NEW LEBANON – Small rural communities are perpetually marketing themselves. Witness the annual Heritage Spudfest in Boonsboro, Md., or the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas.
But it is probably fair to say that no place has come up with a concept quite like “Behold! New Lebanon,” in Columbia County, in which this struggling Hudson Valley town in the shadow of the Berkshires is being reimagined as what it hopes will be a “living museum of contemporary rural American life.”
Over four weekends, starting with this one and running through Nov. 2, ticket-buying visitors are promised an unvarnished glimpse of present-day country culture, organizers say, which includes being ferried by school buses to working farms, forests, kitchens, corrals and a speedway. There they will “behold” guides like Cynthia Creech, showing off her genetically rare breed of Randall cattle; Eric Johnson, training Border collies to shoo Canada geese off public fields; and Melissa Eigenbrodt, 46, the local postmaster, who can demonstrate the art of tracking deer – without a gun – by following hoof scrapes along the trail.
Part museum-without-walls, part reality show, “Behold! New Lebanon” is being packaged as a deliberate contrast to the stereotypical bonneted butter churners at Old Sturbridge Village and other re-creations of yesteryear, which focus on nostalgic practices.
If the effort succeeds, New Lebanon will join an emerging rural renaissance – a movement that some are calling “rural by choice” – in which small towns are reinventing themselves by embracing local skills and artisanship (and, unlike Marfa, Texas, without monetary or artistic firepower from New York). Across the country, communities are trying a variety of approaches with varying success, from designated downtown culinary districts (Bridgeton, N.J.), to artist collaboratives spearheading small-town revivals (Arnaudville, La.), to the annual Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg, Wis., which pumps roughly $300,000 into the local economy.
“Behold!,” which has applied for nonprofit status, is the brainchild of Ruth J. Abram, the historian who founded the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York in 1968 and is credited with forging new conceptual museum ground by telling the stories of immigrant families within an original setting.
Drawing lessons from the Foxfire project, which recorded the folk traditions of southern Appalachia, “Behold! New Lebanon” wants to “create a record of people who are inventing how to live in the countryside,” said Abram, who started off as a weekender here, drawn by the heritage of Mount Lebanon, the headquarters of the Shaker community in the United States. (It is now a museum.) But like many small rural towns, New Lebanon has suffered from steady depopulation and economic decline. Over the past decade, the supermarket, a pizza parlor, a gas station, a beloved coffee shop and three restaurants have closed.
“I kept hearing, ‘This used to be a great town, but ...,’ ” said Abram, who went on a listening tour of sorts, asking residents, “What do you know how to do that people in urban centers and suburbia don’t know?” She met people like Eigenbrodt, a respected hunter, who one-upped the farm-to-table food movement in a single breath: “It’s bed to table,” she said. “It’s get up, track the deer, shoot it, dress it, drag it, hang it, skin it, cut it, cook it. It’s about as organic as you’re going to get.”
Local officials see “Behold!” as a community development project that can draw tourists – not an abundant species here.
“I probably could count them on two hands,” said Kenneth J. Flood, the Columbia County commissioner for planning and economic development. New Lebanon is eager for a slice of the Hudson Valley tourism market, which is $3.15 billion, providing $207 million in local tax revenue, said Ross D. Levi, vice president for marketing initiatives for the Empire State Development Agency.
The museum project has raised about $55,000, Abram said. Tickets are $15 to $25 daily, and $40 for a weekend, including events like “Hitching the Horse to the Plow,” “Auctioneering 101” and “Surviving in the Wild.” (Take mosquito repellent.)
“These towns are struggling,” he added, “but within them you can see the seeds of a cultural and economic revival.”
In Green River, Utah (population 953), a group of Auburn University design and architecture graduates and former AmeriCorps/Vista volunteers started the nonprofit Epicenter in 2009 (motto: “Rural & Proud”). They have restored 14 houses and run school arts programs and sponsor a “frontier fellowship” for artists in residence.
In Reedsburg (population 9,000), between Chicago and Minneapolis, Donna Neuwirth, 60, and Jay Salinas, 55, are urban transplants who started as farmers but went beyond food, creating the nonprofit Wormfarm Institute to develop what they call a regional culture-shed. The Fermentation Fest – which includes artist-designed farm stands, a drive with scenic overlooks of art installations in fields, and opera performed in a hay wagon – drew 12,000 people in October.
“The word ‘culture’ is embedded in the word ‘agriculture,’” Neuwirth said. “We hope to bring it all back.”