Last October we proclaimed Saratoga Springs, New York, the first winner of our annual Great American Place Award. Naturally, the choice of future Great American Places stirred interest among not only our readers but also convention bureaus, mayors, and localities large and small across the country. The mail poured in. One packet of pamphlets that nearly burst the bounds of its envelope arrived a few weeks ago from a group based in northeastern Minnesota and called the Northern Lights Tourism Alliance. It wanted us to know about vibrant natural attractions like the north shore of Lake Superior, the upper Mississippi River, and the Mesabi Iron Range. A flurry of other leaflets spoke of a rich history of mining and the stamp of turn-of-the-century immigrants, especially from Finland and Germany. This is very much a united effort, in which individual communities get together to create a viable destination. After all, you’re not likely to make a special trip to northern Minnesota solely to visit a landmark lighthouse, or Judy Garland’s birthplace, or the biggest open-pit iron ore mine in the world. But link them together in a route, add the promise of natural beauty and an ethnic festival or two, and you’ve put your place on the map of what is coming to be valued as “heritage tourism.”
I saw this cooperativeness at work several years ago when small towns formed a program called Tracks Across Wyoming, meant to lure travelers off I-80 to stop at unsung places along the way that were surprisingly rich in history. Another example is South Carolina’s Olde English District, a region where more than a dozen Revolutionary War battles were waged and where seven counties have joined to tell the story.
Just as I was reading about northeastern Minnesota’s take on its past, I heard about something similar starting up on a faraway Caribbean island. Its double name—St. Martin/Sint Maarten—reflects the colonial struggles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but people don’t head there to soak up the history. As one guidebook puts it, “temptress tourism has lured the island away from its cultural potential.” Yet in 1998 both sides are going all out to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Treaty of Concordia, which divided the island between the Dutch and the French, with a yearlong series of events showcasing the island’s culture and history. They will also mark the 150th year since slavery was abolished on the Dutch side (the French had achieved that a year earlier). Here’s another persuasive example that history is more than simply good for you. It’s also enjoyable, and it can even help breathe new life into an economy.
Well, of course you already knew that. So when we opened nominations for Great American Place to our readers, we were swamped with your excellent suggestions. We’ve reserved space in this travel issue for some of the most intriguing. And for our part, with a roster of articles on deepest Yellowstone, an exotic enclave of the old Confederacy, a historic Connecticut garden, and Boston, the Civil War’s incubator, we’ll keep the conversation going.