: Why is Neenah Foundry here? What about this area brought the great manufacturing companies here? Then they’ll learn about the drop in the river and the hydropower it facilitated,” Mortara said.

Once the water trail is complete (and the last of the locks in the system is restored and opened), Mortara’s group plans to weave in history, through public art and kiosks telling passengers about history as they navigate the water trail.

Eventually mobile-device “paddle points” will augment that. “To give them an idea of what’s happened there and what the history of the place is,” Mortara said.

Other efforts include promoting area heritage centers along the river like Hearthstone Historic House Museum, Oshkosh Public Museum and Heritage Hill State Historical Park.

“We’ll be working to connect them together so they can have some economies of scale and … attract more people,” Mortara said. “Not many people would travel from out of state just for (a local museum), but if you link them together in a package with the river, then you can pull somebody up from Chicago.”

Digging in

History tourism 2.0 is all about rolling up one’s sleeves and digging in. Visitors probably aren’t interested unless they can participate in what’s being dispensed.

“Tourism now is all about experience and interaction,” Seidl said.

She gave the example of one of the hottest attractions in the Fox Cities: glass-making demonstrations at the Bergstrom- Mahler Museum of Glass. “You can actually make a glass object; you get to experience hands-on what the glass artist experiences,” Seidl said.

Also hot: learning Houdini’s magic tricks and escape techniques at the History Museum at the Castle.

Even nature sites are upping the action ante. “You go to a natural attraction and you see lots of zip-lining or quasi-work experiences, like bat counting” or maple syrup-making. It’s not just dioramas and placards with gobs of text to read anymore.

Pedal power

Hearthstone Historical Museum in Appleton figured out the interaction ingredient more than a decade ago when it installed electricity-generating activities. Visitors can fire up a radio, see a water wheel and generate electricity by pedaling a bike, all to illustrate Hearthstone’s claim as one of the first buildings in the country powered by Thomas Edison’s central hydroelectric power system.

The effort seems to be working.

“We get people of all ages that come in,” said Hearthstone volunteer Linda Peterson. “We get local people who’ve never been here, people who are visiting someone in the area and (are sent by locals). We get people who come to a conference … and the spouse is looking for something to do. We get woodworker groups who are really impressed with the woodwork in Hearthstone, and we get people who are just into the Victorian era.”

Throwing pie charts

It’s hard to say how much of the $16.8 billion tourism generated for Wisconsin in 2012 can be credited to heritage tourism, since it’s often lumped into a category that includes shopping, dining and recreation. But a 2009 national study on U.S. cultural and heritage travel by Mandela Research showed that 78 percent of U.S. leisure travelers participate in cultural and/or heritage activities during their travels.

The same study showed that heritage travelers spent more than 50 percent more than non-heritage travelers and stayed longer.

Brad Toll, president of the Green Bay CVB, sees it in his community.

“Just looking at the revenue generated from people coming in and going to the National Railroad Museum, to Heritage Hill, to the Neville Museum, to Hazelwood, and doing the historic cemetery tours – and now from the people that will be doing the Packers Heritage Trail – it’s easy to see that those things generate a considerable amount of economic impact on our area,” Toll said.

People generally don’t think “history” when they think of the Lambeau Leap, but even that’s 20 years old this year.

“The Packer Hall of Fame can be considered to be a historic attraction,” Toll said.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, $1 million spent on historic revitalization projects:

  • Creates 20 percent more jobs than the same amount spent on new construction;
  • Puts $120,000 into the local economy;
  • Results in $107,000 more in household income; and
  • Generates $34,000 more in retail sales, compared with $1 million spent on new construction.

Beer, the great American leavening agent

Earlier this fall, Oshkosh treated the Wisconsin Tavern League state convention guests to a tour of historic taverns.

“People just loved it,” said Steve Cummings, member of the City of Oshkosh Landmarks Commission, Common Council and the board of the Winnebago County Historical and Archaeological Society.

League members loved it so much, they hung around afterward and toured historic bars that weren’t on the tour, said Jeff Potts, marketing director for the Oshkosh CVB.

“We went to four, and because of their curiosity, they went to that fifth one and maybe someplace else,” Potts said. “What it takes is someone gathering information about historic sites and putting it together in a way that makes it accessible to locals and visitors alike, and kind of inspires them to go outside their own passion and investigate it on their own.”

Cummings calls it “bringing people in the back door” to history.

A historic plaque program initiated in Oshkosh adorned its first recognition on Main Street downtown at Oblio’s Lounge, a historic building designed by architect William Waters and built in 1884 as a Schlitz beer hall by the Robert Brand & Sons company, known for creating many elaborate wood pub interiors. That spurred the tavern tours.

“While a lot of people don’t care about history, a lot of people do like to drink,” Cummings said. “There’s a lot of history in this state connected with the brewing industry and with the German immigrants who came here. A lot of the big, grand houses were built by the brewing companies to help distribute their products.”

At one time, Schlitz Brewing was the biggest landowner in Chicago.

“Bars played a significant role in the history of a lot of business in this state,” Cummings said. During a big millworkers strike in the 1890s, workers gathered in the saloons on Oshkosh’s south side where the families lived.

“History can be dry and boring or history can be interesting and exciting,” Cummings said. “I think what I would like to see is that we make it real.”

Speaking of history that’s not dry, visitors got to taste the legendary Chief Oshkosh beer, brought back to life by a local homebrew group, at a recent Oshkosh farmers market.

“Nobody has been able to purchase that beer in a generation, and people wanted to find out what it tasted like,” Potts said.

Can history get any more interactive than that?

Going out for fish fry

“Breaking Bread in the Holyland” looks at the history of supper clubs and German Catholics on the east side of Lake Winnebago. and the Fond du Lac Convention & Visitors Bureau created the publication.

The Holyland encompasses parts of northern Fond du Lac County and southern Calumet County. Tiny bergs settled by German Catholics have historically had little more to them than a church and a supper club.

“It’s a unique historical nugget that is unique to this area,” said Craig Molitor, president of the Fond du Lac Area CVB. “Most people outside Wisconsin don’t know what a supper club is unless they’ve experienced it themselves.”

Molitor grew up in Michigan, in a restaurant family.

“There are no supper clubs in Michigan … every time they visit, my whole family is like ‘Let’s go to a supper club.’ Their first question when I moved here was ‘What is a supper club?’ My mom pictured it as something out of a 1930s or 40s movie.”

Molitor said Fond du Lac hasn’t yet capitalized on its history as fully as it can.

“I think what we’re doing now is we’re determining the best way to sell that to the outside world,” he said. “I think there’s a call for this.”

Lee Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.