With baseball roots, railroad hubs and legendary authors, small towns can make some of the best places for travelers to experience authentic Americana.
Factor in residents who are happy to welcome visitors and attractions that are generally less crowded than those found in big cities, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a great group tour. That’s especially true of the following five burgs, which all feature populations under 25,000 but still boast enough compelling history and natural splendor that leaders just might schedule a little extra time in them.
Don’t leave these classic American towns off your group’s travel calendar.
Vicksburg, which sits snug against the Mississippi’s east bank, is known as much for its legendary history as its fabled locale. Established in 1825 by Newitt Vick, the town was the site of one of the Civil War’s most decisive and hard-fought battles, according to Laura Beth Strickland, executive director of the Vicksburg CVB.
“Taking Vicksburg — securing the Mississippi River and that western border — was a huge Union victory for Ulysses S. Grant,” she said. “It was fought the same day as Gettysburg, so those two victories really secured the Union win. That’s why we have a half-million visitors annually who come to our National Military Park to study that history and also observe the beautiful sculpture within it.”
Leaders can arrange for a licensed battlefield guide to step on their motorcoaches, but there are other ways for groups to explore Vicksburg history. The community’s downtown is home to six stellar institutions, including the Old Court House Museum, which focuses on telling the tale of Vicksburg itself; the Old Depot Museum, which spotlights transportation along the Mighty Miss; and the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, in the restored building where Coca-Cola was first bottled in 1894.
There are also some dozen historical homes for groups to tour, like the lovely McRaven House, said to be the most haunted in Mississippi. For group visitors who prefer not to “ghostbust,” Vicksburg boasts an array of breweries and galleries.
“It’s great to see the mix of the modern attractions with the historical attractions,” Strickland said, “and I feel that that makes us unique as a river city and just as a destination.”
North Platte, Nebraska
Buffalo Bill Cody loved North Platte, Nebraska. The Wild West Show hero lived in the town for some four decades, establishing Scout’s Rest Ranch there, now also known as the Buffalo Bill State Historical Park. But that’s not all North Platte has to share with groups.
“We’re also famous for the Union Pacific Railroad,” said Amanda Connick, group sales specialist at the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau. “North Platte is home to the largest classification rail yard in the world, and it’s still fully functioning.”
Groups can experience the massive rail yard from the bird’s-eye view of the Golden Spike Tower, which rises eight stories above it and includes plenty of railroad artifacts. After the train aficionados in the group get their fix, leaders will want to take their groups straight to Cody’s former digs, recently made a National Historic Landmark. Encompassing 16 acres that contain his 1886 mansion, the ranch is where Cody developed his beloved Wild West Show.
If possible, groups will want to visit North Platte in mid- to late March, when a quarter of a million sandhill cranes fly into the area as part of their annual migration. Dusty Trails Outfitters offers three separate guided tours to see the majestic birds as they eat, dance and mate, including a 2.5-hour afternoon bus excursion.
Travel planners should also keep in mind that Connick’s office has developed a number of special group tours.
“One is our Ride With the Wild Bunch tour,” she said. “It combines a tour of Buffalo Bill’s ranch, our Lincoln County Historical Museum, Dusty Trails Outfitters, our cowboy cook and a local Buffalo Bill impersonator. It’s just a great way to combine a lot of things into one tour, and that’s only offered to groups.”
Of all the great American authors, perhaps none is remembered quite as fondly as humorist Mark Twain. And of all the places he called home, perhaps none is as strongly connected with him as Hannibal, Missouri.
“Twain lived here from the time he was 4 until he was 17,” said Megan Rapp, assistant director and group sales manager of the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And his life in Hannibal inspired most of the novels he is most well known for today, like ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’”
The town gives groups a number of ways they can follow in the former Samuel Clemens’ footsteps, like visiting the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. It features eight buildings, from the residence Twain grew up in to the house of Laura Hawkins, whom Twain would immortalize as Becky Thatcher. Visitors can enjoy a self-guided tour of the properties or take advantage of special curator lectures.
Other can’t-miss experiences in Hannibal include a stop at the Mark Twain Cave, where Samuel Clemons’ signature was recently discovered, and a one-hour Mississippi River cruise aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat. For added fun, group leaders might also want to book a visit from Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher — eighth-grade students from Hannibal specially selected to act as city ambassadors.
The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is nestled in the town’s historic center, and though the Hannibal CVB is happy to arrange a step-on guide for a city tour, Rapp said, “it’s a perfect opportunity to give your folks several hours to explore Main Street with our locally owned businesses or walk along our beautiful, newly renovated riverfront” after a visit to the attraction.
Now during its yearlong 175th anniversary celebration, which will go on through next May, Fredericksburg, Texas, was founded by German pioneers who brought their country’s culture intact with them to their new home. Today, the cuisine they loved and the structures they built in the heart of bucolic Texas Hill Country remain, part of one of the country’s most unusual National Historic Districts.
“The 175th anniversary is really about highlighting that our German heritage is still going strong,” said Sean Doerre, communications and digital content manager for the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have about 10 German restaurants. We have the Pioneer Museum, which looks at the life of the early German settlers, how they lived, how they raised families, how they farmed and survived, and architecture — the town has done a great job with historic preservation.”
Whether groups would like a step-on guide to escort them around Fredericksburg or take a self-guided tour of 30 spots crucial to its history, there are plenty of ways to explore the town’s traditions. That includes indulging in some tasty beverages at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company, which offers a beer hall behind its main restaurant that is great for groups, or sampling German-Bavarian fare at The Ausländer.
Once visitors have explored the town’s history, they might want to widen the lens with a trip to the world-class National Museum of the Pacific War, a Smithsonian affiliate. Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch is about 15 minutes outside of Fredericksburg.
“That’s a great motorcoach tour as well,” Doerre said. “As we say, ‘We have history from the pioneers to the Pacific and on to the presidents.’”
Cooperstown, New York
Whether your group loves great American books or the great American pastime, they’re going to find Cooperstown, New York, a fascinating getaway. A rural village of less than 2,000 on the southern tip of Otsego Lake, Cooperstown was established in 1786 by the father of novelist James Fenimore Cooper. The younger Cooper, who grew up in the town, would go on to pen legendary novels including “Last of the Mohicans.”
But, as Cassandra Harrington, executive director of the Destination Marketing Corporation for Otsego County, said, for most people, Cooperstown is synonymous with baseball.
“We’re home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum because the sport is fabled to have been invented on an old cattle field here on Main Street,” she said.
Harrington suggests groups coming into town opt for Triple Play passes good for discounted admission to the Hall of Fame, where they can set up a private, “white-glove” tour; the Farmer’s Museum, which is on land once owned by famous author Fenimore Cooper and offers a historical village with interpreters like blacksmiths and rug-makers; and the Fenimore Art Museum, boasting a veritable treasure trove of Native American folk art and artifacts from local tribes including the Iroquois, Mohawk and Oneida.
Should groups want to get out and enjoy the stunning scenery, the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad, which departs from Milford, offers beautifully restored vintage cars and can be chartered for private trips. Or visitors can step aboard the Glimmerglass Queen tour boat.
“It’s about a one-hour ride, very low-stress and a great way for groups to get out on the water,” Harrington said.