Maintaining A Legacy
An Administrative History of George Rogers Clark National Historical Park
NPS Logo

Interpreting George Rogers Clark and His Legacy

When the Park Service assumed control of the Clark memorial in 1967, little that legitimately could be called an interpretive program existed. Inside the memorial, a souvenir counter stood replete with postcards and knickknacks, but there was little effort to communicate to visitors the importance of the Clark story and the memorial that commemorated it. The echo within the rotunda did not help matters; one interpreter remarked that giving a talk in the rotunda was "like trying to deliver a lecture in a corn silo." Even if a visitor had a question and the state custodian knew the answer, his words often were unintelligible because of the noise. By Park Service standards, much interpretive work was necessary at the new park. [1]

The management of the memorial by the Indiana Department of Conservation, later the Department of Natural Resources, was one reason for the lack of interpretation. Similar to many other state entities, it had a small budget and a limited vision of what it could provide. Indiana had numerous parks such as Turkey Run State Park, an expansive natural area in the west central part of the state, dominating the attention of the state park system. Thus, no one in the Indiana Department of Natural Resources seemed to consider that a visitor to the memorial might need to be told of its significance.

Nor was the orientation of such state agencies directed toward the communication of heritage. In places such as state-run museums and battlefields, reverence was expected of visitors; in others, such as the privately owned homes of historic figures, guides assumed that the visiting public knew a considerable amount about the person whose house they came to visit. Only the Park Service invested heavily in the development of programs designed to educate and enlighten the uninitiated. [2]

Even if the Department of Conservation had been inclined to develop an interpretive program, it lacked the resources and experience available to the National Park Service. Since the 1920s, the agency consistently had sought to improve its techniques and procedures for explaining the areas within its purview to the growing numbers of the public who visited them. By the 1960s, the Park Service had forty years of experience to support a standardized series of methods for reaching its audience. The George Rogers Clark National Historical Park was another opportunity to exercise that experience.

As the Park Service acquired the Clark memorial, the agency also had begun to implement its decades-old objective of systematic planning. Throughout the park system, MISSION 66, a ten-year capital development program which concluded just as George Rogers Clark National Historical Park came into the park system, enabled broad-based and proactive planning. MISSION 66 brought the park system up to the demands of the moment; after it, planning could proceed with an eye toward anticipating the needs of the future instead of solving the problems of the present.

But at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, management issues defied agency precedent. Prior to the 1960s, there were few places in the park system where the agency had to develop a comprehensive interpretive and management plan for a designed historic landscape. At George Rogers Clark, the Park Service defined new standards for a different kind of responsibility. During an era that required a greater degree of attention to procedures and regulations, this added a range of dimensions to the park's administration.

Interpretation was an integral part of this matrix. Its function to communicate the park's meaning to the public was essential in a situation where the Park Service had to "sell" itself to the local community. It also became the basis for the way visitors remembered the park, for their recall often centered on how the park looked and how the visitors felt they were treated. In this context, the implementation of interpretive programming was as important as were other crucial areas such as local relations and maintenance of the structures.

Yet the timing of the acquisition of the Clark memorial was not ideal. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing for the following three decades, interpretation toppled from its prior position of relative importance within the agency. Studies undertaken in the early 1970s showed what many in the agency had already recognized; Park Service personnel themselves noted a decline in the importance of interpretation within the agency and evidence of lessened professionalism among interpreters. Contributing factors included organizational changes that linked interpretation and resources management while divesting interpreters of leadership opportunities, a heightened emphasis on law enforcement after the legendary disturbance in Yosemite National Park in 1970, and the increase in both the number of park areas and visitation without commensurate growth in personnel. After 1970, no NPS division in the Washington, D.C., offices had any direct links to interpretation; a few years later, the position of regional chief of interpretation was abolished. [3] It was a difficult era in which to initiate a quality interpretive program, even at parks with exclusively historical themes.

When Robert Lagemann arrived in Vincennes in September 1967, he found a park without an interpretive program. State efforts to interpret the memorial had been extremely limited; the personnel the state hired simply were not interpreters. Their obligations had been limited to maintenance and protection of the property. As did many other state agencies with similar responsibilities across the nation, the Department of Conservation proceeded under the assumption that members of the public who visited the memorial came because they already possessed some prior knowledge of its importance.

The Park Service did not have the resources immediately available to rectify this situation. Lagemann had entered a void and found himself "at liberty to try anything within reason in the interpretive division," while the master plan study team determined that to communicate the importance of Clark's capture of Fort Sackville required a modern visitor center. The lack of historic resources at the site complicated problems even more. [4] Interpretation of the memorial structure was relatively easy, for the building stood as a testament to its importance. Communicating the story of the capture of Fort Sackville and its implications for the growth of the American Republic, however, would have to proceed without any actual remnants to display.

Early efforts at interpretation depended upon the efforts of Albert W. Banton Jr., and the implementation skills of Robert Lagemann. Lagemann focused much of his efforts on the interpretive program. Although Frank Werker, the state employee retained as rotunda guide by the Park Service, was a genial and dependable person, his method of interpretation did not meet NPS standards. Werker had memorized much material about the Clark expedition and the memorial, and in response to questions, merely would recite that material. Skilled at speaking, he could interpret in a manner that led visitors to believe he actually was speaking rather than reciting. His one failing was that when interrupted, he could not always pick up where he had stopped. [5] Yet for the Park Service, the vanguard in historical interpretation, such a presentation — even when successful or when Werker did speak extemporaneously — was deficient. More professional interpretative strategies were essential to the Park Service's plans.

Lagemann quickly found a problem about which the planners peripherally were cognizant, but not wholly aware. A historian by training and experience who came to George Rogers Clark National Historical Park from Antietam National Battlefield, Lagemann expected visitors to have the same kind of intuitive feeling for George Rogers Clark and his experiences as they did for the Civil War. He recounted disappointment in the attitudes of visitors, most of whom were more interested in the story of the memorial building than they were in the history of the Clark expedition and its subsequent impact upon the nation. To Lagemann's dismay, after about five minutes, many visitors grew restless and impatient. A number were visibly bored. The people of Vincennes in particular were more concerned with "statistical bits" concerning the memorial — what it cost, where the stone came from, and other similar details — than they were with Clark. Some even told Lagemann that they did not want him telling their visiting friends and relatives the Clark story; he was, in their view, to concentrate on the structure itself. [6]

As the sole full-time Park Service professional at the park, Lagemann sought to use his experience to enlighten visitors. Werker worked Wednesday through Sunday and Lagemann was in the rotunda the other two days. He also spelled Werker during lunch on weekends and made it a point to be on duty every Sunday, which he regarded as the heaviest visitation day of the week. When not in the rotunda, Lagemann roamed the grounds, seeking to "engage visitors in some kind of interpretive discussions." He also spent considerable time reading the history of the Clark expedition in order to improve the interpretation the park offered. [7]

The Park Service made major changes in the visitor experience at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. Werker had been accustomed to keeping a streetcar token deposit box at the front desk to accept the 25-cent fee visitors paid to enter the state-run memorial. Werker referred to himself as "conductor of the memorial." He pulled down the arm of the machine every time someone deposited a coin in, and a bell would sound. True to the promise Banton made to the local press, the agency did not implement a fee. Although some in the Regional Office in Philadelphia advocated a new fifty-cent fee, Banton adamantly opposed it. He won this debate, but had to keep fighting it again and again throughout his tenure. [8]

Another major change included the beginning of an interpretive audio program. The memorial had an echo so overwhelming that unless a speaker whispered, any verbal communication quickly became incomprehensible. The echo became a feature of the memorial prior to the arrival of the Park Service. Teachers with school groups would stand their children in a semicircle facing the murals, move to the far end of the memorial, and whisper. Every child could hear the teacher's words. But the echo made traditional Park Service interpretation difficult. In 1968, Banton acquired 100 headsets, Lagemann strung antenna wiring along the inside of the rotunda about ten feet above the floor, and the audio-visual department of the Park Service provided an announcer who spoke for a four-minute interpretive tape. Visitors could walk around without wires and clearly hear the announcer explaining the significance of each mural. George Rogers Clark National Historical Park was the first NPS site to implement such a technique, and the headsets were a significant step forward in interpretation.

In an effort to interest the public in the history of George Rogers Clark and the Old Northwest, Banton asked Lagemann to begin a firearms demonstration program, using weapons from the park's historic period. An agency expert in such matters, Harold Peterson, offered a seminar at the Harpers Ferry Center in the spring of 1968 and Lagemann attended. There Lagemann learned to use flintlock weapons similar to the ones used by Clark and his men. Upon his return, the park ordered a Pennsylvania Rifle, commonly known as a long rifle. Lagemann taught himself to use the rifle, and in May 1968, gave the first demonstration for a school group; by the following year, the rifle firings were scheduled events. [9]

Striving for verisimilitude, Lagemann began to wear items resembling the clothing of Clark's men. In 1968 and 1969, he had worn the daily Park Service uniform for the demonstrations. Banton suggested that Lagemann perform the demonstrations while in costume. "That's what he brought, a costume" and not historic period clothing, Lagemann exclaimed many years later. "I had no intention of standing in public wearing a very chintzy looking costume." Lagemann enlisted the help of a home economics teacher at Vincennes Lincoln High School. She made him a hunter's frock from cowhide with a rough exterior that resembled buckskin. At first, when tour groups arrived, Lagemann simply replaced his regulation Park Service shirt and tie with the knee-length frock, slung a powder horn over his shoulder, picked up a rifle, and went to his demonstration still wearing regulation pants and shoes. Later he acquired some pajama-like pants and high-laced moccasin boots. [10] Lagemann may not have been completely accurate, but to the untrained eye, he certainly looked the part.

The seasonal rangers also helped develop the interpretive program. Two, Willard Cockerham, who started in 1968, and Gerald "Jerry" Erny, who began two years later, became mainstays of the program. Both were teachers in the local public schools and brought the enthusiasm, vigor, and expertise of their profession to their ranger activities. [11] In a growing and increasingly busy park, their duties took on vast importance. No longer did visitors have to endure memorized recitations. During the summer of 1968, under the guidance of Lagemann and through the efforts of the seasonal staff, George Rogers Clark National Historical Park began to offer the kind of interpretation for which the Park Service was known.

But the growth of the program and the caliber of interpretation it presented were subject to the same limitations that characterized every facet of activity at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. The demands of the physical plant were, as always, paramount. Planning for interpretation was in an embryonic stage, leaving the park little to implement even when resources were available. Since its head official, Albert Banton, also served as superintendent of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, the park and its needs were near the end of a very long queue. Only through the preparation of characteristic NPS documents, such as an interpretive prospectus, could the park initiate any truly comprehensive development.

The preparation of the first Interpretive Prospectus for the park became an important step forward in the developmental program. Prepared in 1969, the prospectus reflected the standards of interpretation of that era. It sought to articulate important themes to be presented by the park. At George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, these themes included historical and present-day objectives as well as the kind of civics lesson often embedded within interpretation before the middle of the 1970s. According to the prospectus, the park was to tell the story of Clark's expedition and relate it to the development of the American Republic throughout the Old Northwest. It also was to present an "appreciative concept of the way by which a territory became a full-fledged, equal state," and relate the Clark memorial to the other historical features of Vincennes and the surrounding area. [12] This was a tremendously bold and overarching set of responsibilities for the staff of the new park to undertake.

Yet the lack of both a historic setting and relics had a powerful impact upon the conception of interpretation. Although the 1779 capture of Fort Sackville was "the climax of the whole campaign," the Park Service had nothing dating from that era which could be shown to the public. Nor did it have the necessary framework in which to present a comprehensive interpretive program. The rotunda was suited poorly to spoken interpretation and the park lacked a visitor center. Despite such problems, the prospectus recommended the use of a motion picture depicting the Clark expedition as the primary source of interpretation. Used as an introduction to the story behind the memorial, the report's authors believed the film would augment and focus visitors' knowledge before they walked to the rotunda. [13]

The Interpretive Prospectus confirmed the importance of a visitor center to the operation of the park. Without such a structure, an amenity taken for granted at most park areas (especially during the aftermath of MISSION 66) the Vincennes park could not begin even to thoroughly accomplish one of its most important obligations. This stemmed partially from the lack of 1770s material which the park needed for interpretation, but it also reflected the influence of MISSION 66 upon the thinking of the agency. In the aftermath of the largest capital development program the national park system ever had experienced, construction of a new physical plant for George Rogers Clark National Historical Park was considered the prerequisite for successful implementation of new programs.

This mirrored the pattern of development for interpretation at parks acquired after the New Deal. In most such cases, the construction of facilities became the signal moment in the history of development at a park, for without amenities, interpretation was an extremely labor-intensive process. By the 1950s, the old standard of taking the majority of visitors on guided tours through park areas had disappeared under the weight of the post-war upsurge in numbers. Interpretation became a standardized activity generally administered through technological devices. At George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, where the Park Service lacked the kind of historic fabric to which it was accustomed, the need for the visitor center was even greater than usual.

In the meantime, the kind of interpretation that had been characteristic of the park continued. The headphones in the rotunda, a typical Park Service melding of technology and circumstance, served as a mainstay in the process. Visitors heard the four-minute presentation, asked questions of the person stationed in the rotunda, and went on their way. In 1974, the tape was played 7,053 times for 32,790 visitors. The black powder demonstrations, a popular feature, served as counterpoint, but only were available for groups or presented on a fixed schedule. In 1973, for example, Lagemann fired the long rifle 139 times for a total audience of 2,821 out of the more than 78,000 visits recorded at the park that year. During August 1973, when park officials added a Brown Bess musket demonstration, replete with seasonal interpreter Jerry Erny dressed in the redcoat uniform of the King's 8th Regiment, another 1,661 spectators witnessed seventy-two firings. Inside the memorial, Lagemann reported, interpretation was the same as the previous year. [14] As a result of the combination of conditions at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park and the manner in which the initial interpretive prospectus was fashioned, interpretation became a stagnant activity until the visitor center could be constructed.

The approach of the Bicentennial meant increased demand for the use both of the park and of park officials' expertise. Beginning about 1974 and accelerating with the approach of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, local and regional groups requested the participation of the Park Service in activities associated with the 1976 celebration. These activities included the making of Park Service films about Vincennes and Fort Sackville that were made available to Knox County schools, and the development of a "striking" poster of George Rogers Clark donated to the eighteen fourth-grade classrooms in Vincennes. The park was to be used by groups such as the Old Northwest Bicentennial Corporation of Vincennes, which planned events throughout 1976, as well as the Brigade of the American Revolution, Northwest Division, whose members planned to demonstrate eighteenth-century military procedures and practices on the grounds. In addition there was to be the placement often U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps headstones in honor of American Revolutionary War soldiers buried in the Old Cathedral Cemetery adjacent to the park. [15] Such activities heightened awareness of the park and contributed to its interpretive mission.

But genuine change in the caliber of interpretive activities at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park only could come with the completion of the array of amenities characteristic of park areas. The controversy over the visitor center seemed to indicate that interpretation would not change significantly for a number of years, but the resolution of the debate offered hope. Throughout the winter of 1975-1976, park personnel excitedly anticipated the programs they could offer in the new structure.

Their expectations were deflated by a worsening climate for interpretation throughout the Park Service. By the middle of the 1970s, the agency had taken official steps to rectify the growing problems with interpretation, but the NPS faced an onslaught of additional visitors. Between 1970 and 1974, every measurable facet of interpretive services — conducted tours, visitors per conducted tour, and attendance at interpretive demonstrations — increased by at least seventy-four percent. During that same period, the number of permanent interpreters throughout the Park Service increased from 525 to 600. Even under this evident strain, interpretation faced a budget cut in 1975. [16] In an agency redefining itself and the nature of its obligations, interpretation slipped further behind other activities.

At George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, this impact was blunted. The park was new and needed an interpretive program, so it was immune to some of the problems of other existing programs. With the approach of the Bicentennial, the park played an important role for the Midwest Region to which it recently had been transferred. Unlike the Northeast Region, the Midwest Region had no other parks with Bicentennial themes. As a result, the system-wide problems in interpretation were lessened at the park.

The opening of the visitor center on July 4, 1976, inaugurated a new phase in the park's history of interpretation. The new building, with twelve new museum exhibits and a ninety-six seat auditorium to show films, gave the Park Service a setting in which to offer a typical set of programs designed to leave the visitor with a fixed impression of the park and the importance of its themes. During the first half of 1976, Robert Lagemann, recently promoted to park superintendent, noted that the interpretive program remained as it had been. But following the opening of the visitor center, the park had a new and dazzling array of options at the disposal of its interpreters. [17] With the new structure in place, staff efforts turned to the implementation of programs established for the park.

A film depicting the events of Clark's 1778-1779 military campaign had been a crucial element in interpretive planning. This film, planners believed, would carry much of the burden of orientation as it did at most parks. At George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, it was even more important than usual. The film had to replace the lack of historic materials for interpretation throughout the park's boundaries. The main feature at the park remained the rotunda; splendid in its grandeur, its presence had the ability to detract from the story to be interpreted. The orientation film had to provide a basis that would draw visitors' attention to the story of Clark and his men and not to the story of the memorial and its construction.

When the visitor center opened, the park was without a film that directly explained the story of George Rogers Clark and the taking of Fort Sackville. The Park Service had contracted for a film about the history of the park, but when it was submitted late in 1975, it was rejected as inappropriate by the agency. A new version of the film was planned, but work on it had not begun when the visitor center opened. The park was forced to improvise, using John Huston's Bicentennial film, Independence, and a twenty-seven minute feature entitled George Rogers Clark and the Winning of the West, produced by the Indiana State Museum. The two films became staples for the visitor center. One of the two was featured daily on a four-times-a-day schedule during the peak season. After 1976, Independence no longer was shown, and the movie about Clark became the mainstay of orientation and interpretation. In 1977, 17,954 visitors viewed 1,031 showings of this film. [18]

But these were just temporary remedies, only used while a movie to serve the needs of the park was being produced. Finally, on March 31, 1978, the twenty-three minute film, A Few Men Well Conducted, produced by the Harpers Ferry Center and directed by Brian Jones, debuted. The film was an instant success; park personnel were complimented on the film time and again by local residents and visitors. Lagemann himself judged the movie an "excellent product." In the final nine months of 1978, the film was seen by 20,111 park visitors. [19]

The movie became the single most important component of the interpretive program. The movie's significance increased annually. By 1984, the 41,882 visitors who viewed the movie surpassed the 24,488 who heard the tape in the memorial; by 1987, both numbers had decreased, with 25,573 visitors viewing the film and only 6,326 hearing the tape in the memorial. Although occasionally the number listening to the audio tape in the rotunda increased, in general, the trend was clear. [20] The Park Service had shifted control of interpretation to its visitor center, thus emphasizing the importance of the story of Clark's march and the capture of Fort Sackville over the history of the memorial and its construction. This kind of quality presentation set Park Service interpretation apart from that offered by state and local entities.

Other activities augmented the interpretive program. At the May 27, 1978, dedication ceremony for the visitor center, more than 180 members of the North West Territory Alliance (a group of historical reenactors patterned after the Brigade of the American Revolution, which was a similar group operating throughout the East) lent a historic feel. They drilled in uniform, set up an eighteenth-century camp through which they conducted visitors during the Memorial Day weekend, and generally contributed to an eighteenth-century atmosphere at the park. [21] This initial activity became an annual reenactment program, the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous. The Rendezvous occurs in conjunction with the Memorial Day weekend and highlights the cooperative arrangements between the park, organizations with similar objectives, and those who advocate historical endeavors within the Vincennes community.

The park's living history program also benefitted from the enthusiasm surrounding the Bicentennial. Prior to 1976, the program had been limited to Robert Lagemann and seasonal interpreters Willard Cockerham and Jeny Erny, who while dressed in facsimiles of period clothing, fired an American rifle and a British musket. A combination of members from the North West Territory Alliance and from the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous helped highlight living history at the park. After the Bicentennial, the living history program became more than just the firing of weapons. The park demonstrated pioneer activities, allowed visitors to sample food of the Revolutionary War era, and displayed what Ranger Dennis Latta, one of the mainstays of the living history program, called a "potpourri of equipment" characteristic of the people of the time. [22]

Even though it worked well at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, living history remained problematic for the Park Service. Although there had been instances of living history interpretation in the national park system before the 1960s, during that decade programs began to proliferate. Firearms demonstrations were typical at parks such as Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and at Antietam National Battlefield (where Robert Lagemann participated before he came to George Rogers Clark National Historical Park). In 1965, Fort Davis National Historic Site began to dress its interpreters in period clothing. Under Director George B. Hartzog Jr., the agency picked up on a 1965 suggestion from Marion Clawson (a noted resources scholar and previously one of the first directors of the Bureau of Land Management). Writing in the journal, Agricultural History, Clawson called for a nationwide series of living history farms. Because of political circumstances, the Park Service carved out an independent strategy for living history programs within park areas. [23]

One of the parks selected for a living history program during the late 1960s was Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. Its superintendent, Albert W. Banton, Jr., also was the superintendent for the new George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. At Lincoln Boyhood, the living history program was a success, adding valuable depth to the interpretation of the area. Banton's successor, John C. W. "Bill" Riddle, had come from Hopewell Fumace National Historic Site, where a living history program existed by 1968. [24] With Lagemann's Antietam background, the emphasis on living history at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial and later within the Indiana-Illinois Group, the development of a program at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park seemed preordained.

Two kinds of criticism concerning content plagued living history programs. Some critics, such as former chief historian Robert M. Utley, believed that "the public's enthusiasm for living history [has] push[ed] us from interpretation of the park's features and values into productions that, however entertaining, do not directly support the central park themes." In this view, living history did little to educate; rather it put the agency in the entertainment business. Others, such as Frank Barnes, a talented and highly regarded interpretive specialist for the Northeast Region, believed that an emphasis upon living history could reflect the failure of traditional interpretation. In the demoralized interpretive climate of the 1970s, Barnes' suggestion sounded uncannily accurate. [25]

The other complaint about living history was its high cost. Labor intensive and effective at serving small groups or individuals, even the most limited living history programs required the investment of significant resources. At George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, Latta estimated that living history programs cost roughly $1 per person while the park could serve five visitors with conventional static interpretation for the same sum. Since interpretation was the easiest place to trim the agency budget, living history programs flourished only when parks invested the bulk of their interpretive resources toward that the effort. By the 1980s, the federal ethos became "do more with less," first for political and later for economic reasons. Based upon this philosophy, living history programs sometimes became regarded as expensive and ineffective extravagances. [26]

At George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, living history became an essential facet of the interpretive program. It was the closest link to the historic past within the boundaries of the park. The ongoing nature of the programs during the summer season, varying from three to eight times a day depending upon visitation, accentuated the program's importance. Even in the late 1980s, when resources were scarce throughout the park system, George Rogers Clark National Historical Park acquired resources to support living history. [27] This allowed for the program's expansion to include people reenacting British soldiers, frontier men and women, and others. Indians in the living history program remained conspicuous by their absence as late as 1994. Eventually the interpretive staff hopes to be able to add the depiction of a Frenchman and Indian to the living history program, thus complementing the current portrayal of an American frontiersman and British soldier.

With the primary ingredients of a respectable modern interpretive program in place, the Park Service could begin the long process of developing the protocols to support continual excellence in the area. In the 1970s and 1980, views of the meaning of history and the presentation of that meaning began to change rapidly, making archaic some previously acceptable modes of communication. Treatment of Native American and African American themes became complex, fraught with the complicated politics of self-awareness that began in the 1960s and which reached new heights during the 1980s and early 1990s. As a federal agency, committed by law and desire to eliminate vestiges of historic discrimination (not only in action but increasingly also by words), the Park Service took special care to remove remnants of any patronizing and derogatory interpretation. This led to reassessment not only of the material presented in parks, but, in many cases, also of the mode and manner of presentations as well.

At George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, the original exhibits had been conceived and executed hastily in order to have them in the visitor center when it opened in 1976. In the estimation of Chief Ranger Robert J. Holden, a mainstay of the park's interpretive efforts during his more than fifteen-year tenure, the exhibits did not do "what they were supposed to do and what they do in parks that have superior exhibits." [28] As a result, they merited continual reassessment and reevaluation.

In Vincennes, redefinition of interpretive themes and modes intersected with the influential tourism industry, one of the mainstays of the local economy. Relations between the park and the cultural resources community had improved greatly in the aftermath of the construction of the visitor center. The increase in visitation to the park spilled over to the community's other historic sites. This created the kind of relationship that the Park Service coveted in the 1960s when it assumed responsibility for the memorial, but it also gave a new constituency reason to assess each and every move the Park Service made at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.

In most situations, this posed little problem. Holden himself set the stage for the reevaluation of interpretive material. After his arrival in 1979, he made the improvement of the visitor center exhibits his priority. A frequent participant in training seminars at the Mather Training Center at Harpers Ferry, he made it a point to "campaign" for the upgrading of the park's interpretive program with members of the exhibit preparation team. [29]

Holden's efforts and his desire for a more comprehensive interpretation set the stage for a gradual reassessment of interpretation at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. At his instigation, efforts to redesign written interpretation at the park began in 1984. Text and a mock-up for a completely revised park brochure were submitted to the Harpers Ferry Center, along with a proposal for a new visitor center exhibits plan. In 1990, an interpretive planning team that included park staff, Regional Office Division of Interpretation personnel, and members of the Harpers Ferry Center staff met at the park. The group developed a plan for the rehabilitation of the exhibits in the visitor center, the interpretation within the memorial rotunda, and the park's wayside signs. This proposed overhaul was the first since the visitor center opened in 1976. [30]

In the end, Holden remarked, "I got everything that I wanted and that I stressed" for the rehabilitation. The new exhibits were designed to give visitors a much better sense of how the people of the times, Indian, European, and American, appeared. The exhibits had a combination of text and drawings as well as maps and artifacts. This would answer most of the questions that occurred to the average visitor and might inspire some visitors to ask more. In 1993, Holden expressed confidence that the new exhibits would be superior to the long-essential film in communicating the park's themes to its audience. [31]

By the early 1990s, the plan was in the process of being implemented. The original exhibits will be replaced, and the new ones constructed to tell a story that will be both chronological in character and that, in Holden's words, "makes sense as a person enters the [visitor center] building." The exhibits will detail the lives of the Indians, the French, the British, and the Americans. Also highlighted will be Clark's march, and if space allows, the territorial period and the War of 1812. This broader conception will allow the park to interpret not only Clark and his expedition, but also the broader themes of the expansion of the American Republic into the Old Northwest. All of these themes were part of the organic legislation for the park. [32] Interpretation had come a considerable distance from the days when local visitors discouraged Robert Lagemann from telling Clark's story, instead requesting the story of construction of the memorial and the grounds.

With the rehabilitation of the exhibits, only one additional feature of the interpretation program will require updating: the film. Since its debut in 1978, A Few Men Well Conducted had been a mainstay at the park. But as part of a comprehensive interpretive program, Holden envisioned a new film. The existing film was outstanding and had served well. Holden admitted that it would "not be easy to come up with a much greater film as it will be to come up with tremendously greater exhibits." But A Few Men Well Conducted slighted the role which Indians played in shaping the course of the Revolutionary War as well as their participation in events throughout the Old Northwest Territory during the war's aftermath. Holden believed that the history of native peoples was essential to a full-fledged, first-rate program that conveyed the breadth and depth of the region and its past. Although he expected to retire before its completion, Holden believed this feature would complete the interpretation at the park. [33]

This kind of broad-based interpretation was what the Park Service aspired to achieve in places such as George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. With its evident patriotic importance and ties to the major national historical themes, the park required only the investment of agency energy and resources to affirm its importance. At many post-1960s park areas there was a need to demonstrate a level of significance appropriate to national park system status. At George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, that significance was clear. The problem became devising an interpretive scheme that reflected the themes the Park Service sought to convey, while at the same time overcoming the lack of material culture and historic remnants associated with the 1770s. Splendid in its grandeur and replete with murals depicting the saga of Clark and his men, the rotunda still was a product of the twentieth century. As such, it reflected a modern view of the eighteenth century. As a result, while it attracted visitors to the park, it also presented interpretive difficulties.

The difference between the rotunda and the Clark story compelled an exceptional and ongoing level of interpretation at the park. In essence, park staff had to educate the local public as well as visitors about its view of what was important at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. This turned interpretation into a part of community relations for the park. Vincennes remained a history-conscious community with a cultural and economic investment in its past. As a result, the Park Service carved out a role that took interpretation beyond the boundaries of the park and into a series of local and regional venues.

Robert J. Holden played an instrumental role in this process. Beginning in the early 1980s, Holden authored a biweekly column entitled "Muskets, Tomahawks, and Long Rifles," which was a regular feature of twelve area newspapers. This reached a public constituency far broader than those who came to the park, and although not every newspaper reader may have cared to read the column, it became another piece of evidence that demonstrated the importance of an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship between the park and the community. [34]

He was also instrumental in developing a research library at the park. When Holden arrived, he found one metal bookcase in the superintendent's office that held the resource library for the park. Its seventy-five books represented the entire park collection. Using money at the end of the fiscal year, Holden began to buy large numbers of books. Within five years, the park had between 600 and 700 volumes that addressed two main themes — the Revolutionary War era and the Trans-Appalachian frontier. This impressive library helps support the interpretive efforts of the park staff.

Holden also sought to bring more specialized constituencies into contact with the park. At his instigation, the first Annual George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier Conference was conducted in 1983. Holden frequently attended the conferences of professional historians and it seemed to him that the trans-Appalachian frontier had been neglected in comparison to the trans-Mississippi West. A few years before, at Lowell National Historical Park, the Park Service had begun a similar event to address questions concerning the history of industrialization. The events of the 1770s and the aftermath of the Revolutionary War throughout the Old Northwest merited greater scholarly scrutiny, Holden believed. With the immense significance of Clark's impact, no better location than Vincennes could be selected for a gathering of researchers specializing in the subject. In cooperation with Vincennes University, the park invited scholars to present their research. The conference became an annual event, spawning five volumes of selected papers from the conferences. Publication of the series was sponsored by Eastern National Park & Monument Association and the books were printed by Vincennes University. Holden remained the prime mover behind the conference for all of its first decade. Only by the mid-1990s, as Holden approached retirement, was the conference turned over to Vincennes University. [35]

The conferences were more important than they appeared to a lay audience. Although Holden never succeeded in attracting the broad local support he wanted, the gatherings served an important purpose for the agency and its history program. Park Service history and interpretation faced problems of professional legitimacy; agency historians often found it difficult to be taken seriously by other professional historians. This lack of peer group standing circumscribed the power of historians within the agency. They received minimal support from professional historical groups and Park Service historians often believed they had to demonstrate both their merit and their professionalism on a continuous basis to the rest of the historical world. The conferences fostered stronger ties between the park, agency historians, and others in the historical profession. Such a link had been a longstanding goal of the History Division. This was worthy of note within the agency; NPS journals such as the Courier and In Touch joined local and regional media in their coverage of the annual event. Other parks, such as the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, began their own conferences. [36]

Much of the conference's success, as well as the success of interpretation in general, was attributable to Robert J. Holden. A veteran of more than thirty years in the Park Service, Holden became one of the leading interpreters in the agency and most respected advocates of interpretation in the agency. During the 1980s alone, his accomplishments were many and varied. He gave technical assistance to the committee studying the feasibility of adding Fort Knox II (the old fort site a few miles upriver from Vincennes) to the park. He edited the five volumes of selected papers from the annual Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences. He conducted oral history interviews with both Robert Lagemann, and (with the assistance of Ranger Dennis Latta) with others involved in the park's history. Holden made a preliminary assessment to determine if the route taken by Clark and his men from Kaskaskia to Vincennes could qualify as a national historic trail. For his efforts, he was awarded a range of regional and national Park Service honors, including the 1987 national Appleman-Judd Award, regional Freeman Tilden awards in 1985 and 1988, and the 1991 Interpretation Sequoia award — all were important honors. [37]

Holden's brand of energy, resourcefulness, and innovation played an important role in the development of interpretation at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. A seasoned professional, he was able to shape the features of the park into a broad-based assessment of the region's history. His emphasis upon accuracy and professional interpretation made a considerable difference at a park where only three decades before, a custodian who referred to himself as the conductor of the memorial would ring a bell upon receipt of an entrance fee. In that context, the achievements of the Park Service in interpretation were impressive.

In Chief Ranger Robert J. Holden's estimation in 1993, the interpretive program at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park quickly was becoming an "operation that I think we'll really be proud of." A new film, depicting the Clark expedition in its broadest context, would complete the necessary media. In addition, the staff had the training and experience to offer visitors the proper quantity and depth of interpretation for each individual. The living history program had matured; the interpretation in the rotunda offered the story of the murals, the statue, and the structure; and the visitor center housed the exhibits, the film, and the primary contact station. In Holden's words, upon completion of the exhibits and particularly after the debut of the new film, the interpretive program at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park will be "much enhanced." [38]

By the middle of the 1990s, interpretation at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park embodied a range of functions that reflected the complexity of the mandate of the Park Service. Interpretation required the telling of the story of George Rogers Clark and the memorial constructed to commemorate his march. That interpretation was to be presented with generally constant resources to an increasing number of people each year. This meant maintaining continuity even though public expectations changed, as historical interpretation offered a wider range of perspectives, and as the public itself knew less of the story. The presence throughout the 1980s and early 1990s of a committed and dedicated staff counteracted the problems of a public still geared to appreciate the architecture of the memorial and who appeared to have inherently less interest in the history of George Rogers Clark, his Big Knives, and the Old Northwest. As conditions within the agency change, personnel retire or move to other posts, and reorganizations have an impact upon where expertise can be found within and outside the agency, the responsibility for conveying to a changing public that story which was framed and articulated in the 1980s and 1990s will become more complex.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 28-Jul-2006