Skip to content
Quick Start for:

Tourists' present and Texas' past collide
Reaching Back

There's an important part of Texas history between Groesbeck and Mexia. Old Fort Parker--one of Texas' many out-of-the-way tourist destinations--sits about 40 miles east of Waco.

Settlers from Illinois built the fort for protection from Comanche and other Native American tribes in the area, said Sarah McReynolds, fort director for the Texas Historical Commission.

Publicizing places like Old Fort Parker is part of the Texas Historical Commission's (THC's) mission. The Texas Heritage Trails Program (THTP) is a big part of that effort and cashes in on the growing popularity of "heritage tourism," the fastest-growing segment of Texas' $40 billion tourism industry.

Know your heritage
During a raid in 1836, Caddo, Comanche and Kiowa warriors captured five residents of the fort, among them, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. Parker lived among the Comanche for 24 years before she returned to her family in 1860. During that time, Parker married and had three children. The oldest, Texas icon Quanah Parker, helped end years of violence between settlers and Comanche in 1875.

That bit of history drives about 15,000 visitors to Old Fort Parker every year, McReynolds said.

"They travel from all over the world to see [the fort], which is strange to me because [sometimes] I can't even get people in Texas to come see it," she said.

Heritage tourism is travel directed toward experiencing the heritage of a city, region or county. It allows tourists to learn about and be surrounded by local customs, traditions, history and culture, according to THC. National revenues from heritage tourism are expected to top $200 billion in 2005, according to THC.

Nationally, however, heritage tourism is relatively new, according to Amy Webb of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). Started in 1989, NTHP only had a handful of states to work with when it started building interest in heritage tourism in 1989. Texas has always been a leader, Webb said.

"Texas was one of the first ones we worked with, so it's safe to say that they've been in the mix since we started," she said. "The [program] with the Historical Commission has been around for a while now and has without a doubt been one of the more active programs in recent years."

Taking hold
Texas' heritage trails cross 10 regions, from the Independence Trail Region of the Gulf Coast to the Plains Trail Region of the High Plains and Panhandle. Each trail offers a unique glimpse into the lives of Texans' past, said Janie Headrick, state coordinator for THTP.

"Texas is a melting pot of cultures and races, yet different areas of the state offer their own unique histories and cultures," Headrick said. "Whether it's Palo Duro Canyon in the Panhandle, or the forests of East Texas or the Alamo, we've got the Texas mystique and the infrastructure to support it."

In 1997, the Texas Legislature authorized THTP to help local communities preserve history. The program works with cities, counties and historic sites to attract visitors and has helped generate about $95 million in revenue for local communities.

The Legislature has funded THTP with $1.3 million per biennium since 1997, and in 2001 the Texas Department of Transportation added $4.3 million spread out over about five years, Headrick said. Eight of the 10 regions receive funding from THTP, and two hope to get funding after the 2005 Legislature, she said.

Heritage tourism is a niche market that has really experienced a takeoff since September 11, 2001, Headrick said.

"People wanted to get back to their roots and heritage tourism offers that," she said.

Off the beaten path
The Brazos Trail Region is one of those places where it may take some extra time to reach a travel destination, but that's a large part of the appeal of heritage tourism, said Emily Lutz, the region's coordinator.

"What we don't have that other [regions] do is a major city," Lutz said. "We have a lot of rural communities that offer one or two things. So we encourage people to make a weekend of it and spend some time throughout the entire region."

Taking its name from the river running through it, the Brazos Trail region has to rely on its small community appeal--and a variety of attractions working together--to attract interest.

"We're very marketing-focused and work with our communities to help advertise their attractions," Lutz said. "We help financially [where we can] in things like magazines that they couldn't afford to [advertise in] on their own."

Brochures at Old Fort Parker are printed in English and German, McReynolds said. It took about three months to realize the need for the German translation, and she said she'd like copies for visitors from Japan and Indonesia.

"About one-fifth of our visitors are foreign visitors," she said. "The story of what happened here represents the clash between the two cultures and [foreign tourists] just love that."

Communities such as Groesbeck and Mexia also benefit from the permanent attraction of the fort, according to Linda Archibald, director of the Mexia Chamber of Commerce.

"That is our primary tourist attraction," she said. "We have the rodeo in June and big July 4th activities, but as far as a permanent fixture in our county, that's it and we really publicize it.'

Mexia is in the middle of marketing magic, Archibald said, with access to interstate highways and easy drives to Waco, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin. Tourists also usually stop by the Confederate Reunion Grounds State Historic Site six miles south of Mexia.

"People come here and they can't believe [the attractions are] out there," she said.

Dependence on independence
The fight for Texas independence is known around the world thanks to stories like the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. The Texas Independence Trail Region benefits from this rich piece of Texas history, said THC regional coordinator Seneca McAdams.

"A lot of people are very intrigued by our story," she said. "And when it comes to the independence of Texas, that really did change things not only in Texas, but in the entire U.S."

Texas' independence and ultimate statehood helped stretch the United States and that rough-and-tumble Texas spirit is an easy thing to market, she said.

"When you look at the lives that were lost at the Alamo and Goliad and Gonzales, those were the people upon which Texas was built, and those are the stories worth knowing," McAdams said. "That's kind of what we hang our hat on."

The Independence Trail Region has large cities--San Antonio and Houston--as well as easily recognizable landmarks like the Alamo and the Texas coast. Still, smaller, rural communities rely upon the region to help promote their attractions and they have all seen an increase in visitors.

"To track tourism, we rely on chambers of commerce and other organizations throughout the region," McAdams said. "Sites that we monitor have seen about a 20 percent increase per year. The Alamo [hands out] many, many brochures [for additional attractions] and they tell us they don't find them lying on the ground, so that's always a good thing."

Clint Shields