The simple act of creating a trail…

Public History isn’t exactly in the vocabulary of Bostonians. Though this may be surprising to those not fortunate enough to have been raised in the fair Commonwealth of Massachusetts, when you live day-in and day-out in a city-sized museum, giving a title to it seems arbitrary.

Since initial settlement of what is now known as Boston, it has been up to the individual citizens, politicians, and Bostonians of all walks of life to remember, preserve, and create history. Up until the middle of the 20th century, this was all done independently. All of the sites and relics of the history of our nation that happened to be within the city limits were independent of each other, linked only by the story they told. This queued the interest of Bill Schofield in March 1951, and led him to establish one of the more iconic tourist destinations for the public.

Schofield became frustrated at the lack of publicity and accessibility of the historic sites in Boston, especially in being a local. In imagining the missed opportunities by tourists who may not even know what to look for, Schofield gathered his resources and made the first attempt of this venture in his very own medium; the newspaper in which he was a columnist. He called out to politicians, historians, site employees, and the common Bostonian to implement the idea which is now known as the ‘Freedom Trail’.

By June of the same year, Bill Schofield’s vision was realized as Mayor Hynes responded to his public outcry by stating that the city would be taking steps to establish, and begin development of the Freedom Trail. What began simply as signage and brochure guides has grown into a thriving public service that has paid limitless dividends to the city of Boston in tourism, economic growth, and publicity. For an already iconic city, the Freedom Trail gave the non-locals a way to fully immerse themselves in the history of Boston, and those events that played a vital role in the development of the Republic.

Today, the Freedom Trail sits subtly in the surroundings of a bustling city. What distinguishes the trail from the rest of the city is in the signage as well as the famous red paint and brick walkway that acts as a guide to the independent tourist (and their clever tagline, “So much history, we had to draw a line”).

One of the more popular aspects of the Freedom Trail is the “Walk Into History Tour”. This is where costumed guides will lead groups through various parts of the trail, or focusing on specific buildings or areas that are a part of the semi-official 16 sites. The Freedom Trail Foundation is the non-profit organization that runs and operates the trail in maintenance, tour development, and special events such as the African American Patriots tour that is now being advertised on their website.

Day in History – Costumed Guide

The beautiful thing about the Freedom Trail is that the entire idea is simple and universal, yet drastically changed the city and brought new light to venues that were at risk of losing their public relevance. As any Historian will confess, the public is the fuel that operates any history-based organization. If the public is not interested, or does not go to your museum or site, then public funding and support will disappear with it. The Freedom Trail brought new life to sites that were in danger of such a fate, and can serve as a model for any city.

Freedom Trail Guide

While the title of the ‘Freedom Trail’ certainly wouldn’t tie in with Boise History, some other platforms could be considered. For the sake of argument, how about the ‘Chinese Path Through Boise’? A guided tour of the relics and former cultural areas of Boise. This could include the locations of China Town (now reduced to a single building, housing a laundry service), along with a tour of the Chinese Gardens (now known as Chinden Boulevard), concluding with an interpretive exhibit of the miners who initiated the wave of Chinese immigration into the Boise area. Just imagine – those binocular viewers that are spread throughout the city may actually get some use, and make sense!

The main theory behind this nerdy rant on the awesomeness (a grammatically correct, and perfectly descriptive adjective) of the Freedom Trail, is that if separate sites are suffering from a lack of interest or publicity opportunities, then the best bet is to combine forces. Although the sites still operate independently, the 16 locations on the Freedom Trail now experience a level of popularity that would have been nearly impossible had it not been for the vision of Bill Schofield and the continued efforts of the Freedom Trail Foundation.

One thought on “The simple act of creating a trail…”

  1. I actually considered writing about the Freedom Trail for my blog entry, so I’m glad someone did. It is by far one of the most memorable public history experiences I have had personally. The fact that it is so adaptable to any tourist’s interest and schedule is a huge benefit; e.g. I didn’t know about the possibility of having a costumed guide, so I walked it myself just over the course of a day. However, I don’t think I would have done a guided tour even if I’d known about it since I like to go at my own pace anyway, and the ability to do this by selecting sites of your own choosing and following along with the brochure (or now, as we saw in the “7 Apps” article, a mobile app!) makes this a fabulously user-friendly project.

    I like the idea of having a Boise culture/history trail–especially a tour of the lesser known aspects of it, such as the history of the Chinese in Boise as you mention. That is a perfect example of sites that are separate that would benefit from being “linked” via a public history trail.

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