Preserving and enhancing a site from another era also deepens our relationship to place. It causes us to reexamine our relationship with the built environment and raises the community’s interest in preservation and placemaking. These sites may also grapple with historic challenges and trauma, offering insights and opportunities for community healing when paired with thoughtful programs that advance our understanding of justice and equity today.

The growth of cultural heritage tourism, along with the increased focus on “experiences,” are also driving the popularity of heritage sites. A website like enables a person to quickly and easily identify any notable destinations along a driving route they are considering. And social media has created a greater interest in visiting unique places with historic significance and architectural character.

Redeveloping a heritage site can bring challenges, however. The site development needs to be sensitive to the site’s history, which can limit options and drive-up costs. And the layout of heritage sites often doesn’t meet the standards for today’s uses, which causes further complications. Most importantly, the investment in a heritage site doesn’t end with the bricks and mortar. In order to facilitate a truly meaningful experience, significant care must be given to the programming and the interpretive materials that will guide the visitor experience. Programming a site with high-quality information creates a deeper, more memorable experience.

Sharing Hoosier heritage

Through a partnership between the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Indiana Destination Development Corporation, and the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement, the Heritage Trail aims to explore Indiana’s lesser-known histories by collecting and sharing comprehensive stories from Hoosiers of all backgrounds and cultures, with a concentration on typically underrepresented communities.

Nominate a heritage trail site

The Center for Rural Engagement has been learning these lessons as we work side-by-side with community volunteers to assist with programming at Beck’s Mill in Washington County. In 2020, we partnered with the Friends of Beck’s Mill to investigate the history, culture, and traditions of the Mill with an eye toward sustainability and enhanced programming.

IU faculty, staff, and students have designed wayfinding signage, created site interpretation and outreach materials, analyzed the natural environment and biodiversity, and programmed traditional music and folk ways that draw on the traditions that thrived at Beck’s Mill during its heyday in the 1800s.

Programming a heritage site requires creativity, thoughtfulness, and partnerships. Angie Ulm, member of the Friends of Beck’s Mill and a panelist at a recent event, noted that a site like Beck’s Mill “requires a lot of synergy to work.” This remark captures the most difficult, and important, challenge of managing a successful heritage site – finding the right mix of events and programs that matches the public’s interest and takes advantage of the available capacity.

One of the most gratifying parts of working on heritage sites is hearing residents share their memories of the site and express deep appreciation to see a special part of their community thriving again.

The IU Center for Rural Engagement improves the lives of Hoosiers through collaborative initiatives that discover and deploy scalable and flexible solutions to common challenges facing rural communities. Working in full-spectrum community innovation through research, community-engaged teaching and student service, the center builds vision, harnesses assets and cultivates sustainable leadership structures within the communities with which it engages to ensure long-term success.