Several years back, staffers at Belle Isle State Park got together to talk about filling a space in the park’s visitor center that had been empty for a decade.
A plan had been in place for years at the park along the Rappahannock River in Lancaster County to bring in an outside business to create an exhibit about the Northern Neck, its people and history.
But with a price tag of $300,000 and precious little hope of that much money being available, the creative folks from the park and state park district office settled on doing the exhibit in-house.
It took three years, staffers’ talents, some grant funding and supporting entities like the state park’s sign office, but the park has created an impressive exhibit that tells the story of the Northern Neck’s people and their interaction over time with local rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
And instead of costing $300,000 in additional funding, the exhibit got it done for somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000, if you don’t include the staffers’ salaries.
Much of that $10,000 came in the form of grants from different groups. Considerable dollars were saved by repurposing materials already in the park, and through assistance from local residents who supplied everything from stories and stories and historical context to artifacts now part of the exhibit.
“One of the docks we built to be part of the exhibit was made with the wood from picnic tables that were no longer usable,” said Katie Shepard, chief ranger for visitor experience at Belle Isle, who oversaw the exhibit’s creation and noted that other wood used was found washed up on the shore there.
The exhibit, which officially opened in late summer, now proudly fills a cavernous room so long empty in the visitor center at the 892-acre park.
Using illustrations, text and props like crab pots, the exhibit covers the Native American tribes in the region and how the river was both their highway and their larder, then transitions to telling the story of Captain John Smith’s trip down the river and his creation of maps that were used long after it.
Other panels detail Colonial times, the arrival of the steamboats that opened up the region to trade and the world and the harvesting of fish, oysters, crabs and more that was and is the backbone of Northern Neck industry.
Shepard, who researched and wrote most of the exhibit’s narrative, with help from the state parks communication office, said the first topic she tackled included the “Oyster Wars” between Virginia and Maryland oystermen.
“I’m not from here, so it was fascinating to learn about all this,” said Shepard, who noted that local watermen and their families provided audio clips now part of the exhibit. Local museums, including the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum and Irvington’s Steamboat Era Museum, provided invaluable help and exhibit materials.
“One of our goals is give visitors a taste of some of this history, and then send them on to these other museums that go into real depth on covering everything from the menhaden industry to the era of steamboats,” said Shepard. “We hope the morsels we deliver will be enough to entice them to go out and learn more.”
While the earlier exhibit was heavy on screens and technology, the staff felt visitors needed to have many hands-on activities, now a part of the display.
“A favorite thing for visitors so far is the area that looks like a dock, where people can dress up like a waterman, measure crabs, learn how to tie a knot, and more,” said Shepard.
It helps that there’s a dramatic photograph of a riverside wharf that serves as a nice backdrop for photos taken in that demonstration area.
Other topics covered in the exhibit are classic Chesapeake Bay boats, ecological details about the watershed, canning factories that once dotted the area, commercial menhaden fishing and the ups and downs of the oyster industry, that last panel next to a bucket full of the tasty bivalves.
And while the exhibit is a big hit with visitors, the project that received funding and or assistance from the Garden Club of the Northern Neck and the River Counties Community Foundation could well change how visitor exhibits are done in other parks, with in-house creation the new standard.
Annette Bareford, a visitor services specialist for Virginia State Parks, noted that the highly successful Belle Isle exhibit has shown “how important it is to have staff provide input and planning on the displays in their own parks.”
Shepard agreed, noting that while the original plan for the Belle Isle exhibit called for 12 TV screens in the visitor center, “Nothing in the plan really told the story of the Northern Neck.”