A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part three)

(part three of three)

I’ve been talking with Dave Ruth, who retired this week as superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield after serving there for 26 years. During yesterday’s segment of my conversation with Dave, we talked about the important preservation work the park has been engaged in. But Dave says preserving the ground is just the first step. 

DAVE RUTH: I think there are great preservation efforts, but now I think what we really need to work on is the promotion piece.

Working with the Civil War Trust has been one of the delights of my career, and particularly working with Jim Lighthizer in the way we can promote and market these properties around Richmond. We’ve developed this really great relationship that he calls his “P.I.P.” Program. For Richmond, the Civil War Trust is engaged in the preservation and is our key partner in doing that work. Once it’s preserved, the expectation is that we will do as much as we can do as quickly as we can do it for interpretation. Then with that in place, the CWT is going to engage in the promotion, the last “P” in the P.I.P. They are going to do a full-court press promotional effort for the battlefields around Richmond that have a real identity challenge. We don’t have a Sunken Road, we don’t have Burnside’s Bridge, and we don’t have a Crater. What we have is a string of battlefields, many of which are difficult for people to comprehend where they fit in the context of the war and what’s outstanding about each battle. Cold Harbor probably has the best iconic connection to the American public, with the grand charge on the 3rd of June. Malvern Hill has some recognition.

But many people will see our signs on the interstate and come to the park. They may have heard of the name of the battle but they know little else. And the most unfortunate thing is that rarely will they see an interpretive ranger. So that is why our non-personal interpretation, our historical markers, are so important.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: And because you’ve got the ‘62 layer and the ’64 layer superimposed over the same landscape, I’m sure that’s an extra level of confusion for people and an extra challenge for you.

DR: It is, particularly with Cold Harbor and Gaines’s Mill, where if you stand one direction you’re facing where the armies were in ’62 but if you turn 90 degrees, you’re facing where the army was on this same ground in ’64. It is very confusing.

And I would add that probably the most important Civil War property in the United States today lies out there, unpreserved—the most significant land at Cold Harbor and Gaines’ Mill, the infamous Adams Farm. I don’t think that’s just me; I think there are many others who believe that as well. There’s a huge effort on our part to preserve that land. That’s where ’62 and ’64 really do come together.

I must say it’s just been absolutely wonderful to watch the Gaines’s Mill battlefield grow from 60 acres to just under 500. Through these purchases, though, we did inherit several modern structures that we will have to deal with in this challenging budget world.

CM: Certainly having to maintain a house of any sort has its own set of challenges that are far removed from managing the rest of the property.

DR: Exactly. We’ve made some very difficult choices in that regard. The Crew House at Malvern Hill is an example where the Civil War Trust acquired this historical landmark of the battle. The house burned in 1866, and while it might have been nice to have despite the fact that the original structure was gone, we worked out an arrangement with Henrico County who agreed to accept it with the goal of ultimately turning it into a jointly operated county and NPS visitor center for the battlefield.

CM: Thinking about those things from a marketing view: they’re key tangible assets for telling the story and showing people where events took place, so I can see how they’re important for helping raise money.

DR: Absolutely. And the Rural Plains site is a perfect example of where, in a short amount of time, we had to sink $500,000 into just stabilizing it—and that’s not chump change. Competing for that funding took considerable effort on the part of the staff. And then, if you’re trying to open it up to the public, that’s an entirely different challenge in terms of staffing and funding.

So when you can’t do it alone, you turn to partners. In this case, we established the Rural Plains Foundation with a board that is focused on two efforts: raising funds to preserve the structure, and establishing a volunteer organization that can actually open it up to the public, which they do between March and November every year on weekends. Accepting historic homes can be a very difficult decision, but it was not difficult with Rural Plains. The circa 1725 structure is an iconic and superlative house for Virginia’s history. The continuum of when the Shelton family owned the property from the 1670’s up until when we acquired it in 2006 is just a great story. And there was a major 1864 battle that happened there, too [Totopotomoy Creek].

CM: One of the things I find remarkable, as this conversation unspools, is how you keep pulling out these little arrangements with all these groups. That has just got to be, first of all, a testament to your ability to “shake hands and kiss babies,” but also shows what a chess game it must all be with all these moving parts.

DR: It is, so I find myself working very closely with so many partners, and tourism is one of those. One of my great indirect partners is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Who would imagine it, but the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is one of the most aggressive individuals I know out there finding money, and he knows many of the players, and so many of the great partnerships that we have nurtured have come through folks like him, ambassadors for our park.

We have these really great relationships with the people who manage the main attractions in the city, like the fine arts museum or the science museum. You’d think that’s not an immediate partnership opportunity for the National Park Service, but we work very closely with the science museum on exhibits relative to Maggie Walker and technology. The National Park Service centennial film premiered in their theater.

The Virginia Historical Society is another of those incredibly important partners for us. On many occasions, we have used their wonderful facility for interpretive programs. I find this part of my job to be incredibly fun, working with partners to find ways to see how we can best leverage what we do to help each other, and it is one of the things I will miss in retirement.

The other piece to our historical partnerships is the incredible Richmond NPS staff. Because of their historical knowledge, willingness to share information, and conducting some of the best interpretive programs on a variety of subjects, we have huge credibility in the community. They give up nights and weekends to do the things they love—interpreting for the public. [Historians] Mike Gorman, Bobby Krick, and Bert Dunkerly have engaged in tremendous research and continually share this with the public through their programs.

I think it became clear to me during the 150th anniversary commemoration just how capable and resilient our staff is. Many parks were dealing with a day-long battle or three days of fighting, but Fredericksburg and Richmond were different. Here our efforts began in 2011, and did not conclude until four years later—programs every year and, several years, we had week-long series of events. The quality of the programs, level of diversity of topics and stories, and a commemoration that was not marred by protests and controversy generated new community appreciation for the role of the park in the cultural fabric of Richmond.


With so much history to preserve and interpret, Richmond National Battlefield encompasses an incredible number of stories. Tomorrow, Dave will share a couple of his personal favorites.