Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative: Partnerships to Preserve Traditions and Promote Positive Change 

12-09-2015 17:35

Since 1996 The Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative has fostered heritage development that both preserves and presents western North Carolina’s cultural resources. The Initiative has forged a partnership of HandMade In America, The Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Folklife Program of The North Carolina Arts Council that works to achieve new levels of cultural conservation, education, sustainable tourism, and economic development for the region. Guiding this initiative is the premise that heritage -- those cultural traditions, natural resources, and historical events that together create a distinctive identity for the region -- is integral to the well-being of communities and that the Southern Appalachians contain a heritage that is significant to the region and nation.

Participants in the initiative believe that partnerships are essential to achieving sustainable heritage development. Collaborations between organizations and communities with diverse interests have resulted in resource sharing and consensus building on a regional level. Just as important, these partnerships have encouraged discussion and debate within western North Carolina about how to achieve goals and implement projects. Through this dialogue, a core set of values has emerged which guide the work:

• The cultural, natural, and historic resources can be utilized to meet the social and economic challenges faced by communities in the region.

• Communities that possess resources used in heritage tourism and other economic development initiatives should have a major role in planning and implementing those initiatives.

• The conservation and perpetuation of heritage resources is of equal importance to economic development. Sacred sites and resources within communities must be protected and preserved.

• Basic strategies of preservation, adaptation, and activism are used to conserve tradition amidst profound changes.


The music traditions of the region are a major focus of preservation as exemplified in two projects: the Curriculum, Music, and Community Program and The Junior Appalachian Musicians Program. In the Curriculum, Music, and Community Program (CAM), traditional artists from local communities visit participating schools to share their artistry and to inspire the creation of lesson plans and activities in all areas of the fourth-grade curriculum. The curriculum was designed by local teachers and conforms to North Carolina’s state-mandated curriculum. Whether students polish their writing skills to create ballads, enhance their analytical ability by comparing different treatments of the same song, or develop deeper relationships through interviews with community elders, they explore their heritage in ways not normally associated with textbook learning.

The Junior Appalachian Musicians Program (JAM) uses local traditional musicians to teach fifth- through eighth-graders enrolled in after-school programs. The master artists tutor students in the intricacies of playing fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, or dulcimer. This project employs a time-honored mountain tradition of musicians coming together to play and learn from each other. Here, children with varying degrees of musical skill join with local musicians for instruction and music-making after school.

Products and Outcomes: Lesson plans and activities are available on The Blue Ridge Music website ( Performances for the local community are scheduled regularly. Expansion of both programs is underwritten by NEA Challenge America funding.


The ability to conserve region’s culture by adapting to current economic patterns is a major strategy of The Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative. With the demise of the economics of factory production and the timbering industry, tourism has become the energizing economic force in western North Carolina, attracting more than 20 million visitors annually. Utilizing a new style of community tourism development, the Initiative has developed a series of self-guided auto trails that form a system of linked resources connecting several communities with each other. Communities are asked to define their “sacred places,” to list places that belong to community and are not welcoming to visitors, and to list those places reflecting their music, crafts, and agricultural heritage they would like to share with visitors.

A series of guides -- The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, The Blue Ridge Music Trails, and The Farms, Gardens, and Countryside Trails of Western North Carolina -- take visitors to historic and natural sites; to private studios, gardens, and farms; and to shops, galleries, music venues, festivals, historic lodgings, and restaurants featuring local cuisine. In addition, a Cherokee Heritage Trail presents Cherokee resources that include historic landscapes, museums, festivals, historic reenactments, shops with authentic Cherokee crafts, and restaurants featuring traditional Cherokee food.

Products and Outcomes: More than 40,000 guidebooks have been sold and incomes of the trail participants have increased by 15 percent over the past five years. In addition to the guidebooks, three websites --,, and -- are available to visitors and local residents. Other products include the development of tours and weekend itineraries for visitors with an emphasis on educational tours and vacations.


The strategy of activism and involvement by the region’s citizens has resulted in a downtown revitalization effort in 12 of the region’s smallest towns which focuses on the heritage of each community. Using the National Main Street model to preserve the traditional environment and unique character of each community, HandMade In America provides technical assistance in economic restructuring, appearance, marketing, and organizational activities. In defining its assets, each community lists its cultural and historical traditions, and the community’s oldest citizens are invited to share their memories of the community. Using an empowerment approach, communities take it on themselves to decide what their community should look like; to preserve and protect historic structures; to develop green spaces, trails, and parks; to establish welcoming gateways and signage; to establish venues for music performance; to encourage the addition of new craft shops and galleries (27 so far) and to become active in shaping the growth and development of their community.

Products and Outcomes: Over a five-year period, 11 towns have renovated 128 buildings, restored 109 facades, created 320 jobs, established 90 new businesses, expanded 46 businesses, and invested $28,628,000 in public and private funding. More than 136,000 volunteer hours have been committed to this effort. The revitalization methodology and outcomes are documented in a book published by HandMade In America, Small Voices -- Big Songs.

The combination of these efforts of The Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative illustrates that a region’s heritage can provide a focus for preservation, education, community, and economic development and serve as a major catalyst for civic change. But most importantly, it shows that a region’s heritage is its bridge to the region’s future.

Publication Date: Summer 2003



Author(s):Becky Anderson