Friday, October 05, 2018

Meet the man behind those addictive Civil War Trails markers

Drew Gruber, 33-year-old executive director of Civil War Trails, Inc.
(Photo courtesy Civil War Trails, Inc.)

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If you're a Civil War nerd, you undoubtedly have been stopped dead in your tracks by the handiwork of  Drew Gruber. The 33-year-old executive director of Civil War Trails, Inc. is the man ultimately responsible for many of those distinctive CWT interpretive markers that seemingly pop up everywhere.

Speeding down a country road in Middle of Nowhere, Tenn. recently, I spied a CWT marker out of the corner of my eye at the edge of a parking lot for a barbecue shack. "Curses to you, Drew Gruber," I said under my breath, only half in jest. I stopped, read the marker that focused on Nathan Bedford Forrest and raised my Civil War I.Q. 17 points. Those signs suck me in every time. They're like potato chips and IPAs -- you never can stop with just one.

A Civil War Trails marker somewhere in backcountry Tennessee.
Gruber's interest in history was sparked at an early age by his grandfather, who "almost constantly" played old VHS tapes of Victory at Sea about World War II. He eventually became aware of the destruction of history where he lived in New Jersey.

"All around my community progress was quick to raze old buildings, develop on battlefields," he told me, "and my interest in history quickly shifted from trying to understand the past to trying to preserve it."

After graduating from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., Gruber did post-graduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond. He said his academic background made him uniquely positioned to take on the role of CWT executive director in 2015.

"My love for history," he said, "and motivation to preserve these sites and stories is made more practical through my training. How and why people connect with these sites today, what are the realized or potential revenues generated by the CWT program and tourism, and how to market the sites are as important as understanding the historic narrative."

The Civil War Trails program, started in 1994, now guides visitors to more than 1,500 sites.

Gruber, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., with his wife and two cats, answered my five questions about his important work. I did not curse him. Promise.

A Civil War Trails marker in Franklin, Tenn., for the headquarters of Union General John Schofield.
How does the process for placing a Trails marker work?

Gruber: The process for getting a new Civil War Trails sign is pretty simple. Each one of our signs typically germinates at the grassroots level. A historical society, roundtable, civic organization, etc. will propose a new site and pull together all the source material. Having diaries, photos, ledgers, etc. sent to us as part of this process is incredibly exciting, as more often than not these are being revealed to the public for the first time. We take all that material, write the text, work up a design and prepare the artwork and the sign pedestal for fabrication. Typically, but not always, the initial costs associated with the design, fabrication and installation are covered by the initiating organization. But before we install the sign, we reach out to the municipality and secure funding to ensure that this sign will be well maintained and marketed for years to come. From start to finish, the process might last as long as a year but is often just a few months. If you or your readers are interested in knowing more, check out the membership page of the new Civil War Trail website.

What's your most challenging Civil War Trails marker assignment?

Gruber: I cannot put my finger on the most challenging assignment, but often times we struggle with trying to ensure that the story is active and relevant to the community. This ensures that it is a resource for residents, is contextual to visitors, and engaging to guests who might not be Civil War buffs. For too long academics and public historians have written for one audience, thereby ignoring the opportunity to attract a whole new audience.

What's your favorite Civil War Trails marker?

"Each one of our signs typically germinates at the grassroots level," 
says Drew Gruber, executive director of Civil War Trails, Inc.
Gruber: This used to be an easy answer. “The 19th Century Backpacker,” located at Turner's Gap on South Mountain, was my favorite.  Because the sign is located where the Appalachian Trail bisects the battlefield, hikers are our biggest audience there. The sign is still our most popular since backpackers interact with it and then become interested to find out more about the battlefield there. It is still popular with Civil War buffs because they are not only standing in the footsteps of the original cast, but they are looking at this battle from a new perspective. After all, is it possible for me to tell a buff more about Turner’s Gap than they can find on one, 24 x 36-inch sheet of acrylic? No. But we can position them in an authentic place and present details via quotes, photos or artifacts that they wouldn’t otherwise get until they visit that exact place. We have used this approach on several other new signs that have all surpassed each other as my favorite.

I have seen CWT markers in the most unlikely of places. What's the most remote or unusual placement for a CWT marker?

Gruber: As you wait for the gates to open at AT&T Field in downtown Chattanooga, you can read about a key observation and artillery platform  that would change hands during the course of the war. Certainly that is a juxtaposition for your readers, and is unusual for baseball fans.

As far as remote goes, that's a hard one. If you draw and X through our program map, you would go from Memphis, Tenn., to Ocean City, Md., and from Wilmington, N.C., to Wheeling, W. Va. Many places feel remote, but the final sign atop Sitlington's Hill at the McDowell battlefield in Virginia is a good candidate for the most remote sign. Not only must you hike up the mountain, but it's a good hour from the nearest city, a half-hour from a gas station. We are the world’s largest open-air museum, so we excel at superlatives -- especially when it comes to remote and unusual.

If one Confederate and one Union veteran were to magically appear before you today, what would you tell them about the CWT effort?

Gruber: If these two veterans appeared before me and I didn’t immediately pester them with questions of my own, I might tell them that we are doing our best to encourage people to stand in their footsteps. We're there to travel along with them on the great campaigns and seek out those lesser-known places in an attempt to educate and inspire. However, I cannot help but think that they might think it's crazy that anyone would want to relive those moments.

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  1. Great post John, really interesting. Makes me want to hunt down these signs...

  2. Great Article!!! Thanks to Drew for his great work.