Small Town Gems Hidden In Plain Sight
By Trish Erzfeld, MH Board Member
If you find a diamond in the fields of Arkansas it is not the same as selecting one out of the case in a jewelry store. It is not cut, polished, and displayed in a way that tells you it is valuable, rare, and special. Missouri’s rural communities have so much to offer to those exploring hidden gems on our roads less traveled. Beautiful landscapes, quaint downtowns, historic churches, family-owned restaurants, local museums, and the clearest blue skies that twinkle with stars at night. If I wanted to continue, I would throw in lighting bugs and down-home hospitality found only in rural America. But how do we polish and display our rural history and heritage? And often on a shoestring budget.
Seven years ago, we launched our official efforts as a county to intentionally promote our heritage and history through tourism. We didn’t have an arch; we didn’t have a theme park and we didn’t have a stadium to hold 30,000 concert goers. Perry County, Missouri is a county of less than 19,000 residents. We are a rural community and the largest city in our county, Perryville is home to over half of our population. When we took an inventory of what made us “special” we quickly realized that our strengths were in our rich history. We had deep roots in religion and heritage unique to our area.
Many of the rural areas in Missouri have the same but different opportunities. Look at the history unique to your county or community. Identify things that set you apart from everyone else whether it is history, heritage, food, agriculture, or something else.
For instance, what unique thread of history may connect your community with something larger? Charles Lindbergh used to barnstorm to Perryville in the 1920’s and created relationships here prior to his famous transatlantic flight. We celebrate his presence and connect it to our own aviation history and local airport. Maybe in your region it is an author, military hero, scientist, artist, or place past or present.
What is special about your natural outdoors? Do you have a natural area, mineral spring, river, caves, or foraging area? Your environmental history could be unique to your area. Perry County is one of the few counties in the state that does not have a state park. Perry County is known as the cave capital of Missouri. Unlike other commercial caves in the state our karst system is unique to our area documenting nearly 700 limestone caves and none are for commercial tours. Wild caving is promoted only in Perry County with experienced guides highlighting science, research and educational opportunities focused on underground environments and ecosystems. So, think outside the box! You don’t necessarily want what everyone else has.
Generations of family farms dot our county along with fields of crops ranging from wheat, corn hay and soybeans as they do in many other Missouri communities. Agriculture is a huge part of our heritage but how does it promote our tourism efforts? Four years ago, a local retired nurse turned hobbyist started painting customized barn quilts for family members and friends. The word began to spread and painted quilts began to pop up on old barns, new barns, and farm buildings in three counties magnifying our agricultural pride. If you let city limits or county lines serve as boundaries, you could be limiting your success. Today, we boast a self-guided driving tour of over sixty-five barn quilt locations featuring iconic Missouri Century farms, historic barn styles, and honoring one of our country’s oldest professions that plowed, planted, and harvested the American dream. Farmers are great local ambassadors and connecting that part of our heritage with our tourism efforts has made us stronger.
Churches are the heartbeat of any rural community. They embody the culture, customs, and traditions of those who live, work and worship there. For the past seventeen years we have celebrated the regions Christmas traditions still present in our rural country churches. The Christmas County Church Tour is a self-guided driving tour of forty country churches ranging from small one-room white clad building to brick-and-mortar masterpieces. Each church building is at least one hundred years old and decorated in their traditional Christmas decorations. The volunteer greeters of these country churches are able to share the culture and customs of their communities often going back several generations.
Consider creating a historical walking tour of your downtown buildings or a tour of your county courthouse. You may find that these become local favorites. Promoting local history builds interest, generates pride, and shapes local ambassadors among residents helping to promote your area. Finding gems in plain sight is how I describe discovering small pieces of local history and turning them into unique opportunities to promote your heritage and bring visitors to your community. You may think that your county has nothing special like that to identify but I’m here to tell you that you do. They are there, and they are valuable, most definitely rare, and uniquely special to your area. You just haven’ cut and polished them yet.
Trish Erzfeld is the Director of the Perry County Heritage Tourism in Perryville, MO.
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BIO of Trish Erzfeld
Trish Erzfeld was born and raised in Perryville, Missouri. She is the Director of the Perry County Heritage Tourism.
In 2015, the City of Perryville and the Perry County Commission jointly created the Perry County Heritage Tourism department which Trish has built and operated since its inception. Leading the Tourism Advisory Council, a collective group of government, cultural and tourism industry partners working collectively to promote Perry County. Trish continues to lead projects that promote and bring awareness to the Absentee Shawnee Nation of Apple Creek, wild caving, customizing cultural trails such as the Perry County Barn Quilt Trail and the Christmas Country Church Tour along with events, historical markers and natural areas promoting history, heritage, and culture in the Southeast Missouri region.
Since 2015, Trish has also served as Chairperson of the Perry County Eclipse Taskforce. A group of nearly fifty city, county, regional and state leaders coordinating the charge to create the best possible eclipse experience for Perry County and Missouri in 2017 and 2024. Due to the success Trish had with the St. Louis and Southeast Missouri area she was asked by the American Astronomical Society to serve on a panel at their national conference in June 2019 focusing on rural community planning for the next total solar eclipse crossing the United States on April 8, 2024.
Trish’s latest achievements include being a 2018 graduate of the Delta Leadership Institute’s Executive Academy, Missouri Division of Tourism’s 2018 Missouri’s Rising Star, 2018 Missouri’s Innovator Award, 2021 Missouri Division of Tourism’s Pathfinder Award, 2022 Perry County Citizen of the Year and most recently accepted into the 2022 Authentic Leadership executive education course at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Trish lives in Perryville with her husband, Dave and their daughter, Kaycee. Trish enjoys genealogy, crafts, antique shopping and of course traveling.