Clark Kent isn’t the only one who lives a double life. Within any given day, Drew Gruber, the executive director or Civil War Trails, changes from overall-wearing post-hole digger to suit-donning organizer.
“It’s not uncommon for me to be in a pair of overalls covered in mud and someone comes over looking for the director and I’m digging a hole,” he said.
Gruber, who received the position only a year ago, is responsible for all aspects of the interpretive panels at 1,550 participating historic sites in five and a half states: Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and two counties in Pennsylvania. Many locations have more than one panel, too.
These panels, he explained, are often requested by patrons who call the organization in an effort to have specific, historic grounds added to the Civil War Trails system. And, since the organization is run at the local level, Gruber’s able to easily communicate with those making requests.
“We’re talking with the experts who are there on the grounds, and then we can take their story and pitch it to a large audience,” he said, explaining how the panels help share stories with visitors at each historic site.
The hardest part, moving forward from the initial request, isn’t the actual gathering of information and photographs, Gruber said; rather, the biggest struggle is planning out how to lay out each panel with such limited space.
“The hardest part is being both evocative and informative but brief,” he said. “I only have a 24 x 36, plastic panel to work with. There’s no multimedia. There’s no digital aid. But, we’re open 24 hours, seven days a week—rain, snow or sleet.”
Thankfully, although he’s the only full-time employee, Gruber said he has the undying help of two trusty part timers.
Jason Shaffer has installed all the signs since the program began in 1994, and John Salmon is the historian who gathers and fact checks all the content displayed on the panels, from its handpicked, historic sentiments to its illustrating images.
“He always finds great pictures and images,” Gruber added.
In total, the process designing, fabricating and installing panels takes around 90 days.
Gruber said that, despite his early interest in history, he never imagined being a historian. Rather, he hoped to be a preservationist, and he focused his master’s work on urban and regional planning, which included tourism planning and studying many of the components that make historic sites successful.
In the end, he became preservationist and historian—a turn of fate he credits to a specific club at college, which prompted him to start down his current career path. Attending the University of Mary Washington, which sits atop Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Gruber said he installed his first interpretive sign.
“While I was at Mary Washington, I petitioned to put up an interpretive sign on campus and it was [for] the only remaining earthwork on the campus from the Civil War,” he said. “I worked with the president of the club and my, now, wife to get the interpretative sign installed.”
Gruber added that, although he’d encountered these signs while visiting battlefields, he never would have assumed there was only one person overseeing their installation. Of course, he didn’t anticipate the degree of work their installation entails either.
“I had interacted with Civil War Trail signs through most of my youth and college but I didn’t think there would just be one person behind that operation,” Gruber added.
Still, though, the level of “minutia” he’s learned in the past few months alone, work aside, has been surprising.
“It’s amazing to see how large and small the Civil War was all at the same time,” Gruber said. “The Civil War happens over such an expansive territory but, at the same time, all the stories are intertwined. It’s almost impossible to go to anyone’s site in a campaign and not find a relationship to another site or another campaign.”
Despite the growth of his own personal understanding, Gruber said the most rewarding part of working for Civil War Trails is having a part in forming other’s outlooks.
“You put up an interpretive sign, and it highlights all these stories behind what is otherwise just a grassy mound of earth,” he said. “The coolest part of the job is finding all of these stories and tying them together into one larger narrative.”
Those newfound outlooks on the grounds patrons walk have even sparked a call to action for some. Civil War Trails runs an Adopt-A-Sign program, where willing patrons or organizations are assigned a specific trail to help preserve. Gruber explained that this membership program was designed “not only to maintain the Trails network but also allows us to advertise for the sites.”
And, so, it turns out that, while Gruber may be the Superman of Civil War Trails, the call-to-action created by his efforts are building a sort of preservation force behind him. Together, preservation’s made easier and, in turn, these sacred grounds more enjoyable.
For further information on Civil War Trails, their tour services, and the Adopt-A-Sign program, visit their website, www.civilwartrails.org, or find them on Facebook. Follow them on Twitter @civilwartrails.