Crowdfunding in History: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
A community comes together around an idea for a spectacular public space. Project planners rally and individuals contribute, including young school kids. Business leaders lend their support, confident that the project will boost tourism to the area and help grow the local economy. City leadership donates funds, excited to put their community on the map.
This sounds like many Patronicity crowdfunding projects; communities coming together to create compelling, impactful campaigns is something that fires us up every day at Patronicity. However, this is actually an example of crowdfunding that predates our founding. In fact, it’s a crowdfunding campaign that predates social media, email, and even the internet by several decades.
These days when we think about a crowdfunding campaign, we often think of projects setting up fundraising pages on a website and sharing through Facebook and Twitter. But a team of committed individuals raised several million dollars long before any of those tools were invented, in order to purchase land and open the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
You can read more about the story here, here and here, but you know that it started with a group of committed individuals from Knoxville TN and Asheville NC who wanted to see a national park created in their region. They wanted a park as great as any that were recently established in the American West. To make that happen, they knew they faced an uphill battle.
The opportunity first arose when the Department of the Interior created a commission to recommend the best site for a new national park. So, the first thing that the Smoky Mountain boosters had to do was persuade that commission to choose their beloved region. To accomplish that, the team implemented some pretty crafty marketing: they sent beautiful photos that convinced the commission to visit the Smokies and later renamed the Smoky Mountains into the Great Smoky Mountains. Obviously those tactics worked, because in 1925 the commission submitted a recommendation for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In 1926 President Coolidge signed a bill that provided for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as soon as the land for the park was purchased. Since the federal government wasn’t allowed to purchase land for national parks, it was up the park boosters to raise the funds and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina to purchase the land.
Both states committed $2 million each, and the Rockefeller family promised $5 million, but only as a match for other funds raised. So that left a final $1 million to be raised from the public. Just like in crowdfunding campaigns today, every outreach measure possible was used by fundraisers to meet their $1 million goal:
- Businesses were contacted and convinced to donate with claims about the increase in local tourism that the park would create.
- Families were asked to contribute whatever they were able; a popular story tells of school kids collecting pennies for the cause.
- Newspapers in both states ran articles with updates on the amounts raised so far and to encourage more donations.
- Photos and essays were printed to show the beauty of the region and to inspire more support.
- At some point a ‘donation reward’ was given to those who supported the park. Those that donated were given signed National Park Founder’s Certificates, which are now considered to be prized possessions by many of the descendants of those original donors.
Through these efforts, $800,000 was raised from members of the public, an amazing amount to be proud of, but still $200,000 short of the $1 million goal. At the same time, the cost of the land ended up exceeding original efforts, making the park seem further out of reach. Thankfully, President Roosevelt committed $1.5 million in federal funding in 1933 to help bring the park to fruition.
The Great Smokey Mountains National Park was established in 1934, and has become one of the nation’s most popular parks. In the park’s first year, over a million people came to visit the Great Smoky Mountains. See a video of the park from 1936 here.
The funds raised from the public were crucial to the park’s popularity. One article quoted Dan Pierce, a history professor at UNC-Asheville and author of The Great Smokies: From Natural History to National Park, describing the effect of crowdfunding for the park in the following way:
“There was more symbolic value than actual monetary value,” Pierce said. “It showed the politicians how people felt, that the park had widespread support by the people in the region and that they really wanted this. It [also gives] local people a lot of ownership or feeling of ownership that they helped make this happen.”
Today that sense of public ownership is supported by the fact that the Great Smoky Mountain National Park remains one of the few national parks, and perhaps the greatest park, to remain free and open to the public. Over 10 million people enjoy the park every year, and it all started with a crowdfunding campaign.
So, what about you? Are you a community inspired by the example of the Great Smoky Mountains story? Let’s talk!
Then again, maybe your organization is looking for a way to support projects seeking to make a greater impact? From a branded program, partnership, sponsorship and beyond — Patronicity can be the solution you are seeking for reaching further, connecting deeper, and assisting communities in creating the next great public space project. We’d love to help you bring it life! You can learn more at www.patronicity.com/partner or contract our Director of Outreach, Rob St. Mary, at firstname.lastname@example.org
*All of the sources linked above were used for this article, with most details coming from “Against All Odds”