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Integrating Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy: Toward a Richer Sense of Place

Integrating Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy:  Toward a Richer Sense of Place

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Update: November 2016 

by Laurie Kay Sommers

The following “white paper,” written in 2013, was designed for an audience of folklorists and sought to inspire our field’s increased engagement in historic preservation policy, especially in the preparation of model traditional cultural places (TCP) nominations to the National Register of Historic Places (Bulletin 38) that expand the scope of the types of places listed as TCPs. The original text appears below, but this update provides a summary of recent activity, trends, and accomplishments related to the integrated approach to folklore and historic preservation discussed in the original policy paper.

Growing Acceptance of a More Humanistic Approach to Historic Preservation

Perhaps most notable is a growing acceptance of the more humanistic approach to historic preservation.  I was particularly struck by this fundamental shift when attending the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN) meeting at Wayne State University in May, 2016. The keynote address featured Tom Mayes, deputy general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who spoke on “Why Old Places Matter” based on his 2013 blog series for the Preservation Leadership Forum (https://preservationnation.exposure.co/why-do-old-places-matter). Conversations with preservation practitioners and community members led him to identify 14 reasons. These include those you might expect—creativity, architecture, beauty, history, sacred, learning, sustainability, and economics. But Mayes also includes ancestors, identity (individual, civil, state, national and universal), continuity, memory, and—perhaps most significantly—community. As he points out, other words might have been used, and concepts overlap. But these 14 terms reflect a much broader perspective than has traditionally been the case in the field of historic preservation. 

Significantly, Mayes told the Michigan audience that historic preservation needs to pay more attention to “cultural significance.” This is about people and use, he emphasized, not just about buildings – “the humanistic element is crucial.” Mayes also urged historic preservation professionals to seek training in what he calls “social engagement,” or letting the community identify their significant places. While he didn’t mention innovative folklorist-driven projects such as Citylore’s Place Matters by name (see case study below), they have been using this community-driven approach since 1996 (http://www.placematters.net/).

A community-driven approach will also be built into the new Keweenaw Time Travelers project, an NEH-funded grant to Michigan Technological University’s multidisciplinary Industrial Heritage and Archaeology Program, with historical and cultural geographer Don Lafreniere as PI (http://www.keweenawhistory.com/). This richly collaborative, place-based online tool will use GIS technology, maps, and other archival data to allow users to “drill down” through history, time, space, and place. The Time Traveler project also will allow local community members to share the stories of their own significant places.[i] Here is Mayes’ concept of social engagement in action, by colleagues who share a common vision of preserving place.

The gap between folklore and historic preservation is closing. The need for networking and mutual engagement has never been more pressing.

New Case Studies with Traditional Cultural Properties

Since 2013, three new places have been listed as TCPs on the National Register that expand the purview of TCPs beyond Native American and Native Hawaiian sites:

Tarpon Springs Greektown National Register Historic District

Tarpon Springs Greektown Historic District (Florida), grew out of the AFS Working Group in Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy and our efforts to provide model TCP nominations for sites other than Native American or Native Hawaiian. Greektown is an ethnic neighborhood that includes both residential, religious, and commercial properties, among them boats and docks associated with the historic sponge diving industry.  The Greektown nomination, prepared by folklorist Tina Bucuvalas (Curator of Arts & Historical Resources for the City of Tarpon Springs), has set an important precedent for understanding the importance of use in a TCP:  “All properties having any direct connection to persons of [Greek] descent, culture, or activities are considered contributing regardless of the date of construction or physical integrity as usually applied in historic district National Register nomination proposals.” Particularly significant to Greektown, and to any dynamic ethnic neighborhood, is another crucial point that acknowledges the significance of the ways Tarpon Springs Greeks have added ethnic [Greek] architectural and design features to pre-existing historic buildings: “Alterations over time that reflect or reinforce the cultural values of the Greek residents are considered significant.” For Bucuvalas’ discussion of the nomination process, click here. For a copy of the completed National Register nomination, click here.

Green River Drift Cattle Trail

The Green River Drift Trail is a historic cattle driving trail in Wyoming and the nation’s first ranching-related TCP.  As reporter Joy Ufford wrote for Pinedale Online after the 2014 dedication of the trail’s listing, “Bringing the Green River Drift into its current prominence took a huge collaboration among Sublette ranchers, officials, historians and volunteers, progressing from an idea sparked by [rancher] Jonita Sommers and the Sublette County Historic Preservation Board (SCHPB) into reality with support from the Upper Green River Cattle Association, Wyoming Stockgrowers Association (WSGA), Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, Sublette County and Wyoming agencies [among them the Wyoming SHPO that includes folklorist Beth King, Monuments and Markers Program Coordinator] and BLM, FS and National Park Service.” http://www.pinedaleonline.com/news/2014/06/DedicationheldforGre.htm (For a copy of the National Register nomination click here.)

Rice Bay

This TCP nomination focuses on the traditional wild ricing grounds for the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, located in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula. The significance of this site comes from its continuous use in gathering and food processing. According to Timothy Boscarino, Preservation Planner for the City of Detroit, “The Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians was concerned that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wasn’t fully respecting the significance of the rice gathering site during the Section 106 process, and asked me as a volunteer to prepare the nomination to further strengthen their case for its eligibility.” (Boscarino, email correspondence with Laurie Sommers, 26 May 2016) This nomination is the first to list an American Indian food tradition, rather than an expressly sacred site. (For a copy of the National Register nomination click here.)

In addition, truly herculean work continues to list the Casita Rincón Criollo in the Bronx as a TCP. The project recently was selected by the National Park Service as one of as one of ten national initiatives working with underrepresented communities. The New York City Casitas Survey and Nomination Project received $46,000 to complete intensive level survey of New York City’s Puerto Rican casitas with a model traditional cultural property nomination for one site (the Casita Rincón Criollo). The effort to list the Casita is also the subject of a MA Thesis by folklorist Virginia Seigel: “Traditional Cultural Properties and Casita Rincón Criollo” (Western Kentucky University, 2015). The thesis abstract reads as follows:

“According to the 1990 bulletin issued by the National Park Service, traditional cultural properties (TCPs) derive their significance from cultural practices or beliefs of living communities. This thesis centers on a case study of the nomination of Casita Rincón Criollo to the National Register of Historic Places as a TCP. The nomination is a collaborative project of Place Matters in New York City and Western Kentucky University, initiated by the American Folklore Society Working Group in Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy. Casita Rincón Criollo has several issues that make nomination to the National Register tricky. Casitas are small “houses,” typically accompanied by gardens, which serve as community gathering places for the Puerto Rican community in New York City. Often built illegally on empty lots, casitas tend to be impermanent structures. Casita Rincón Criollo in the South Bronx is less than 50 years old and has been moved and reconstructed. However, such is the nature of casitas. Building, maintaining, and rallying to save and move the casita makes the Casita Rincón Criollo significant. Further, Casita Rincon Criollo has served as a key influence on traditional forms of Puerto Rican music in the United States. For this reason, the Casita is recognized on City Lore’s grassroots register, Place Matters, and it was also incorporated into the GreenThumb garden movement in NYC. Folklorists are uniquely poised to recognize cultural groups and communities that might otherwise be overlooked by the National Register of Historic Places. In this thesis, I will discuss methods of research employed in the documentation of Casita Rincón Criollo and examine how folkloristic methods can address gaps in representation. I will contextualize the project within a broader history of heritage designation programs in the United States and world. From ethnographic fieldwork, oral histories, and more, I will conclude that folklorists offer alternative documentation strategies to supplement those most commonly employed in National Register nominations, as well as a more inclusive definition of cultural groups and tradition.”

Another project that expands the application of Bulletin 38 is “You Just Can’t Live Without It” Ethnographic Study and Evaluation of Traditional Cultural Properties of the Modern Gladesmen Culture, Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), South Florida (2011), a phase 1 study by New South Associates commissioned by the Corps of Engineers in connection with a Master Recreation Plan being developed as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). The report determined that two sites, Airboat Association of Florida and Mack’s Fish camp, were eligible to the National Register as TCPs. Significantly, the study was instigated by a letter from local resident Frank Deninger who provided compelling evidence that Gladesmen traditional culture was not being taken into consideration in the Corp’s Everglades plan. The letter is included in Appendix A of the report (click here for a report copy). The final version of the report contains less ethnographic detail and fewer recommended TCPs, due to cultural politics which arose during the comment period. {For a copy of the report click here.] Tom King roundly criticized the report in his blog CRM Plus:  http://crmplus.blogspot.com/2014/07/how-to-write-off-traditional-cultural.html. The comments on King’s blog illustrate the cultural politics that can arise among those wishing to see Bulletin 38 applied only to Native American and Native Hawaiian sites (sites which already have preferred status due to the 1992 amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act stating that cultural or sacred properties of American Indians or Native Hawaiians may be eligible for the National Register, and that federal agencies must consult about this during section 106 review).  While Bulletin 38 does specifically mention locations associated with traditional beliefs of Native American groups, it also mentions rural communities, urban neighborhoods, “and a location where a community has traditionally carried out economic, artistic, or other cultural practices important to maintaining its historical identity.” TCPs are eligible because of their association with the “cultural practices or beliefs of a living community.”

A Folklorist’s Primer for Studying Urban Vernacular Architecture

Another important new study by our colleague folklorist Jeanne Harrah-Johnson breaks new ground by combining historical research and oral history in studying urban vernacular architecture in Berkeley, California. Her work applies folklorist techniques to an urban neighborhood while simultaneously providing historic preservation professionals a step-by-step approach to looking at urban vernacular architecture in a new way. See “Berkeley California: A Primer to Documentation and Analysis of Urban Vernacular Architecture” (2016), a best practices report for the American Folklore Society Consultancy and Professional Development Program (click here for a copy of the report).

Fishtown, Michigan and The National Working Waterfront Network’s Oral History Collection

Fishtown Preservation Society’s ground-breaking integration of folklore historic preservation in interpretation and stewardship initiatives for the historic working waterfront in Leland, Michigan, is now the focus of a new oral history slideshow from the National Working Waterfront Network. See the following YouTube link, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZS–C2XeFfM, or visit the Network’s webpage, Preserving the Working Waterfront Oral History Collection https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZS–C2XeFfM.  Fishtown is one of 10 strategies highlighted by the NNWN as a model for supporting and sustaining working waterfront’s nationwide.


From their website, #SaveNYC describes itself as follows: “#SaveNYC is a grassroots, crowd-sourced, DIY movement to raise awareness and take action for protecting and preserving the diversity and uniqueness of the urban fabric in New York City. As our vibrant streetscapes and neighborhoods are turned into bland, suburban-style shopping malls, filled with chain stores and glossy luxury retail, #SaveNYC is fighting for small businesses and cultural institutions. Our mission is to bring attention to the plight of Mom and Pop, raise awareness of the issues, and encourage state and city government to implement protections for small businesses and cultural institutions across the five boroughs of New York City. http://www.savenyc.nyc/ Andrea Glass, a PhD student at Penn State University Harrisburg, recently spoke about her involvement with this organization at the 2016 American Folklore Society meeting. Her work addresses the intersection of urban folklore and gentrification studies, and highlights the ways in which urban development will shape the future of folklore. “As the term gentrification enters the vernacular and moves to the center of urban activism,” she writes in the program book abstract, “I argue that it is critical for folklorists to study anti-gentrification media communities, folk responses to displacement, and the material culture of vanishing cultures and communities.”

[i] Mark Wilcox, A Digital Time Travel Machine Reveals Keweenaw History, Michigan Tech News, May 17, 2016.


June 2013

by Laurie Kay Sommers

with members of the AFS Working Group in Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy

Who We Are

The American Folklore Society Working Group on Folklore in Historic Preservation Policy spent 2011-2012 implementing a policy initiative grant from the American Folklore Society. Our goal was to better position folklorists and folklore methodologies as central forces in historic preservation. Working group members included Laurie Kay Sommers (Laurie Sommers Consulting, LLC, Okemos, Michigan) and Michael Ann Williams (Western Kentucky University), co-chairs; Varick Chittenden (Registry of Very Special Places/Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, who replaced colleague Jill Breit, an early participant in our working group); Tom Carter (emeritus, University of Utah); Nancy Solomon (Long Island Traditions); John Vlach (George Washington University); Molly Garfinkel (Citylore’s Place Matters), and Jay Edwards (Louisiana State University). 

This policy paper summarizes the results of our policy group work to date. In preparing these comments, we also drew on the insights of the following colleagues who participated in the six forums we sponsored at the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting in New Orleans in October 2012: Alan Jabbour (emeritus director of the American Folklore Society); Richard Vidutis (Recordations); Steve Zeitlin (Citylore); Janet Gilmore (University of Wisconsin-Madison); Arne Alanen (emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison); Margaret Magat (Cultural Surveys Hawai‘i); Amanda Holmes (Fishtown Preservation Society); Kingston Heath (University of Oregon); Joseph Sciorra (Queens College); Mike Varnado (Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office); Paul Lusignan (National Register); and the following Western Kentucky folklore graduate students who pursued model TCP nominations: Rachel Hopkin, Catlin Coad, Katie Wynn, and Sarah McCartt-Jackson. Alan Jabbour, Paul Lusignan, and Peggy Bulger all spoke to our working group planning meeting at the Library of Congress in July of 2011.

The Issue

Because each nation has its own structure of preservation law and bureaucracy, we focused our efforts on historic preservation policy in the United States, but we anticipate that portions of our work will be applicable elsewhere. 

The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 laid the groundwork for programs and policies that shape much of the historic preservation activity in the United States. The National Park Service’sNational Register of Historic Places is the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by NHPA, the National Register is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources. The National Register is institutionalized at the state level through state historic preservation offices (SHPOs). As a repository of the nation’s history, told through its significant buildings and places, the National Register is an unparalleled resource. The narratives of place and exploration of meaning and use at which folklorists excel should be part of this national documentary record, but all too often are not. Areas of the National Register particularly relevant to folklorists’ involvement include Bulletin 30 (Rural Historic Districts); Preservation Brief 36 (Protecting Cultural Landscapes); and Bulletin 38 (Traditional Cultural Properties)(http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/index.htm; http://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/36-cultural-landscapes.htm). 

National Register Bulletin 38 institutionalized the concept of “traditional cultural property” within the National Register and Section 106 review.

Section 106 review, mandated under NHPA, requires federal agencies or their applicants to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic structural and archaeological properties. The Section 106 process must be completed prior to the spending of federal funds or issue of a federal license or permit for the undertaking. Additionally, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can also be an important tool for managing impacts on historic and cultural resources, triggering environmental impact analyses for federal projects. The entire resulting infrastructure of cultural resource management (CRM) studies and environmental review has developed largely within the fields of archaeology and architectural history, without the vital ethnographic component and local voice that folklorists could elicit.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s successful Main Street program (http://www.preservationnation.org/main-street/) provides a tested preservation-based economic development tool that enables communities to revitalize downtown and neighborhood business districts by leveraging local assets – from historic, cultural, and architectural resources to local enterprises and community pride. “Our Main Streets,” writes the National Trust on its website, “are the places of shared memory where people still come together to live, work, and play.” Folklorists have unique disciplinary perspectives on shared memory and local assets that can enrich the Main Street formula. 

Historic preservation, long touted as an economic development strategy, will increasingly become a “green” strategy, as the carbon footprint of “tear-downs” and new construction becomes environmentally unsustainable. The recent national conversation on place has made placemaking a hot topic across the spectrum of historic preservation, economic development, arts, and humanities with 1) the rise of cultural districts (http://www.artistlink.org/?q=spacetoolbox/formunicipalities/zoningforartists/artdistrictsoverlays) as well as historic districts; 2) the National Endowment for the Arts’ creative placemaking white paper (http://www.nea.gov/pub/CreativePlacemaking-Paper.pdf) and its Our Town grant program; 3) the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “This Place Matters” program (the name adopted from Citylore’s innovative Place Matters program) (http://www.preservationnation.org/take-action/this-place-matters/); 4) and various state and university programs that emphasize “placemaking” as a strategy for economic development and creating liveable communities (cf, Michigan’s MiPlace http://miplace.org/placemaking, and the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking http://creativeplacemaking.blogspot.com/).

For too long, despite laudable efforts by individual folklorists, the perspectives of our field have been absent from these shaping policies and programs of federal and state historic preservation entities and major non-profit players such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We are at a pivotal moment, however, where exciting opportunities exist for folklorists to forge greater and more vital roles for our field.

  • As placemaking (and the historic preservation community’s place within it) gains momentum at local, state, and national levels in both public and private spheres, the folklorist’s methodology can lead to a richer sense of place through ethnographic documentation of context and use—the ways story, ritual, and behavior link communities to places and make them meaningful. 
  • As Section 106 and environmental review continue to be major activities for CRM firms and SHPOs, some preservationists are realizing that ethnography—long a weak point in environmental review efforts—is important to the process. Folklore methodologies can help engage the local community and elicit their voices.
  • As the National Park Service revisits National Register Bulletin 38 (Traditional Cultural Properties or TCPs) and seeks to clarify its parameters, folklorists have an opportunity to provide input and create model nominations for a range of places, beyond the sacred American Indian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian places that are typically listed as TCPs.
  • As the National Park Service pays increasing attention to cultural landscapes (National Register Bulletin 30 and Policy Brief 36), folklorists have a window of opportunity: “cultural traditions” are included in the eleven landscape characteristics in a rural historic landscape. We must acquire the tools, training, and professional networks to be effective partners in this important work.
  • As the historic preservation movement increasingly embraces diversity and the vernacular, folklorists can bring our skills to bear. Model programs like Citylore’s ground-breaking Place Matters have integrated folklore, historic preservation, advocacy, documentation, and grass roots participation by focusing on New York City’s culturally and historically significant places, not necessarily the architecturally significant sites typically included in the National Register. 

Various scholars and professionals in historic preservation recently have called for what Kingston Heath terms “the humanist branch of historic preservation.” Heath, Director of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Oregon, suggests a greater role for folklorists in fleshing out this approach, “whereby buildings and settings, alone, do not make Place—people, in their interrelationship with the natural and built environments, make place.”[1] Mike Varnado of the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation observes a greater movement toward ethnography and cultural anthropology in his office, and urges folklorists to help educate preservation professionals about culturally significant places. Jay Edwards, cultural anthropologist and scholar of vernacular architecture at Louisiana State University, has called for a re-conceptualization of vernacular architecture, not as a study of a building or structure, but rather as a study of the accomplishments and creativity of unheralded but influential groups who have contributed in significant ways to American culture. The significance of vernacular architecture, insists Edwards, is about telling these significant, compelling stories.[2] Finally, in Place, Race and Story, preservationist and Place Matters founder Ned Kaufman adopts the term “storyscape” as a key tool, and calls on folklorists to help craft standards and methodologies “that capture the power of stories” in what he calls “heritage conservation.”[3]

In addition to this emergent sea-change toward a more humanistic historic preservation, folklorists have a concrete opportunity to help (re)shape Traditional Cultural Properties policy within NPS. At this writing, NPS has called for input on updating Bulletin 38. To quote the call for comments, “While Bulletin 38 remains an essential, basic resource for identifying, evaluating, and documenting TCPs, in recent years the number of requests for additional assistance in this regard from State and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices, Federal agencies, and preservation professionals has increased significantly. NPS believes the best way to address these requests is through the provision of updated, published guidance on how to better identify and evaluate:

  • What constitutes a “traditional” community
  • Continuity of use or association by a traditional community
  • Evolving uses of resources by a traditional community
  • Multiple lines of documentary evidence
  • Broad ethnographic landscapes 
  • Property boundaries
  • Resource integrity

We have our work cut out for us. The ties among folklorists and preservation planners must be improved and/or created. Folklorists have much to contribute to the field of historic preservation. Simply put, we want a place at the table. But after several decades without coordinated effort, we have successes with specific organizations and projects, but no real national voice. Preservationists for the most part don’t know who we are, what we do, and what we can contribute. To achieve a place at the table, we must earn it. This policy paper outlines some strategies to do so.

Where We’ve Been: Benchmarks in the History of Folklore and Historic Preservation

Thirty years have passed since the amendment of the National Historic Preservation Act (1980), which prompted the American Folklife Center’s seminal Cultural Conservation report (Ormond Loomis, coordinator, 1983).[4] In that time, much constructive work has emerged in the broader area of cultural conservation, most of it under the auspices of arts and humanities organizations in the form of exhibits, festivals, documentation, apprenticeship programs and the like, and in the emergence of national heritage areas. Far less energy has been devoted to historic preservation per se, as state arts councils and folk arts projects became the fulcrum for much applied work. 

A notable exception was the 1980s, when folklorists last were players in national policy dialogues. With the publication of Cultural Conservation, a new era of cooperation appeared immanent. Folklorists seemed poised to make significant contributions to the historic preservation movement by expanding the resource-centered purview of historic preservationists. Folklorists championed the more holistic notion of cultural conservation, with its combination of ethnographic and archival research, focus on cultural dynamism, elicitation of community involvement and grass roots perspectives, and emphasis on public programs. During the 1980s, the American Folklife Center (AFC) shaped the role of folklore in the national dialogue, with projects such as the Grouse Creek Cultural Survey, Integrating Folklife and Historic Preservation Field Research (Carter and Fleischhauer, 1988)–the first attempt to combine architectural and folklife survey in a single project; and Mary Hufford’s integrative approach to cultural conservation and place in One Space, Many Places, Folklife and Land Use in New Jersey’s Pinelands National Reserve (1986). Much of the activity of this period culminated in the 1990 Cultural Conservation conference sponsored by the AFC. Unfortunately, the energy and cross-disciplinary participation generated by the conference never was harnessed, and, despite subsequent publication of the groundbreaking Conserving Culture, A New Discourse in Heritage, an important opportunity was lost. 

Although cultural conservation became institutionalized in many public folklore programs and projects, historic preservationists followed a different path. As Tom Carter observes, in the wake of Grouse Creek, “statewide surveys were largely abandoned, or turned over to local governments, as State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) staffs turned to meeting the requirements of monitoring Section 106 requirements and tax act applications.” Labor-intensive, collaborative surveys like Grouse Creek were “unthinkable in this new atmosphere. And likewise, folklore and folk arts programs were shifting away from an older model embracing of history and tradition toward a new emphasis on performance and communication.”[5]

While public folklore came under the influence of National Endowment for the Arts policies and programs, SHPOs became more focused on Section 106 and environmental review. Although individual folklorists have done important work in the cultural resource survey and environmental review required under Section 106, the field as a whole lacks national leadership and participation. Section 106 work can be messy and contentious, resulting in mitigation that often goes against the wishes and interests of the cultural communities affected by a project. Such was the case with the seminal Tennessee/Tombigbee Waterway project of the 1970s. Less than two years after passage of the American Folklife Preservation Act (1976), the American Folklife Center bowed to pressure from influential individuals in the discipline and withdrew from participation in a comprehensive cultural impact survey on the effects of the Army Corps of Engineers’ controversial “Tenn-Tom,” a project that flooded and displaced entire communities. 

Anthropologist Tom King, who drafted Bulletin 38 along with Patricia Parker, has addressed the legacy of Tenn-Tom in his book, Places That Count: Traditional Cultural Properties in Cultural Resource Management: “Although I found it stimulating to work with the folklife people, they never seemed to me to relate to the rough-and-tumble world I was involved in—the world of Section 106…The folklife people shied away from projects like the Tenn-Tom with righteous morality but did little to help the people whose traditional lives were upset by such projects—except to record their songs and stories for posterity, and to put on festivals to showcase their skills in the hope that they would thus be transmitted down the generations in some form or other. These are worthy enterprises, but they didn’t engage the agents of change; they didn’t confront the conflicts between tradition and modernity directly; they didn’t help us with Section 106 review.”[6]

More recently, Peggy Bulger, in her AFS Presidential Plenary Address, made this critical retrospective assessment of Tenn-Tom: “Although I can see both sides of the argument, I feel strongly that, despite well-meant impulses, folklorists missed an opportunity to be central to the work of cultural conservation and the environmental survey work that is still going on today. By demonizing powerful institutions such as the Army Corps of Engineers and refusing to deal with their agendas, our outraged sensibilities have kept us on the fringes of this important work, rather than in a central position with our colleagues from related disciplines.”[7]

Since 1980, the field of historic preservation has expanded its scope to include vernacular structures of all kinds. In 1979, the inaugural issue of the Vernacular Architecture Newsletter noted, “Interest in vernacular architecture is growing rapidly. The most striking aspect of its growth is its diversity. The term has been applied to traditional domestic and agricultural buildings, industrial and commercial buildings, 20th century tract houses, settlement patters and ‘landscape’, among many other things. Furthermore it attracts interest from many disciplines and professions. Anthropology, folklore, geography, architectural and architectural history, historic preservation, archaeology and popular culture come immediately to mind.”[8]

Throughout the past thirty years, a small group of folklorists have played key roles in the emergence vernacular architecture studies by providing documentation guides and methodologies, crafting models for the use of oral history as a key interpretive tool, and giving voice to the stories, skills, and contributions of ethnic, tribal, occupational, urban, and regional groups often overlooked by architectural historians.

Another important benchmark occurred in 1990, when the National Park Service issued Bulletin 38, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties, which provides a framework within the National Register of Historic Places to protect “intangible cultural resources.” Designation as a TCP expands the National Register process beyond the confines of a particular historical period to include places that continue to foster a sense of community and cultural heritage. While most Bulletin 38 applications have addressed American Indian sites, folklorists tested new ground with its use, for example, in a cultural resource study for siting a low-level radioactive waste facility in Michigan, and helping to facilitate two successful National Register nominations that provide models for non-indigenous TCPs: Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Staten Island and Bohemian Hall in Queens. [9] [see http://placematters.dreamhosters.com/node/78] However, folklorists as a whole have had little engagement with Bulletin 38.

Although folklorists have the opportunity to help reshape current TCP policy, it is also important to understand how NPS currently views TCPs: 

  • TCPs involve documenting places where intangible cultural resources occur, not the intangibles themselves; 
  • TCPs are not well understood in the preservation community at large; 
  • SHPOs are pragmatic and will take the path of least resistance to a National Register nomination, creating a challenge for TCPs; 
  • Model TCPs that expand the boundaries of current usage of Bulletin 38 (beyond Native American/Native Hawaiian sites, for example), will be precedent-setting, so the National Register will proceed carefully, cautiously, and conservatively: every facet of the nomination will need to be transparent in terms of how evidence is gathered and determined; 
  • Models need to be developed with all interested collaborators at the table from the onset: SHPO office, local community, folklorist, National Register staff;
  • Comparables will be important in order to answer the question “Why designate this particular site as opposed to other similar sites?” 
  • Provide strong evidence on how local communities define the boundaries of the proposed TCP; ensure that the site has historic time depth as well as values and associations that continue to the present with an active traditional community;
  • Make clear and justify that the TCP is significant to a “traditional cultural community” and not just an” interest group;” 
  • Make a case for the historic integrity of the site: Does the traditional community still use and view the place the same way? 
  • Stronger nominations have multiple lines of evidence: archival, published ethnographic evidence, oral history; 
  • The “voice” of the nomination must be seen as the local community, not the participating folklorist/outsider: while federal agencies now look more toward ethnographers, experts need to be elders/people in the community. 

Consequences of Our Disengagement In Historic Preservation

SHPO offices rarely include folklorists on staff. Most SHPOs keep a list of potential contractors for historic preservation work; all must meet the National Park Service requirements for minimum education and experience in the fields of history, archaeology, and/or architectural history or closely related fields. The NPS website never explicitly mentions folklore among the list of appropriate degrees; one must infer that it is one of the “closely related fields” that are also acceptable. (Some states, Louisiana among them, do clarify that folklore is a “closely related field.”) Bulletin 38 is the only place in the National Register infrastructure where folklorists are mentioned, in this case as having the requisite skills in ethnography. Although individual folklorists have prepared National Register nominations and served on SHPO review boards, folklore as a field is marginalized, on the fringes of historic preservation and cultural resource management. 

In the interests of time and money, agencies and contractors typically follow only the most expedient path to National Register listing; a TCP or even the infusion of more ethnographic material into a standard nomination adds layers of time and complexity. The documentation of most interest to folklorists (a deeply contextual understanding of a building or sites use, for example) is simply beyond the scope of a typical National Register nomination.

Within the world of CRM and Section 106, folklorists working in the field do not self identify as such because contracts typically require archaeologists, secondarily architectural historians, and only occasionally ethnographers. The emphasis is typically on buildings, structures and artifacts, not people. Happily, a contrasting scenario exists in Hawaii, home to Act 50, passed in 2000, which requires state agencies and other developers to assess the effects of proposed land use or shoreline developments on the “cultural practices of the community,” mandating that cultural impact assessments be included in Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Assessments. Since 2007, Margaret Magat, folklore PhD, has conducted ethnographic interviews and written cultural impact assessments, TCP studies and 106 consultation reports as a “cultural specialist” for the Cultural Impact Studies Department of Hawaii’s largest CRM firm. Although the company does not advertise her as a “folklorist,” it was precisely those skills that secured her position. The firm highlights her skills when bidding on contracts and often gives her the most sensitive cases. Her reputation is built on working with projects that need the nuanced cultural documentation and fieldwork skills she brings as a folklorist.

One crucial consequence of folklorists’ disciplinary disengagement in historic preservation involves training of the next generation. On the folklore side, most current folklore departments and programs fail to provide students with the tools, internships, and professional networks necessary to navigate effectively in the world of historic preservation and cultural resource management. This kind of applied work is simply not considered cutting edge. On the historic preservation side, few students receive exposure to ethnographic method. Just a handful of folklorists serve as faculty in historic preservation programs and architecture schools, part of the generation of folklorists who were trained in the 1970s and 1980s when major academic folklore programs still included coursework in material culture and folk architecture to a far greater extent than they do today. The best opportunities for disciplinary cross-fertilization currently occur in settings that have both historic preservation programs and folklore programs. Examples include (but are not limited to) Goucher College, University of Oregon, University of North Carolina, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Louisiana State University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (School of Architecture), and University of Mary Washington. In addition, Western Kentucky University has a historic preservation track as part of its MA in Folk Studies and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (School of Architecture) has an innovative place-based field school involving oral history. Qualified folklore students need internship opportunities that provide experience and professional networking. HABS/HAER contracts, for example, have provided valuable training and networking opportunities for qualified folklorists.


The ethos of applied and public folklore as it has taken shape over the past several decades has been shaped by concepts like cultural conservation and cultural equity. Alan Lomax spoke eloquently about “giving voice to the voiceless.” Historic preservation advocacy is a logical extension of these principles, providing both opportunities and challenges for folklorists willing to advocate for communities and the places they care about.

The “Tools for Advocates” section of Citylore’s Place Matters website (http://placematters.net/node/13) offers a useful step-by-step template “to help people nationwide 1) Identify the cultural and historical functions of places that matter; 2) Find ways to capture and use that information to protect them; and 3) Share the strategies that people have often found effective in preserving places that matter. While recognizing that there are no guaranteed ways to protect place, Place Matters is leading the way in offering tools and creating projects that advocate for places that matter.”

Citylore’s strategies encourage collaboration with a variety of stakeholders, not just the preservation bureaucracy. Within the National Register process, advocacy is constrained by the limits of the Register itself. Section 106 is a procedural law, not a regulatory one: neither National Register listing nor Section 106 review can stop demolition. As Margaret Magat explains, “Although there are some who criticize the Section 106 review as failing to fully preserve historic places and properties, it should be made clear that its strength is as a ‘process,’ where federal agencies must consult, negotiate, and try to resolve conflicts with the community group by way of memorandums of agreement and mitigation plans. There is no guarantee of 100 percent protection for a historic place that is considered eligible to be in the National Register. But what it does mean is that during the Section 106 review, there should be a dialogue that ensues between interested parties such as the federal agency, the community, the State Historic Preservation Officer, and quite often, consulting parties, which is where folklorists can and should lend their expertise and methodology.”[10]

Tom King commented on the initial proposal of the AFS Working Group in Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy, observing that while folklorists could make valuable contributions to historic preservation, they need to understand that historic preservation is about “giving a fair shake to the people who are concerned about impacts on the cultural environment. It’s about helping give voice to the folk who share their lore with you. It’s more ‘action anthropology’ than ethnography. If you’re not willing to help the folk you study engage and make the historic preservation system work for them, then you’re not likely to do any good for anyone but yourselves (by getting some documentation contracts.”[11]

Models for Integrating Folklore and Historic Preservation

It is time to jettison regrets about missed opportunities and past controversies: Tenn-Tom is old news. In the intervening years, folklorists have participated in other projects and created models for leading preservation policy toward a richer sense of place. Our work is not as widely known or as influential as it can and should be, even amongst fellow folklorists. The Working Group on Folklore and Historic Preservation policy asked a group of folklorists and professionals working in related fields to prepare case studies that illustrate strategies for combining folklore and historic preservation. The case studies seek to address the following questions:

1) How/why was a folklorist or folklorists involved or not involved? 

2) What does folklore add to the method, outcome, and significance of the case study? 

3) What can we learn from this example?

Looking Back: Folklife Assessment in the Michigan Low-Level Radioactive Waste Siting Process

In 1989, a team of folklorists from the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum were part of a cross-disciplinary team that studied the cultural impacts of siting a low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) disposal facility in three potential rural Michigan sites. The resultant report, with University of Michigan anthropologist Richard Stoffle as principal investigator, was published in 1990.[12] Our folklife assessment was part of a larger environmental assessment study, or “siting process,” mandated by Michigan Public Art 204 in 1987. Issues surrounding this controversial project are published elsewhere.[13]

Nearly twenty-five years later, Michigan still doesn’t have a LLRW facility, and the original project folklorists have not been involved in anything similar since (in part because team leader Stoffle relocated to Arizona and in large part because historic preservation has not been the emphasis of Michigan’s or most other state folklore programs). In a recent conversation with the Michigan SHPO office about collaborating with folklorists, however, folklorist Sommers, who had led the LLRW folklife team, realized she and her colleagues had lost an important opportunity to form closer bonds with the Michigan SHPO through the LLRW project. Sommers previously had worked with the Michigan SHPO on staff and as an independent contractor in the late 1970s and 1980s. Although the folklife team mapped selected vernacular structures and long-time family farms, proposed a National Register district, and provided a list of “intangible cultural resources,” they chose not complete SHPO building survey forms for individual buildings and structures due to lack of time and money. This step was planned for a follow-up phase that was never funded. As a result, the SHPO office saw nothing in the report of use to them. Without survey forms (in this era when SHPOs still did surveys), the LLRW project became a cautionary tale of the different professional cultures of folklorists and historic preservationists. More conversation at the time might have created a report that met the needs of both the mandated environmental assessment and the SHPO.

Grouse Creek Cultural Survey Revisited

Twenty-five years after the publication of The Grouse Creek Cultural Survey: Integrating Folklife and Historic Preservation Field Research,co-author Tom Carter provides a retrospective assessment of the ground-breaking project, the first to offer a model for combining folklore and historic preservation in a cultural resource survey. In his forward to the book, Jerry L. Rogers, Associate Director for Cultural Resources at the National Park Service, writes, “One of the lessons of the Grouse Creek Cultural Survey is that America’s heritage lives on in people’s activities as well as in their material objects. Although modified by changing circumstances–just as a historic building may be adapted for a new use–community traditions can continue from the past to the present and contain the promise of a vital future. Folklife specialists can identify and evaluate these community traditions. By combining a folklife survey and an architectural survey, this study takes us one step further toward understanding how our historical and cultural foundations are living parts of community life. Historic preservation in the Grouse Creek Cultural Survey becomes a broader, richer field; it moves toward cultural preservation–a union of past and present, of architecture and community life.”[14] As Tom Carter concludes, however, the Grouse Creek model “appears to have had little impact on either preservation or folklore methodology. After the project was finished, the historians went back to doing history; the folklorists forgot about the rewards of a comprehensive approach to fieldwork and went back to seeking out and celebrating exceptional folk artists.”[15]

What Grouse Creek did accomplish, however, was “investing a project involving folklore and historic preservation with the reputations of national agencies like the National Park Service and the American Folklife Center. The resultant publication put folklore on the radar of historic preservation professionals. Grouse Creek “set the table” for future projects and collaborations, but for reasons outlined by Carter and discussed elsewhere in this report, an important opportunity was lost to modify or build upon what was a very successful collaboration if not necessarily a truly integrative model.

The Grouse Creek Cultural Survey was a pioneering effort to integrate folklore and historic preservation.

West Meadow Beach: Politics vs. Preservation

The West Meadow Beach case study illustrates infusion of folklore content into a (non-TCP) National Register nomination, and also serves as an instructive cautionary tale about nominations embroiled in local political controversy. At the request of the New York State SHPO, folklorist Nancy Solomon of Long Island Traditions became involved in a collaborative cultural resources report evaluating the National Register potential of West Meadow Beach, an identifiable and cohesive district of vernacular cottage bungalows from the 1910s that evoked a “traditional beach community” on the coast of Stony Brook, Long Island. The documentation team included Solomon and graduate students in historic preservation and folklore. Their two-pronged methodology examined both architectural features and the social/cultural traditions common to the community over time. 

As a result of this integrated approach, they were able to make the case for National Register eligibility, and the SHPO supported the resulting nomination. The National Park Service approved the National Register nomination in the face of powerful local political opposition spearheaded by individuals concerned about beach access and the fact that the cottages were located on public land. The opposition ultimately received a permit for demolition 30 days into the 45-day required public comment period for the National Register nomination. Only 5 of the 100 cottages survived demolition. Among the lessons learned: understand local environmental and historic preservation regulations; engage the media; and identify and educate local preservation commissions and agencies responsible for environmental review about the cultural value of vernacular structures and their associated traditions. 

Listing Sunday Rock on the National Register

Sunday Rock is a large glacial boulder located along the roadside west of South Colton in Upstate New York. The Sunday Rock example illustrates the differences between folklorists’ interpretation of TCPs and that of the New York State SHPO. Sunday Rock had been listed in TAUNY’s Register of Very Special Places (RVSP), founded by folklorist Varick Chittenden, based on community associations, identity, use, local legends, and memory, despite the fact that it had been moved twice, thus disassociating the boulder from its original context. When a local community member sought to nominate Sunday Rock to the National Register as a TCP, a very different review process and set of eligibility criteria came into play. As Kingston Heath has observed, “At issue is the documentation of sustained ‘cultural traditions,’ a demonstrated ‘response to the natural environment,’ ‘land use’ or ‘ethnic identity’ tied to the resource.” Heath observes how “the meaning of Sunday Rock evolved and held different cultural values for a very different set of users. There was no fixed meaning or definitive set of “spiritual beliefs,” fixed cultural or ethnic identity—all elements that are customarily tied to a traditional cultural property.” Ultimately, the New York SHPO felt that the rock lacked association with any continuing cultural group. The SHPO office approved the nomination, not as a TCP, but “as an historic property significant to broad patterns of history,” in this case the efforts by local citizens to save the rock from demolition as part of the conservation movement of the 1920s.[16] 

Sunday Rock in the small roadside park just west of the village of South Colton, NY.  Photo by Varick Chittenden, 2008; courtesy of TAUNY Archives.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto: A Pioneering TCP

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Staten Island is a historic Roman Catholic grotto designed and constructed by the local Italian American community. This significant Catholic Italian pilgrimage site includes the grotto (pictured above), a frame meeting hall dating to about 1920, and contributing landscape features and ancillary structures and objects. The distinctive concrete and stone folk artgrotto was begun in 1937, and it continues to be adorned by personal devotional items. The site’s listing on the National Register originated with the local community’s concern about rising property taxes. Folklorist Joseph Sciorra, who had researched the grotto for an article published in 1994, suggested they try a landmarking strategy; Kathy Howe of the New York SHPO subsequently took an interest in the property. Sciorra’s published article became the basis for Howe’s resulting National Register nomination; the site was listed on National Register of Historic Places in 2000. In a 14 August 2000 email to Sciorra, Howe wrote: “I’m finally done revising the Grotto nomination. I recently spoke to Beth Savage of the NPS and she recommended that I approach this as a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP). This is kind of exciting because most TCP nominations to date have been for Native American sites and not for actual buildings and structures, so we’re charting new territory.”[17] 

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto, Staten Island. Photo by Robert Haber via the Wiki Commons, 28 September 2012.

Bohemian Hall as a TCP

In 2001, Bohemian Hall in Astoria, New York, was listed on the National Register as a Traditional Cultural Property; it currently is one of the few non-Native American TCPs on the register. Astoria’s Bohemian Hall, writes Place Matter’s director Molly Garfinkel, “is emblematic of so many New York City places that nurture community traditions, belief systems, social networks, arts and customs. Bohemian Hall and Park has been continuously owned and operated by members of the Czech-American community, and has served as a social, cultural, and educational hub for New York City’s Czech-American residents since it was founded in 1911. But as is the case with so many local landmarks, Bohemian Hall is stylistically unremarkable and has been changed over time to accommodate its ongoing use.”[18]

In 2000, Place Matters successfully nominated Bohemian Hall to the National Register of Historic Places as a TCP, using memory and continuing use as a rationale for the listing. They argued that changes to the building were made to sustain the cultural use of the place over time. “Without knowledge and acceptance of TCP criteria,” notes Garfinkel, “New York State’s SHPO might well have overlooked Bohemian Hall as a candidate for TCP designation. Without Place Matters’ connections to (and deep insights and enthusiastic collaboration from) New York’s Czech-American community, a convincing argument for Bohemian Hall’s status as a TCP could not have been made. But in 1999, broad-minded SHPO leaders reached out to the Place Matters program to propose culturally significant “non-traditional” New York City properties to the National Register.”[19] The subsequent SHPO/Place Matters collaboration generated three successful state and national-level property designations, among them Bohemian Hall’s listing as a TCP. 

Citylore’s Census of Places That Matter and Place-Marking

Citylore’s pioneering Place Matters program documents and advocates for neighborhood sites that anchor traditions, preserve history, sustain communities and keep our cities distinctive. The Census of Places that Matter http://www.placematters.net/place_explorer] offers an alternative approach to identifying, celebrating and preserving places that matter to the people and communities who love them. It has become a grassroots survey/ guidebook/encyclopedia of places in the five boroughs that the public finds significant, which are placed on the Census website. The Census was created to help broaden the ways that preservation is understood and practiced in New York City; by viewing place as significant due to its use and meaning across a broad spectrum of New York City, it pushes the boundaries for most National Register criteria for significance. As Kingston Heath observes, “Perhaps one of the exciting aspects of the Place Matters program is the way it circumvents National Register criteria as the only means of commemoration by fostering, instead, a grassroots “landmarking” program that offers an “insider’s view” of local relevance,” what Heath calls the “’humanist branch of historic preservation,’ whereby buildings and settings, alone, do not make Place—people, in their interrelationship with the natural and built environments, make place.”[20]

In addition to the virtual place-marking of the Census, Citylore has collaborated on real-space place-marking, such as the Guide to the Lower East Side. [ http://www.placematters.net/files/pdfs/marking.pdf] Twenty-eight signs at six separate sidewalk locations weave personal stories and cherished memories directly into the landscape, often right where the stories took place. This and other place-marking initiatives aim to crack the “silence” of historical and interesting sites. Place marking encourages people to pay attention to their surroundings, and recognize, protect, and care for the places that matter to them. 

Example of signage from Your Guide to the Lower East Side, a place-marking project of Citylore’s Place Matters program, 2007.

Sitka National Historical Park—Documenting Cultural Landscapes in a Southeastern Alaskan Setting 

This case study by cultural geographer and landscape historian Arne Alanen (now professor emeritus from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Landscape Architecture) illustrates the approach to cultural landscape reports taken in Sitka National Historic Park, 1996-2000. As Alanen observes, “Landscape architects have dominated the CLR arena from the time the first reports were prepared during the early 1990s, and they still produce the largest number of NPS-sponsored documents. (Indeed, most CLR procedures were developed by landscape architects, both within and outside the NPS, who worked for several years in preparing overall guidelines and specific bulletins that define the process.”[21] The “cultural landscape model” exemplified in the Sitka study documents the intimate relationship between nature and culture, and the symbolic meanings of the landscape, in order to provide a more holistic conception of the cultural significance of place. Both Tlingit and Russian use and understanding of the landscape are germane to the park. A folklorist did serve as one of the project managers, but the on-site team lacked folklore expertise. “Had funds been available,” Alanen suggests, “a folklorist could have engaged even more closely with the Tlingit than we did when seeking nuanced and insightful views of how the SNHP landscape was and is still used and perceived by native and non-native populations.”[22]

Ravensford Oral History Project

In 2004, folklorist Michael Ann Williams was contacted by the CRM firm TRC Environmental Corporation about participating in an oral history project in the Ravensford Tract of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The resulting report–Ravensford Oral History Project Draft Report, submitted to Cherokee Central Schools by TRC Environmental Corporation, 2009—is a significant example of folklorists’ collaboration with historic archaeologists. [http://dots.lib.utk.edu/?q=biblio/ravensford-tract-archeological-project] The Ravensford project, observes Williams, “is unique as a form of cultural mitigation in many ways. Landlocked largely by the national park, the Eastern Band of Cherokee was searching for a land to build a new K-12 school to replace schools that were over-crowded and outdated.”[23] Their hopes finally landed on the 168-acre Ravensford Tract owned by the park. A controversial deal was negotiated to swap for Cherokee land adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. “By law, the cultural resources needed to be accounted for. The land was unoccupied parkland and the project was largely archaeological in nature. However, along with an extensive pre-historic excavation, there was also an investigation of a historic site, the former timber town of Ravensford which existed primarily in the 1920s.”[24] TRC’s Paul Webb was convinced that oral history could be an important component of the historic investigation. Williams and her team had a significant opportunity to integrate the work of folklorists with that of historic archaeologists. One of the important, and unexpected outcomes, were the two projects for public use. Folklore graduate student Christie Burns produced an interactive CD integrating interviews and photographs. On the basis of that project, the Eastern Band of Cherokee asked the folklorists to produce a video especially for the ground breaking of the school.  

North Shore Road Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

Alan Jabbour’s professional relationship with an archaeologist involved with CRM work, and his association with the original AFC Cultural Conservation policy study, in 2004 led to his involvement in an environmental impact statement prepared for the proposed (and controversial) North Shore Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The study, co-authored by Jabbour, cultural anthropologist Philip E. Coyle of Western Carolina University, and Paul Webb of TRC Environmental Corporation, explored and analyzed the tradition – or the traditionality – of Decoration Day, a cultural tradition that lay at the very heart of the whole fifty-year tug-of-war over building the road.[25] Alan’s wife, Karen Singer Jabbour, took photos for the project. The Jabbours and their research team were the only component of the elaborate EIS project that included extensive interviewing of local people about their cultural traditions. As Jabbour describes, members of a local group “had renewed demands for the promised road, and punctuated the demand by renting boats and arranging a well-publicized crossing of the park’s Fontana Lake to decorate a North Shore cemetery. The radical action worked; soon the Park Service was restoring overgrown cemeteries and providing boats for decorations. Annual cemetery decorations were their cultural tradition, the local people insisted. But was this Decoration Day a real tradition, or was it an idea cooked up to prod the Park Service into building a road, as some environmentalists opposing the road speculated?[26] Jabbour’s experience with the North Shore Road project prompted him to make several recommendations to better integrate folklore and historic preservation, among them 1) cultivating professional relationships with colleagues working in preservation and CRM and 2) engaging in more collaborative team projects. 

Jack Cable decorates a Cable family grave, Cable Branch Cemetery Decoration, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour, August 1, 2004.

Fishtown (Leland, Michigan) Historic Structures Report

The River Runs Through It, Report on Historic Structures and Site Design in the Fishtown Cultural Landscape provides a detailed and ground-breaking example of a historic structures report prepared in 2010-2011 for the Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS), a non-profit organization in Leland, Michigan, which in 2007 purchased a significant portion of this historic commercial fishing village known as Fishtown, located within the Leland National Register Historic District. Fishtown includes vernacular fishing structures, an ongoing commercial fishery, and adaptive re-use of former fishing shanties. The FPS administrative team included a folklorist and a retired SHPO who felt Fishtown’s historic and contemporary vernacular culture required a folklorist as part of the historic structures report team along with preservation architects and landscape architects. The Fishtown model breaks new ground for Historic Structures Reports and offers a template for embedding folklore into the National Park Service’s existing historic preservation programs by, 1) folding a cultural landscape study into a historic structures report, paying attention to land and water-based structures and traditional fishing grounds; 2) exploring the varied historic contexts that have shaped Fishtown, but underscoring the primacy of commercial fishing and the dynamism of a still active working waterfront; and 3) by combining traditional historic preservation research with folklore methodology for a richer and more nuanced understanding of the use, significance, and meaning of place. Data was gathered through oral history, primary and secondary print sources (including photographs), and folklore fieldwork.

The Fishtown historic structures report offers a model for integrating folklore and historic preservation.

Recommendations and Action Steps

Folklorists need to address two areas of engagement: 1) within the existing NPS/NR infrastructure of policies and programs; 2) within the emergent placemaking arena, which allows for the more typical products of public folklore to intersect with historic preservation, cultural tourism, economic development, cultural districts, etc. The Working Group on Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy focused primarily on the first area of engagement. We propose the following strategies to better integrate folklore and historic preservation:

  • Understand the terminology, organizational structure, and worldviews of historic preservation professionals. This is a complex and multilayered occupational subculture, with established bureaucracies and procedures. 
  • Identify areas where folklorists’ expertise intersects withthe existing infrastructure of preservation work. Highlight best practices and disseminate models so they are accessible to colleagues across disciplines.
  • Collaborate and network across disciplines. If folklorists want to participate in the realm of cultural resource management, they must devote time and energy to cultivating professional connections with the existing networks of historians, archaeologists, preservationists, and federal and state agencies already doing it. Work with these professional networks, attend their professional meetings, and publish in venues they read. 
  • Train the next generation of historic preservation professionals with ethnographic skills and the next generation of folklorists with standard historic preservation skills. Currently, training in each field is quite different. Folklorists need to be pro-active and collaborate with academic historic preservation programs in their local areas.
  • Position qualified folklorists to work in state, local, and national preservation organizations, and to participate in preservation review boards at these various levels.
  • Take action to add “folklorist” to federal qualifications. National Park Service Professional Qualification Standards (Code of Federal Regulations, 36 CFR Part 61) are one reason many folklorists do not self-identify as such when bidding on contracts. Folklore is not mentioned by name (as is archaeology, anthropology, history, architectural and art history, and historic preservation), but it can be considered part of the “closely related fields.”
  • Convene a national conference, focusing on Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy, with an end goal of creating a cross-disciplinary “leadership council” to move forward on policy initiatives.
  • Join in policy discussions at broader levels of national and international discourse. The Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) concept is currently in flux. Folklorists should be at the table in these discussions, as we were with the Cultural Conservation policy study and more recently with the international deliberations on “folklore protection” and “intangible cultural resources.” This moment of flux in redefining Traditional Cultural Properties can be our moment, if we can seize it. The NPS is looking for white papers and comment on TCP issues as of this writing.
  • Create model TCP nominations that expand the range of sites currently included and that can be posted on the National Register website as a case study

[1]Kingston Heath, Discussant Comments, Toward a Richer Sense of Place Forum 1, American Folklore Society Annual Meeting, New Orleans, October 2012.

[2] Jay Edwards. Architectural and Cultural Significance in Vernacular Architecture. Forum presentation as part of the Folklore and Historic Preservation Working Group sessions, American Folklore Society national meeting, New Orleans, October, 2012.

[3] Ned Kaufman, Place, Race, and Story (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), p. 5.

[4] Ormond Loomis. Cultural Conservation: The Protection of Cultural Heritage in the United States (Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1983).

[5] Thomas Carter, That Was Fun, Let’s Not Do it Again. The Curious Legacy of the Grouse Creek Cultural Survey. Toward a Richer Sense of Place Forum 2, American Folklore Society Annual Meeting, New Orleans, October 2012. 

[6] Thomas F. King, Traditional Cultural Properties in Cultural Resource Management (Altamira Press, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), p. 32. 

[7] Peggy Bulger, “Folklore as a Public Profession.” Journal of American Folklore 116 (2003): 387.

[8] Reprinted in VAN 134/135 (Winter 2012/Spring 2013): 5.

[9] Laurie Kay Sommers, Yvonne R. Lockwood, Marsha MacDowell, and Richard W. Stoffle. “Folklife Assessment in the Michigan Low-Level Radioactive Waste Siting Process.” In Conserving Culture, A New Discourse on Heritage, Mary Hufford ed. (University of Illinois Press, 1994), pp.196-214; Joseph Sciorra. “Multivocality and Vernacular Architecture, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island.” In Studies in Italian-American Folklore, ed. Luisa Del Giudice (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1993), pp. 203-243.

[10] Margaret Magat. “Working with Traditional Cultural Properties in Hawaiian Context.” Paper resented for the Western States Folklore Society, April 2011. Draft revised March 15 2012.

[11] Thomas F. King, Electronic mail comments on Toward a Richer Sense of Place: Expanding the Role of Folklore in Historic Preservation Programs and Policy (proposal).

[12] Richard W. Stoffle, ed. Cultural and Paleontological Effects of Siting a Low-Level Radioactive Waste Facility in Michigan, Candidate Area Analysis Phase (Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, 1990).

[13]Sommers, Lockwood, MacDowell and Stoffle. “Folklife Assessment.”

[14] Thomas Carter and Carl Fleischhauer. Grouse Creek Cultural Survey: Integrating Folklife and Historic Preservation Field Research (Washington, DC: The Library of Congress, 1988).

[15] Tom Carter, That Was Fun.

[16] Kingston Heath, Discussant Comments.

[17] Joseph Sciorra, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto, in Forum: Special Places, Folklorists’ Engagement in the Designation of Traditional Cultural Properties. American Folklore Society Annual Meeting, New Orleans, 2012.

[18]Molly Garfinkel. Bohemian Hall and Park – A Traditional Cultural Property in New York City. Forum: Special Places, Folklorists’ Engagement in the Designation of Traditional Cultural Properties. American Folklore Society Annual Meeting, New Orleans, 2012.

[19] Ibid.

[20]Kingston Heath, Discussant Comments.

[21] Arnold R. Alanen. Case Study: Sitka National Historical Park—Documenting Cultural Landscapes in a Southeastern Alaskan Setting. Toward a Richer Sense of Place Forum 2, American Folklore Society Annual Meeting, New Orleans, October 2012.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Michael Ann Williams. Ravensford Oral History Project–Folklore and Mitigation, A (Relatively) Happy Case Study. Forum: Special Places, Folklorists’ Engagement in the Designation of Traditional Cultural Properties. American Folklore Society Annual Meeting, New Orleans, 2012.


[25] Jabbour, Alan, Philip E. Coyle, and Paul Webb. North Shore Cemetery Decoration Project Report. National Park Service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 2005. Also published as Appendix G (vol. 2) of the North Shore Road Environmental Impact Statement. 6 vols. National Park Service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 2006. The larger book is Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour. Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

[26] Alan Jabbour. The North Shore Road. Forum: Special Places, Folklorists’ Engagement in the Designation of Traditional Cultural Properties. American Folklore Society Annual Meeting, New Orleans, 2012.