Newton is taking an extra step to celebrate its local history this fall or, more aptly, it is going the extra mile with the official launch of a new historic driving tour planned for October.
Through a grant and the joint efforts of the Newton Historic Preservation Commission and Convention and Visitor's Bureau, the idea for the driving tour was pursued as a natural progression following the walking tour that was created in 2014.
Former Historic Preservation Planner Billi Jo Wilson initiated the process and did much of the research in curating the tour, with CVB coordinator Melody Spurney noting much of the new initiative focused on updating and expanding on the previous endeavor.
While the walking tour was confined mostly to downtown Newton, Spurney said a driving tour would allow interested parties to cover more ground. With sites being more spread out, organizers also decided to group the various historic destinations based on themes — with three chosen to be featured on the historic driving tour.
Based on personal interests, those taking the driving tour can follow the Architecture route (featuring the old Lincoln School, J. W. Graybill House and more), Mennonite Heritage route (which includes the Bethel College Administration Building and Warkentin House, among other sites) or Mexican-American History/Railroad/Chisholm Trail route (including stops at Military Park, Our Lady of Guadalupe and other locations).
"That's all combined into one because a lot of that history is overlapping," Spurney said of the latter.
Maps will be made available highlighting all the stops on the route, with Spurney noting plans are to offer those guides at Anderson's Book and Office Supply, Newton Public Library and any other local businesses that are interested. While the maps will include information on all the tour sites, Spurney said there will also be a QR code on the back that links to the mobile-friendly website — intended to be a key aspect of the driving tour.
"You can access it on a desktop and it works, but it's designed specifically for people who are out on the road following those routes," Spurney said.
Part of that, Spurney stated, is because the website (newtondrivingtour.com) will give more detail and history than the map provides and is meant to enrich the tour experience.
Currently, the grant ($11,000 in federal funds through the State Historic Preservation Office) for the driving tour is set to be finalized at the end of September. Newton Director of Community Planning and Development Kelly Bergeron said the matching grant also required little financial input from the city itself, other than updating the maps used for the tour. Spurney said after finalization, Newton will begin to promote the tour and the website in full and it is a resource she thinks may be of interest to many citizens.
"One benefit is that we can give better public access to the history of these buildings. It just gives a little bit more exposure to properties that may otherwise be overlooked by people who are interested in architecture and local history," Spurney said. "I feel like it could be an asset for people who are interested in history in our community. It's one more tool they have that's easily accessible and helps tell our community's story."
Both Spurney and Bergeron agree that there are certainly tourism benefits with the historic driving tour, but like Spurney, Bergeron also sees it being of great interest to the local community.
"I also think that it helps kind of educate the existing Newton residents and the existing public about some really neat, cool historical places that are right underneath our noses," Bergeron said.
Hide Park, a stop on the Mexican-American/Railroad/Chisholm Trail route, is one such example that Bergeron brought up. The site of a gunfight deadlier than the shootout at the OK Corral, there are currently no markers signaling its location (roughly the back parking lot of Community National Bank, 127 N. Main) or historical significance.
Making people aware of the history that has become so easily hidden by current amenities is a goal of the new driving tour, Bergeron said — and something both she and Spurney hope will kindle some interest in (and appreciation for) some features that should not be taken for granted.
"We feel like this is one of those things that is unique for our community. We have this history that other communities do not have, especially that railroad history that's very important and near and dear to our hearts," Bergeron said. "We are a very unique community and we're hoping this will showcase that in a new way."