They are the communities that spark the imagination and serve as a backdrop to the stories that shape our lives. One minute they are no different than any other small town, and then seemingly overnight, they become iconic boomtowns of tourism thanks to literary legend.
Instant name recognition
Experts say that when a community finds itself at the epicenter of classic literature or a bestselling novel, it often creates a marketing coup that money just can’t buy. There is instant name recognition between a municipality and the book associated with it, and communities have to decide how they plan to deal with this new-found fame. Will they embrace it and discover the best way to control its growth, or will they let it run wild and watch the town turn into a circus atmosphere?
That largely depends on the book, the community and how long the story’s 15 minutes of fame can last. In the case of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” that can be a very long time.
Scouting for Scarlet
The Deep South has been tied to a number of beloved books, some of which have become instant classics and required reading in classrooms everywhere; however, there are two stories that stand above all others and rival each other for the title Great American Novel: “Gone With the Wind” (1936) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960). While Atlanta, Ga., is a cultural city with lots of interesting attractions and arts venues, there are those who travel specifically in search of all things Scarlett O’Hara and Margaret Mitchell.
Leigh Massey, senior director of Marketing Communications for the Atlanta History Center and Margaret Mitchell House, said many people hope to see the city that inspired the author to pen her famous novel and learn more about her life. With as many as 224,000 visitors each year, Massey said they have collaborated with other “Gone With the Wind” organizations and sites in the Atlanta metro area to develop a tourism initiative around the book.
“Each site is specifically tied to the novel or movie, but we have added in Civil War components for those interested in history. These “Rhett Recommends” sites include the Atlanta History Center, Atlanta Cyclorama and Kennesaw National Battlefield,” she said.
According to Stephanie Rogers, manager of the Monroe County Museum in Monroeville, Ala., more than 30,000 visitors from around the world flock to the community each year to stand in the courthouse where Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson. Though the characters and events of “To Kill a Mockingbird” were fictional, the town and the people that inspired them were very real.
“Harper Lee grew up here,” Rogers said. “They say that the first book by any author is usually somewhat autobiographical and Lee did what any good author would do. She took what she knew and embellished it. Her childhood home is gone, but for the most part, the town is the same as when she grew up here. We even have a piece of Boo Radley’s tree.”
Rogers said that when a community has the opportunity to capitalize on a classic piece of literature, they should grab it. Monroeville is proud of its association with the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic and plays up the connection in a number of different ways. Businesses cater to tourist traffic with names that play off the novel, such as Courthouse Café, Mockingbird Grill and Radley’s Fountain Grill. Dramatizations are held each year, and as long as the book continues to inspire, she said the town will embrace its legacy.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Rogers said. “While some wonder if the story’s time has come and gone, we know that as long as ‘Mockingbird’ remains a staple in classrooms throughout the world, the tourists will continue to chase the spirit of Jem, Scout and Dill.”
L. Frank Baum never pinpoints the exact location of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s farm in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” but the town of Wamego, Kan., certainly keeps the legendary story alive with the Oz Museum and several other Oz-themed businesses, such as Emerald Door Salon, Wicked Stitch yarn and Toto’s Tacos. The museum is home to over 2,000 Oz-related artifacts, including first editions of Baum’s books, movie props and Wicked-related items. Approximately 28,000 visitors stop the museum each year.
“We were pretty lucky to think of doing something Oz related first,” said Austin Hibbs, manager of the Oz Museum. “There is Dorothy’s House in Liberal, Kan., but as far as the eastern portion of the state, we are it. We’ve really embraced and pushed our Oz heritage, and we have a lot of Oz fans here in town that help to keep it going.”