You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that the world has changed a heck of a lot over the last eight or so months. With Covid still not under control, the travel and tourism industries have taken a major hit. While traveling is still happening, it’s not on the same scale as it was a year ago. As a result, museums, parks, and other educational facilities are not receiving the same flow of visitation as they once did. It’s caused some places to cut back their staff, reduce their hours, or shut down all together.
However, there’s one way that travelers and history buffs can get their “history fix” while maintaining social distancing.
Civil War Trails is the largest open-air museum in the country (probably in all of existence). If you’ve ever driven through Virginia, Maryland, or Tennessee, you’ve likely seen their signs pointing you in the direction of some cool – and sometimes hidden – history spots. I’ve seen the iconic red bugle horn everywhere on my journeys, and their informational signs are well worth the minor detour.
Since 1994, Civil War Trails has partnered with communities and historic sites to present fascinating and engaging stories to the general public. Each sign is carefully crafted and researched, and range in a wide array of subjects. You can find signs detailing human interest stories (soldiers and civilians alike), about a lesser-known historic location (like the former site of a cabin where Thomas Jackson was married), or pertaining to a battle/campaign in the area. Civil War Trails has worked tirelessly to interpret the era of history that has shaped our nation.
The Executive Director, Drew Gruber, is a passionate spokesman for the Civil War Trails and a historian in his own right. Under his leadership, with the help of his Assistant Director Chris Brown, the number of signs across the eastern theater landscape has rocketed to over 1,200. Behind him is a team of historians and technicians who do the leg work to design and install each and every sign. With the added labor of maintaining the signs, the staff at Civil War Trails stays incredibly busy. More than 800 partners within the tourism industry (state travel officers, businesses, museums, etc.) also help to promote Civil War Trails within their communities. You can find Trail signs across Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, and they’re always looking to expand to other states.
So, how can you help Civil War Trails reach more visitors or aid in their mission? I had a recent conversation with Mr. Gruber and here’s what he said:
“Until this year, due to COVID, Civil War Trails has never had a traditional fundraising or membership platform like so many other non-profits. Each Civil War Trails site is supposed to have a sponsor which is typically a municipal tourism office. Those sponsors allow us to not only update the content of the sign and maintain the system of interpretive and directional signs but to market the sites internationally in a variety of ways. Print and digital advertising, brochure distributions, etc.
So, long story short, our members are those sponsors who pay $200 annually to support a sign. It tends to be a bit much for an individual however, whenever an individual sponsors a sign the membership is tax deductible. Outside of sponsoring an individual sign, we often see Civil War Roundtables, reenactment groups, etc. sponsor a site or two. Individuals will also make donations in any amount, at any frequency, which is also tax deductible. Those are the main ways to support us financially.
Outside of that monetary support there are a few ways that you can support us. First, when traveling, be sure to snap sign selfies and post them on our wall, tagging us, etc. If you visit a battlefield, park, hotel, etc. remind them that you are traveling for Civil War Trails or ask for our brochures. That shows our tourism offices that people actually like the program! Second, if you find a sign that is in bad shape, it’s boring, tough to find with missing directional signs, etc. let us know. That info from people in the field is invaluable to Chris and I as we scheduled maintenance.
Civil War Trails is grassroots by nature. Everyday we receive new research from people just like you sharing newly uncovered photos and primary source material specific to one of our signs. Let us know if you stumble on a Trails sign in bad shape, become the caretaker for your local CWT sign by wiping it down occasionally or snap a sign selfie at your favorite and tag us on social media.”
To learn more or download digital brochures of their sign locations, visit www.civilwartrails.com . There, you can also find the membership form to “adopt” a sign. However, I’d recommend emailing first to see which signs are in desperate need of a sponsor before making your selection. You can also find their social media links and a quick FAQ for any other question you may have about this fantastic organization.
Next time you’re traveling, be sure to look for the Civil War Trails signs. You never know where they may take you!