Ruth J. Abram
Like many small rural towns, New Lebanon, New York, has seen its share of economic challenges: houses sunk into disrepair; farms gone to weed; businesses shuttered. In response, Behold! New Lebanon was conceived as a model for place-based development, showing how rural ingenuity can be tapped to ignite a fresh sense of cultural and economic opportunity. Employing residents who present their stories, skills, and knowledge to visitors as “rural guides”—including farm-dog trainers, printing artisans, and bog ecologists—the project launched a “living museum of contemporary rural life,” attracting hundreds of tourists from nearby metropolitan centers. With dozens of residents participating each season (and guides earning a professional wage), Behold! posited that if visitors understand the contribution made by rural places to the national good, they’ll be more likely to work to preserve them—and, in turn, nurture a new future for rural America. In 2018, following several seasons in New Lebanon, founder Ruth J. Abram retired from Behold!, and the organization’s programming was absorbed by the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, whose educational activities sought to celebrate the kindred values of New Lebanon’s contemporary rural guides and the original Shakers.
Behold! New Lebanon set out to serve as an economic engine for the entire town. For example, we’ve provided ticket buyers with coupons to area shops to judge the impact of this program on local businesses. Many proprietors have themselves served as docents. Townspeople have also been invited to submit handmade products to showcase at Behold!’s Welcome Center and General Store.
In 2007, to accommodate my husband’s career move, we settled in New Lebanon. As I began to meet people in town, one after another confided: “This used to be a really great town, but now…” and their voices would trail off. As time went by, I watched in dismay as the town’s only gift shop folded, the pizza joint was shuttered, and then the only grocery store closed. Alarmed by the rapid decline, I went to the library to see what I could learn about the town’s history. Had it really once been great?
Our biggest challenge is to make Behold! work quickly enough—attracting visitors who, in turn, frequent local shops and restaurants—so that the entire community sees its worth. After all, its success depends on the continued participation of a great swath of residents, businesses, and non-profit organizations.
I took my cue from the nineteenth-century residents who had once made New Lebanon a thriving and innovative town. Each of them made use of resources at hand, whether it was the water, the herbs, the dramatic scenery, the railroad connections, or the evangelical spirit sweeping the town. My contemporary inspiration was Gerda Lerner, founder of the modern American Women’s History Movement. From her I learned the importance of turning to history to create effective strategies to deal with today’s problems.
Uli Rose, who has served as Behold!’s official photographer, said to me: “I’ve been photographing this town and its people for years, but before Behold! was founded, I had no idea how many interesting and committed people were here.” Behold! opens eyes to the reality and opportunity of rural living.
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