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Devotion to family, history inspires love of heritage

The history of Niagara Falls goes back to the ice ages, and millions of visitors trek to Niagara County each year to view this wonder of nature, but there’s plenty of other history in this area that visitors don’t have to go back 440 million years to find out about.

This is the goal of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area.

The area was created in 2008 with the goal of using heritage tourism to tell this region’s stories – not just in Niagara Falls, but across the region.

It also aims to showcase the area and extend the time tourists spend in the area after they leave Niagara Falls State Park.

Sara Capen, a lifelong resident of Niagara County and a middle school and high school social studies teacher for almost 10 years, became the group’s part-time project director and soon after was named full-time executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area.

She also has her own rich history with a well-known family that includes her father, Thomas A. Beilein, former Niagara County sheriff and currently chairman of the state commission of correction; and uncle John Beilein, the basketball coach for the University of Michigan, who last season took his team to the Final Four and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2014.

Her brother Bill Beilein is basketball coach at Niagara County Community College.

Her husband, Michael, teaches physical education in the Newfane Central School District. They have four sons, ages 4 to 14.

“I’m fortunate all my family stayed in Western New York, and I credit them with giving me a strong sense of history and pride in family and pride in who we are as a country,” Capen said.

She continues to teach as an adjunct professor at Niagara University. Her course in Tourism and Destination Development highlights much of what the area is trying to accomplish with the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area.

“What my class is doing this semester is a case study on Niagara Falls and what it takes for a place to become a destination and how heritage tourism is involved in that process,” Capen said.

What is a National Heritage Area?

“The role is to preserve, protect, and promote the natural and cultural resources of a region. Our region extends from LaSalle (in Niagara Falls) to Youngstown. It is really is about how a region tells and share its stories.”

Why is that important?

“We know that 8.5 million people come to visit the falls, but how many of those people actually know the history that surrounds the falls? That is really what one of our goals is: to extend the visitors stay by showcasing the stories that made this region great. It is about telling America’s stories here.”

What are some of the stories you showcase?

“We have so many. We have the Underground Railroad with Harriet Tubman crossing the suspension bridge, Nikola Tesla with his inventions with alternating current that led to widespread use of electricity through the hydroelectric power. Heritage tourism is a driver to sharing those stories. It drives visitors to learn more about what makes this region rich.”

Do you train people to teach this history?

“No. I am the only employee. The Niagara Heritage Area works entirely in partnerships. Our partners include the City of Niagara Falls, the Niagara Tourism Convention Corp., Old Fort Niagara, small nonprofit organizations and larger entities like New York Power Authority and its Power Vista. One of the ways we have been effective is through our grants program We run a small grant program and in the past we have funded close to a $100,00 in grants to about 20 organizations. By doing that, we are able to do is help the people tell their stories better.”

There were a lot of War of 1812 events recently. Were you involved in that?

“We were. We funded six grants to local organizations – the Historical Association of Lewiston, Old Fort Niagara, the War of 1812 Legacy Council are some examples. We also did a War of 1812 trading card series, which was distributed by the National Park Service. We are affiliated with the National Park Service. We come under the National Park Service umbrella as one of their programs.”

So these cards were handed out?

“The were actually handed out at specific partner sites. Betsy Doyle (the first woman in combat) was handed out at Old Fort Niagara, the Cusick Family card (Tuscaroras who sided with the Americans during the War of 1812) was handed out with the unveiling of the Tuscarora Heroes monument. And (the monument) was a grant project we funded. We also funded education programs that connected people to the sites. We’ve sent close to 2,000 kids to Old Fort Niagara for field trips over the course of the last three years, and they’ve received these cards prior to visiting so they’ve learned a local story that pertains to the War of 1812.”

When you taught in this area, did you spend a lot of time teaching local history stories or did you learn them on the job?

“I’ve always been a big believer that kids learn history best when it begins in their backyard and then apply it to the national story and then the world story. It makes a lot more sense to kids. I, as a teacher, always introduced my kids to the historical region we lived in and certainly not just historical, but the geographical significance of being on the Great Lakes.”

Do you work with all of Western New York?

“We work with the entire Western New York region. Our designated area is a 13-mile stretch, but regionally we connect to everyone. We want a visitor who comes to Niagara Falls to understand the relationship to the Erie Canal, to understand the historical significance of Buffalo. We want people to stay here longer and explore why our region is so historically significant.”

Do you reach out to educate adults as well as children?

“We do. One of our most successful programs, the Junior Rangers, is for all ages. Even though it is well recognized in the Park Service and its general audience is for kids, it’s something that a family can do when they get here. It’s designed to do together. As a parent, you can stop and say, ‘I’m going to learn a little more about the Underground Railroad, but there’s bathrooms at the stop, too.’ ”

How can locals get involved in heritage tourism?

“It’s very important for the community to know their history, because the community is oftentimes the first people to meet the tourists. There are more and more heritage travelers that want that local experience. They want to know the best place to get a chicken wing, but also the best place to understand why this area is so important or what fish are in the Niagara River.”

How can you draw new visitors here?

“Incidentally, I get five to 10 letters a week from kids, students across the country, doing research projects on Niagara Falls and they want to know the history. So I always send them a Junior Ranger book, a lanyard, a sample pin (depicting historic people) or War of 1812 cards, so they are learning more about the area in their research. We want families to come and experience the falls and to stay. Whether it’s (families or) two retired adults traveling, we want heritage tourists to experience more and understand our area. I think heritage tourism is an investment. It is an industry. And I think sharing your stories makes people stay longer. It makes tourists choose to book a hotel for a second or third day. … History is about connection. You are connecting at a specific place. … And it doesn’t necessarily involve long lines at a museum. You can have snapshots of history and have a tremendous experience. People want to learn more.”

More information on heritage tourism in the Niagara Falls area is available at

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email email: