Many who live in the Muscle Shoals area are unaware of the rich history of the land and how this history impacted––and continues to impact––life in the Shoals. The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area exists to tell the stories of the land and preserve its culture.
During the Ronald Reagan administration in the 1980s, the National Parks Service began designating National Heritage Areas throughout the country. A National Heritage Area is a stretch of land with a rich historical background.
The NPS deemed it impractical to turn every area in the country which holds significant stories into a national park, so it instead began allocating funding for national parks to these areas.
“The idea behind it was that it would be a program that achieved its goals through public/private partnership, so we receive federal funds through the National Parks Service, and then we work with nonprofits, state and local government, we work with local businesses to help tell the stories of our national significant landscape,” said Dr. Carolyn Barske Crawford, the executive director of the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area.“It took an act of congress to form us,” Crawford said.
The United States Congress designates official National Heritage status.
The MSNHA is one of 55 National Heritage Areas. It spans across six counties: Colbert, Franklin, Lauderdale, Laurence, Limestone and Morgan, all of which connect to the Tennessee River. These areas comprise what was once referred to as “the Muscle Shoals,” the land between Florence and Decatur where travel was extremely difficult during some parts of the year before the construction of Wilson Dam and the Muscle Shoals Canal. The canal’s history includes that its construction was overseen by General George Washington Goethals, who constructed the Panama Canal.
“Our story is connected to development of the muscle shoals, so now we’ve got the dams in place so we can travel up and down the river all year long,” Crawford said.
This story is only one of the many that MSNHA seeks to share.
The first railroad west of the Appalachian Mountains runs through the Muscle Shoals Heritage Area. This railroad connects to the Native American history in the area, because it was the only stretch of the Trail of Tears to use the railroad system.
Many paleolithic and archaeological sites are in the area as well.
Muscle Shoals is perhaps best known for its musical history, the preservation of which the MSNHA also supports.
“We help sponsor a lot of musical events as well,” Crawford said.
The MSNHA has a lot of partners that it pairs with to share the NPS funding is used to better the community.
“We have a community grants program, we have a community partnership program and both of those programs help to take money that we receive from the National parks service and distribute it to community organizations for events and projects throughout the heritage area,” Crawford said.
Their project, “Operation Pollination," works towards environmental conservation in the Shoals by protecting the pollinating insects which inhabit the area.
They involve UNA students through “The League of Outdoor Women.” Two current UNA undergraduate students, Afton Renfoe and Sophia Courtney, work with the MSNHA through The League of Outdoor Women program.
“League of Outdoor Women helps educate women so they feel more comfortable in the outdoors, so we do group hikes and programs,” Crawford explained.
MSHNA does a lot to benefit the UNA campus as well, as it is a UNA program and is housed on campus.
“We’ve had undergraduate history majors that have worked with us, geography students, so there’s a lot of opportunities for students who are interested in projects about the history and culture of our region here with the heritage area,” Crawford said.
It also covers many of the stories of historical sites on campus. It preserves the history of many of the on-campus buildings such as Wesleyan, Willingham and Bibb Graves. It helped with the new integration marker in the center of campus. All of these efforts align with a new feature they are working on to give a digital tour of campus. This new development could be helpful to incoming students who are too far away to do a physical tour. MSHNA strives to benefit the community, including UNA students.
“Every heritage area has their own little bit of history that makes them nationally significant,” Crawford said, “So it's not necessarily that we’re unique, but what happened here is unique so our landscape really has shaped how history has unfolded.”