Peggy Erickson knows Montgomery County has a rich history. For the last 10 years, she has made it her business to be sure others know that, too.
“We really do have stories to tell, like the Civil War, the Underground Railroad and the religious freedom trail in Sandy Spring,” Erickson said April 10 while sitting on the front porch of her 1880s Washington Grove home.
Erickson retired Jan. 1 after serving as the first executive director of the Heritage Tourism Alliance of Montgomery County — Heritage Montgomery for short — since 2004.
On March 28, County Executive Isiah Leggett presented her with the 2013 Montgomery County Award for Historic Preservation.
“Her ability to learn, plan, and lead the Montgomery County Heritage Tourism Alliance led to 10 years of growth and success in marketing Montgomery County tourism and creating a secure and stable organization to serve as a model for succeeding directors,” Leggett said in a written copy of his award presentation.
Erickson’s first six months at Heritage Montgomery were lonely, she said. She was the only person on the staff and she had an annual budget of $35,000 — basically, her salary.
She had a mandate to increase tourism in the county in state-designated heritage areas: the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, the C&O Canal National Historical Park, the county’s railroad lines and stations, and the Quaker Underground Railroad.
Her goals were to find a steady source of income for the organization and increase the scope of Heritage Days, which she took over from the Montgomery County Historical Society.
Heritage Days, held the last weekend in June, offers residents and visitors the opportunity to see a number of historical, cultural and natural sites in the county free of charge. It is hosted by volunteers familiar with their history.
She is proud of the growth in Heritage Days during her tenure.
“We have grown from 1,500 people to 15,000 in 10 years,” she said. “We start in Glen Echo and go up to the Monocacy Aquaduct, across to Sandy Spring and down to Silver Spring.”
She also has grown to love the county and its people.
“I think upper Montgomery County is one of the most beautiful places in the whole country,” she said. “It has mountains, it has the river, it has farms and it has the best peaches in the state.”
Erickson said she thinks people need to know the history of African Americans in the county, which, she said, has been integrated for only 50 years.
To that end, Heritage Montgomery created a booklet, “Community Cornerstones,” highlighting African-American churches in the county. That booklet was the basis of a video by the same name that premiered in March.
“The people we filmed were so inspiring,” Erickson said. “They were mostly in their 80s and 90s, descendants of freed slaves, who shared [stories] of the love, protection and comfort which existed in their communities.”
Copies of “Community Cornerstones” and two other videos by Heritage Montgomery — one focusing on the Civil War in the county and the other on the Agricultural Reserve — can be purchased from HeritageMontgomery.org.
Erickson said she plans to spend time working in her yard and visiting with friends and neighbors now that she has retired.
She said she is proud to be leaving the organization with an annual budget of $250,000 and a staff of three. She is handing the leadership to Sarah Rogers, who has worked with the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution and, most recently, with the Anacostia Trials Heritage Areas in Prince George’s County.
“The great part about the job is there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t learn something new,” Erickson said.