Courtesy Sitka CVB
The stories in your high school textbooks jump off the pages and come alive when you witness a heart-pounding rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, where Buffalo Bill used those same horse skills to develop this Wild West gateway to Yellowstone National Park; when your group sits in judgment during a re-enactment of a terrifying 1692 witch trial in an authentic dungeon in Salem, Massachusetts; or when everyone stands on a breathtaking cliff in Sitka, Alaska, and realizes that Native American settlers stood in that same place thousands of years before there ever was a United States.
So throw away your reading glasses, and check out these historical towns that showcase their riveting tales.
Sitka boasts that the history of the lower 48 states is but a heartbeat in comparison to its history, according to Dave Nevins, director of visitor services for the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Sitka has been settled for thousands of years: the Tlingit Indians established their life and culture long before Russians or Americans ever walked on the rocky shores.
“Today, the Tlingit living culture is deeply rooted here,” said Nevins. “Key locations to experience the native culture and incredible views include the Sitka National Historic Park — often called Totem Park — where totems carved by the Tlingit and Haida Indians can be seen along a pathway that meanders through the rain forest. Nearby, the Sheldon Jackson Museum houses one of the oldest native culture collections of Alaska.
“The beautiful Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi, translated as ‘the House for All of the People of Sitka,’ is a modern rendition of a Tlingit clan house and is home to the Naa Kahidi Dancers.”
Sitka was also the capital for Russian America, and that early 19th-century period is depicted at the Russian Bishop’s House and St. Michael’s Cathedral, an active Russian Orthodox Church whose onion-shaped domes have graced Sitka’s skyline for two centuries.
Nevins advised groups not to miss a performance of the New Archangel Dancers at the Harrigan Centennial Hall. This female troupe, dressed in vibrant prints, offers spirited dance renditions that represent the cultures of Russia and the surrounding areas.
New Harmony, Indiana
Built in the early 1800s as a utopian communal town where the golden rule was “work, work, work,” New Harmony still relishes its history.
“George Rapp, a charismatic German immigrant, took this rural wilderness on the Wabash River and turned it into an advanced, organized town with sectioned housing, gardens, orchards, cattle and more,” said MeLissa Williams, visitors and services coordinator for Historic New Harmony, a department of the University of Southern Indiana.
Rapp’s group stayed only 10 years; then Robert Johnson from Scotland bought the town, and New Harmony changed from a religious society to a scientific and socialist one that still had advanced ideas.
“Today, we are still a small town of 950 people where, when standing on our main intersection, you can see all of New Harmony,” said Williams. “Eight original sites and 25 original buildings, some open for guided tours and others privately owned, still exist.
“We are a golf cart community, and the utopian feeling still exists.”
Two sites, the Cathedral Labyrinth and the Harmonist Labyrinth, are also educational for visitors. These mazelike formations are considered meditative places, and churches and hospitals still use them for spiritual healing.
Buffalo Bill Cody founded his namesake town in 1896. “He was instrumental getting facilities to Cody, including irrigation systems and businesses. Thanks largely to Cody, we were the first gateway community to offer motorized transportation to Yellowstone National Park,” said Claudia Wade, director of the Park County Travel Council.
Groups experience much of Cody’s cowboy history at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, which features five themed museums.
“This gem showcases Western art, firearms, Buffalo Bill, the Plains Indians and natural history. Here, visitors learn not only the importance of Buffalo Bill but also our geothermal history. Have lunch here, or arrange for a boxed lunch to take to Yellowstone,” Wade said.
During much of the summer, the local culture and ranching skills are the stars at the Cody Nite Rodeo. The Old Trail Town, located on the original site of Cody City, reminds visitors of an old Western town, it is complete with a cemetery that is home to many notorious Westerners.
Cody offers foot-stompin’ after-dinner shows such as the “Dan Miller Music Revue” at the Cody Theatre. “The show has received great reviews,” suggested Wade.
Natchez is the quintessential Southern town thanks to the 500 antebellum structures that still survive. “Unlike many cities in the South, buildings were not burned here during the Civil War,” said Selah Havard, director of sales for the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau.
As a result, many homes are filled with history, among them Rosalie, a mansion built on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
“Rosalie’s history reaches back into the early 1800s, but it is most famous for being a temporary headquarters for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. While three women continued to live upstairs during the war, soldiers lived downstairs,” said Havard.
“The home is full of original furnishings, including a 10-foot-by-10-foot mirror that was stored between cotton bales so that it wouldn’t be destroyed. Today, it is in mint condition and hangs in the home.”
Groups appreciate Longwood’s poignant history when they see discarded tools left by construction workers who quit to fight in the Civil War. Longwood was never completed, and those discarded tools remain.
Havard suggested that groups visit these homes and a dozen more anytime. However, twice a year, during the Spring Pilgrimage and the Fall Pilgrimage, many more are open for tours.