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 [graphic] National Register Bulletin Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes

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U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service

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Rich deposits of lime and limeston ensured the prosperity and agricultural productivity of Oley Township, Pennsylvania. In response to the natural environment, settlers farmed fertile soil, operated limekilns, and constructed homes, barns, outbuildings, and walls of native limestone. (Oley Resource Conservation Project)
A classification system of eleven characteristics has been developed for reading a rural landscape and for understanding the natural and cultural forces that have shaped it. Landscape characteristics are the tangible evidence of the activities and habits of the people who occupied, developed, used, and shaped the land to serve human needs; they may reflect the beliefs, attitudes, traditions, and values of these people.

The first four characteristics are processes that have been instrumental in shaping the land, such as the response of farmers to fertile soils. The remaining seven are physical components that are evident on the land, such as barns or orchards. Many, but not all, rural properties contain all eleven characteristics. When historic processes are linked to existing components, the rural landscape can be viewed as a unified whole. The section "Documentation of Landscape Characteristics" shows the relationship of the eleven characteristics and the features represented by them.

This classification system is a tool for gathering and organizing information. First of all, it is used to develop historic contexts for rural areas. The processes define specific themes, such as dairy farming or Belgian settlement, that have influenced historic development. The physical components define historic features of the landscape that may be used to describe significant property types and to identify properties eligible for listing in the National Register.

Second, the system is used to identify and evaluate the significant properties of a rural area or to determine the eligibility of a particular rural landscape. Through field survey and historic research, characteristics are associated with specific features, such as field patterns or roadways, and provide an understanding of an area or property's historic land uses and physical evolution.

Third, as information about existing characteristics is related to the historic contexts for a geographical area, assessments of significance, integrity, and boundaries can be made for specific properties. Information is evaluated to determine whether, within a rural area or region, a large historic district or separate properties should be considered for listing in the National Register. A comparison of past and present characteristics within a single property helps determine whether the property retains historic integrity and what the National Register boundaries should be.

Finally, the classification system provides a format for documenting rural properties on National Register forms. It can be used to organize the description and statement of significance for a specific rural property on the registration form. It is also useful for organizing information about rural historic contexts and property types on the multiple property documentation form.


Taro, the staple of the islanders' daily diet is the primary crop of Hanalei, Hawaii. Traditionally grown, it is dependent on a warm humid climate and wetland agriculture made possible by abundant rainfall and irrigation. (Robert Z. Melnick)
1. Land Uses and Activities: Land uses are the major human forces that shape and organize rural communities. Human activities, such as farming, mining, ranching, recreation, social events, commerce, or industry, have left an imprint on the landscape. An examination of changing and continuing land uses may lead to a general understanding of how people have interacted with their environment and provide clues about the kinds of physical features and historic properties that should be present.

Topographic variations, availability of transportation, the abundance or scarcity of natural resources (especially water), cultural traditions, and economic factors influenced the ways people use the land. Changing land uses may have resulted from improved technology, exhausted soils or mineral deposits, climatic changes, and new economic conditions, as well as previous successes or failures. Activities visible today may reflect traditional practices or be innovative, yet compatible, adaptations of historic ones.

Taro fields separated by earthen dikes, forested mountains, rivers and irrigation ditches, and a system of roads define the pattern of spatial organization and characterize the area's wetland agriculture in Hanalei, Hawaii. (Robert Z. Melnick)
2. Patterns of Spatial Organization: The organization of land on a large scale depends on the relationship among major physical components, predominant landforms, and natural features. Politics, economics, and technology, as well as the natural environment, have influenced the organization of communities by determining settlement patterns, proximity to markets, and the availability of transportation.

Organization is reflected in road systems, field patterns, distance between farmsteads, proximity to water sources, and orientation of structures to sun and wind. For example, spatial patterns can be seen in the grid of square mile townships and 160-acre farmsteads in the Midwest established by the land ordinances of 1785 and 1787; the distribution of towns every seven miles along a railroad corridor; and the division of land in Louisiana, by the French long-lot system, to ensure that every parcel has river frontage.

Large-scale patterns characterizing the settlement and early history of a rural area may remain constant, while individual features, such as buildings and vegetation, change over time. Changes in technology, for example, may have altered plowing practices, although the location of plowed fields, and, therefore, the overall historic pattern may remain the same.

3. Response to the Natural Environment: Major natural features, such as mountains, prairies, rivers, lakes, forests, and grasslands, influenced both the location and organization of rural communities. Climate, similarly, influenced the siting of buildings, construction materials, and the location of clusters of buildings and structures. Traditions in land use, construction methods, and social customs commonly evolved as people responded to the physiography and ecological systems of the area where they settled.

Early settlements frequently depended upon available natural resources, such as water for transportation, irrigation, or mechanical power. Mineral or soil deposits, likewise, determined the suitability of a region for particular activities. Available materials, such as stone or wood, commonly influenced the construction of houses, barns, fences, bridges, roads, and community buildings.

4. Cultural Traditions: Cultural traditions affect the ways that land is used, occupied, and shaped. Religious beliefs, social customs, ethnic identity, and trades and skills may be evident today in both physical features and uses of the land. Ethnic customs, predating the origins of a community, were often transmitted by early settlers and perpetuated by successive generations. Others originated during a community's early development and evolution. Cultural groups have interacted with the natural environment, manipulating and perhaps altering it, and sometimes modifying their traditions in response to it.

Cultural traditions determined the structure of communities by influencing the diversity of buildings, location of roads and village centers, and ways the land was worked. Social customs dictated the crops planted or livestock raised. Traditional building forms, methods of construction, stylistic finishes, and functional solutions evolved in the work of local artisans. For example, rustic saunas appeared among the outbuildings of Finnish farmsteads in northwestern Michigan, while community churches occupied isolated crossroads in the High Plains. Taro, grown as a staple in the Hawaiian daily diet, also assumed an important role in the traditional luau. At the Amana Colonies in Iowa, large expanses of farmland and forest--based upon communal ownership, a village settlement pattern, and religious beliefs--varied from the rectangular grid typical of Midwestern family farms.


5. Circulation Networks: Circulation networks are systems for transporting people, goods, and raw materials from one point to another. They range in scale from livestock trails and footpaths, to roads, canals, major highways, and even airstrips. Some, such as farm or lumbering roads, internally served a rural community, while others, such as railroads and waterways, connected it to the surrounding region.

6. Boundary Demarcations: Boundary demarcations delineate areas of ownership and land use, such as an entire farmstead or open range. They also separate smaller areas having special functions, such as a fenced field or enclosed corral. Fences, walls, tree lines, hedge rows, drainage or irrigation ditches, roadways, creeks, and rivers commonly marked historic boundaries.

7. Vegetation Related to Land Use: Various types of vegetation bear a direct relationship to long-established patterns of land use. Vegetation includes not only crops, trees, or shrubs planted for agricultural and ornamental purposes, but also trees that have grown up incidentally along fence lines, beside roads, or in abandoned fields. Vegetation may include indigenous, naturalized, and introduced species.

While many features change over time, vegetation is, perhaps, the most dynamic. It grows and changes with time, whether or not people care for it. Certain functional or ornamental plantings, such as wheat or peonies, may be evident only during selected seasons. Each species has a unique pattern of growth and life span, making the presence of historic specimens questionable or unlikely in many cases. Current vegetation may differ from historic vegetation, suggesting past uses of the land. For example, Eastern red cedars or aspens indicate the natural succession of abandoned farmland in the Midwest.

The corral cluster at Spade Ranch in Sheridan County, Nebraska, contains numerous structures associated with the historic functions of a cattle ranch. These include scales for weighing livestock; pens for sorting, breaking, and branding; and chutes for roping and loading. (David Murphy)
8. Buildings, Structures, and Objects: Various types of buildings, structures, and objects serve human needs related to the occupation and use of the land. Their function, materials, date, condition, construction methods, and location reflect the historic activities, customs, tastes, and skills of the people who built and used them.

Buildings--designed to shelter human activity--include residences, schools, churches, outbuildings, barns, stores, community halls, and train depots. Structures--designed for functions other than shelter--include dams, canals, systems of fencing, systems of irrigation, tunnels, mining shafts, grain elevators, silos, bridges, earthworks, ships, and highways. Objects--relatively small but important stationary or movable constructions--include markers and monuments, small boats, machinery, and equipment.

Rural buildings and structures often exhibit patterns of vernacular design that may be common in their region or unique to their community. Residences may suggest family size and relationships, population densities, and economic fluctuations. The repeated use of methods, forms, and materials of construction may indicate successful solutions to building needs or demonstrate the unique skills, workmanship, or talent of a local artisan.

One of the most extensive and intact clusters of agricultural outbuildings in the Lake Landing Historic District, Hyde County, North Carolina, consists of a wash house, outhouse, buggy house, harness shed, chicken house, two barns and wood fences. (J. Timothy Keller)
9. Clusters: Groupings of buildings, fences, and other features, as seen in a farmstead, ranch, or mining complex, result from function, social tradition, climate, or other influences, cultural or natural. The arrangement of clusters may reveal information about historical and continuing activities, as well as the impact of varying technologies and the preferences of particular generations. The repetition of similar clusters throughout a landscape may indicate vernacular patterns of siting, spatial organization, and land use. Also, the location of clusters, such as the market towns that emerged at the crossroads of early highways, may reflect broad patterns of a region's cultural geography.

10. Archeological Sites: The sites of prehistoric or historic activities or occupation, may be marked by foundations, ruins, changes in vegetation, and surface remains. They may provide valuable information about the ways the land has been used, patterns of social history, or the methods and extent of activities such as shipping, milling, lumbering, or quarrying. The ruins of mills, charcoal kilns, canals, outbuildings, piers, quarries, and mines commonly indicate previous uses of the land. Changes in vegetation may indicate abandoned roadways, homesites, and fields. The spatial distribution of features, surface disturbances, subsurface remains, patterns of soil erosion and deposition, and soil composition may also yield information about the evolution and past uses of the land.

11. Small-scale elements: Small-scale elements, such as a foot bridge or road sign, add to the historic setting of a rural landscape. These features may be characteristic of a region and occur repeatedly throughout an area, such as limestone fence posts in Kansas or cattle gates in the Buffalo River Valley of Arkansas. While most small-scale elements are long-lasting, some, such as bales of hay, are temporal or seasonal. Collectively, they often form larger components, such as circulation networks or boundary demarcations. Small-scale elements also include minor remnants--such as canal stones, road traces, mill stones, individual fruit trees, abandoned machinery, or fence posts--that mark the location of historic activities, but lack significance or integrity as archeological sites.


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