Dr. Steve Belko, right, executive director of the Missouri Humanities Council, was in Washington last September to celebrate the creation of the German Heritage Corridor of Missouri. Also shown, from left, are Mayor Sandy Lucy; Marc Houseman, Washington Historical Society Museum director; Cynthia Browne, administrator of Deutschheim State Historic Site; Dr. Steven Rowan, University of Missouri-St. Louis professor of history; and State Sen. Dave Schatz.

Heritage tourism. That’s what it’s called when the cultural history of an area is promoted to attract visitors.

The concept is nothing new to this part of Missouri, where the German cultural history runs deep and where local leaders have long recognized that value and advertised it.

A step to further that promotion came last year with the creation of the German Heritage Corridor, which recognizes the city of St. Louis and 16 counties along the Missouri River, all the way to Lafayette County near Kansas City.

“That’s where about 80 percent of Missouri’s German heritage is. That’s where they all settled,” said Dr. Steve Belko, executive director of the Missouri Humanities Council (MHC), the nonprofit that led the way on getting the corridor established.

Now that it is, the next step of this project is to add public programming and interpretive components emphasizing the area’s German heritage, things that will engage visitors to these communities and educate them on the German history. But the goal of the Missouri Humanities Council is more than that, said Dr. Belko.

“Economic development is a key concern of ours,” he said. “Heritage tourism is one of the most popular, money-generating revenue sources for small communities, especially rural areas. That’s what we want to do.”

And that’s only the beginning.


If you’ve been reading The Missourian for years now, you’ve probably read about ways the Missouri Humanities Council has supported Washington and surrounding communities — grants to groups like Downtown Washington Inc., exhibits like the interactive Civil War exhibit that came to Sullivan several years ago, and literacy programs like Read From the Start that help adults understand the importance of reading to children from birth.

Based in St. Louis with a second office in Kansas City, the Missouri Humanities Council is a nonprofit organization that was started in 1971.

It is not a government agency, Dr. Belko noted, although a lot of people don’t realize that. They confuse the Missouri Humanities Council with the Missouri Arts Council, which is part of the Department of Economic Development, he explained.

“We do have a very close relationship with the state Legislature because our state funding comes from the nonresident professional athletes and entertainers tax,” said Dr. Belko.

The MHC is one of five partners who share the income from the A&E tax. MHC’s cut is 10 percent.

The money does not come from Missouri taxpayers, but from nonresident professional athletes and entertainers who come to Missouri for games, concerts and other paid performances.

“So when the Cubs (baseball team) comes to town, we tax them . . . anyone who comes to play the Chiefs, the Blues, the Cardinals, the Royals . . . that’s the nice thing about having two baseball teams in the state, especially when they go deep into the playoffs — we get extra money,” Dr. Belko commented.

The MHC has two other sources of income. It receives federal funding through Congress, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and private funding or donations made by individuals and corporate sponsors.

Private funding is what Dr. Belko, who is just starting his second year as executive director, hopes to build to be the MHC’s primary source.

Currently the A&E tax is the biggest source.

“I’m trying to build up an endowment that we can invest and live off of that. There’s a good chance that the state Legislature may zero us out. It has happened before,” said Dr. Belko, noting the amount of money the MHC gets from the state has been around $1 million every year.

“I want to break us free from that, so we don’t rely on it. Sooner or later the economy goes bad, and the arts and humanities are always the first things to go,” he remarked.

That being said, Dr. Belko is quick to point out that as a nonprofit, the MHC is able to maximize the tax dollars it receives.

“Every dollar you give us, we can maybe turn $6 or $7 out of it,” he said.

Awards Grants

Awarding grants up to $2,500 to organizations across the state is one of the MHC’s five major programs.

Applications are considered four times each year.

Recipients can be libraries, schools, museums, archives, other nonprofits or even civic organizations, like a Chamber of Commerce.

“We budget about $400,000 a year for grants,” said Dr. Belko. “We balance rural and urban, because we want as diverse an audience as possible. The goal is to hit a lot of those communities that don’t have a lot of other opportunities.”

The MHC has awarded grants to every county in Missouri in some way. It lists the grants that have been awarded in the current issue of its semiannual magazine, MO Humanities.

The Washington Tourism Commission was recognized in the Fall 2016 issue as a grant recipient to help with a statewide conference it hosted, Missouri Main Street Connection: Get Plugged In.

Promotes Reading

Read From the Start is the MHC’s family reading initiative that is offered free of charge and encourages parents and caregivers to read to children, starting from birth.

Programs explain to adults the importance and value of reading to children of all ages, giving them tips on how to engage the children and extend the learning.

MHC partners with local organizations to host these programs, as it did with Four Rivers Area Family YMCA and The Missourian several years ago.

A second MHC literacy program is in development and will be introduced over the next few years, said Dr. Belko.

Supports Veterans With Writing Workshops

Helping veterans who have post-traumatic stress cope with and overcome the condition is the goal of the veteran-writing workshops that the MHC hosts around the state in partnership with the VA St. Louis Medical System at Jefferson Barracks-Occupational Therapy, the St. Louis Public Library, the Kansas City Public Library and Drury University.

The workshops are for veterans and their families, who are taught writing and narrative skills to better share their stories, which can be fiction or nonfiction. The workshops are free and led by professional writers and counselors.

The workshops have been attended by veterans from the Korean War all the way up to current veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, but the main ones who participate are Vietnam veterans, said Dr. Belko.

“Writing is one of the many ways veterans can overcome the horrors of war and reconnect with their families, with society, get them back into the workforce,” he said. “Some do it with art, some with music, some with equestrian riding, but a lot of them have turned to writing — whether it’s prose, poetry, interviews.”

Workshops can be attended by spouses, children or any of a veteran’s family members who are dealing with the wounds of war, said Dr. Belko.

The writings are then collected (with the veterans’ permission) and included in an anthology, “Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors,” which is available for purchase on the MHC website at www.mohumanities.org/shop.

The anthology, now in its fifth volume, is a partnership between MHC and Southeast Missouri State University Press.

“We just had our fourth anthology readings in December. That’s pretty powerful,” said Dr. Belko. “It’s kind of a way for them to release.”

Plans are to hold more veteran writing workshops in more places more often and for more people, including active duty soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood.

Heritage Programs

The Missouri German Corridor is only one of four heritage programs that MHC is leading.

Another is one especially dear to Dr. Belko’s heart — Missouri’s Native American Initiative, which includes a language revitalization program for the Absentee Shawnee, among other things.

“There are 47 speakers of Eastern Shawnee left. Only 47 people remaining who know this language. So our first step is to document it,” said Dr. Belko, noting the MHC is working with a cultural linguistic anthropologist from Southeast Missouri State University.

“They will document it, preserve it, and then we will try to revive it,” he said, admitting that will be extremely challenging. “The key is you have to get young people to speak it . . . We may not succeed with that.”

In addition to bringing back the language of Missouri’s Native Americans, the initiative is working to preserve their seeds, by partnering with the Missouri Botanical Garden and Shaw Nature Reserve seed bank.

Future possibilities include funding an interpretive area at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, where they could grow the seeds to show what the area looked like when the Europeans first arrived, said Dr. Belko, to show the different types of corn, squash, etc. that were growing here.

“Ultimately the goal is to restore lands to them,” said Dr. Belko, who said that one case is already in progress in Perry County.

The Fall 2016 issue of MO Humanities magazine is dedicated to the Native American Initiative and features a half-dozen stories, including “The Evolution of the American Indian Pow Wow,” “Osage Arts and Archaeology,” “The Osage Trail Legacy” and “Bringing the Sounds of the Shawnee Back to Perry County.”

Another heritage project of the MHC is expanding the U.S. Grant Trail, a joint project of Missouri and Kentucky communities “to bring attention to Civil War sites and other heritage sites that chronicle the life and times of America’s 18th president,” Greg Wolk, heritage resources coordinator for MHC, writes in the Fall 2016 issue of MO Humanities.

“A series of high-quality, regional maps direct travelers to ‘Official Trail Sites’ throughout eastern Missouri, while at the same time connecting the communities of Hannibal, Mexico, Washington, Pacific, St. Louis, Arcadia Valley, Cape Girardeau, Bloomfield, New Madrid and Charleston in a joint effort to attract Civil War heritage tourists.”

The trail continues into Paducah, Ky., and is now being extended into Illinois.

The newest heritage program of MHC, Missouri’s Rural Heritage Initiative, is still being developed.

“I’m working with the Farm Bureau and other rural conservation-type organizations to maybe do a lot of oral history, public histories, because that’s the part of the state that’s dying — centennial farms, all of that,” said Dr. Belko.

Education Is MHC’s Largest Program

Education is probably the largest of all the programs that MHC offers, said Dr. Belko. It includes the “Show Me Missouri” Speakers’ Bureau where expert historians, storytellers, researchers and authors are provided to share special stories about Missouri’s culture, history, art and people.

Traveling exhibits commemorating significant milestones in Missouri history are another aspect of the MHC’s education programming.

The MHC currently has exhibits commemorating the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights (at 22 libraries around the state) and The Missouri Plan explaining “how judges become judges.”

Upcoming exhibits include a traveling centennial exhibit marking America’s entry into World War I. The exhibit will start in April 2017 and through Armistice Day 2018.

The MHC also is a sponsor of the upcoming Mail Call exhibit from The Smithsonian Museum that will be on display at Washington Public Library beginning Saturday, Feb. 4.

Another aspect of the MHC’s education programs is the Civics Education Initiative, which includes teacher education workshops known as the Missouri Summer Teachers Academy.

“We bring in high school teachers from each senatorial district and scholars from all over the state and country to talk about certain themes, how to build them into their curriculum, where they can find these resources, to help them be able to maximize civics education,” said Dr. Belko.

The theme for the first year was Majority Rule Versus Individual Rights. The theme for this summer’s academy will be the Bill of Rights.

Finally, the MHC is working on establishing a Midwest book fair that would be similar to one held in Los Angeles.

“It would cover Denver to Chicago, be held in Kansas City or maybe St. Louis. We are still feeling that out,” said Dr. Belko.

Watch for news on that in the coming years. The goal is to have a pilot program ready by 2021.

Stay Informed With Magazine, Website

The MO Humanities magazine is printed twice a year. There is no cost to subscribe, but the MHC accepts donations to offset printing costs.

People also can visit the website, www.mohumanities.org for the latest information.