Frederick, on-screen and in step: Walking tour brings local history to smartphones

Originally published April 1, 2012 in the Frederick News-Post

By Stephanie Mlot

“Four years of covering this city, and I still feel like a tourist in Frederick.

(Which is why it’s no wonder I got myself … well, let’s say “turned around,” at one point during my excursion.)

While I am more inclined to pick a day’s activities based on how few church steeples I have to stare up at, I am always up for a tour in local history.

The Frederick Walking Tour app combines some of my favorite things: my smartphone and learning.

On an unseasonably warm March afternoon, with a Frederick News-Post staff photographer in tow, I started along “The Trail,” the app’s first mini-tour, and the beginning of the entire journey.

Standing in the middle of an East Patrick Street sidewalk, my face scrunched into the same perplexed look of most out-of-towners, my eyes darted back and forth between the nearby buildings and my outstretched cellphone screen.

I tried to take in every snippet of history, thinking I could spice up my article, and cocktail parties, with a line or two about how modern-day Everedy Square and Shab Row, now composed of specialty shops, restaurants and offices, once quartered working-class African-Americans during the late 1960s.

But, during stop two or three, after fiddling with the long cord, I realized my headphones inexplicably stopped working. Leaving me momentarily panicked. How am I supposed to take a two-hour audio-guided tour, without the ability to be guided?!

Surprisingly, even along the crowded city streets on a weekday afternoon, it took only a few clicks of my phone’s volume button, and we were back in business. Most of the stops were aided by the app’s transcript option; I found it easier to read at my own pace and then catch up with the photo slide show after.

More than just a tour script put to slowly fading aged photos, the app puts multimedia, and general knowledge of the City of Frederick to the test.

“I had always thought that would be a really neat thing to be able to do,” Historical Society Executive Director Heidi Campbell-Shoaf said. “Some of it is accessible, of course, through signage. But who wants to have signs on everything?”

From smart idea to smartphone

Scott Grove was slightly ahead of his time when he started writing the walking tour app 10 years ago.

“The technology wasn’t there yet,” he said about the then-smartphone-less country. We were still flipping our phones open to take a call, not even dreaming of a touch-sensitive screen that could follow our every move with a Global Positioning System.

But that’s exactly what Grove, president of Grove Public Relations in Frederick, needed.

In 2006, when he met Enforme Interactive President Carrie Delente, the “there’s an app for that” bubble was expanding — perfect timing to build an application for the city.

The Frederick Walking Tour app is a hearty undertaking, but one worth the time and leg strength it takes to complete. More than a simple history lesson, the app spouts anecdotal tales, gathered from the depths of local history, with a little help from the Historical Society of Frederick County and the Tourism Council of Frederick County.

Campbell-Shoaf said the app provides an experience similar to her organization’s downtown walking tours, but offers the opportunity to include some sites that stray from the typical tour.

“There is nothing better than a personally guided tour,” Grove said during a chat about his new program.

The convenience is apparent to Campbell-Shoaf, who likes the option of picking up and putting down the tour at the user’s whim.

The niche app offers what Grove called “the best of both worlds.”

He and business partner Delente wanted to create a program that could marry the informative matter of a chatty tour guide to the freedom of learning at the user’s own pace.

“We wanted locals to understand,” Grove said, “and wanted visitors to question and learn.”

And this way, it’s easier to ditch those pesky relatives stopping at every building placard to take a blurry cellphone picture.

App avoids tourist-trap trappings

Two miles.

Forty-six stops.

Two hours.

Not exactly priceless.

The app, available for Android and Apple phones or tablets, costs $6.99. Operating on the user’s GPS coordinates, the application offers seven mini-tours, focused on various segments of local history, including the evolution of the American main street, the Civil War and Frederick’s rebirth.

While a brick-sized smartphone may not be enough to go around in a group of more than two or three, a larger tablet could be more practical for a sizeable family outing. Of course, one pair of headphones won’t help much, but depending on the device, a top volume could be loud enough for all to listen. Or a designated transcript-reader, with a booming voice and maybe a flair for the dramatic, to add a little excitement to the tour.

But, honey, that’s such a tourist-y thing to do!

Sorry, but that argument likely won’t help you sidestep an afternoon trekking through the city with an interested party.

Most local residents, while likely familiar with all downtown Frederick has to offer in terms of dining and nightly entertainment, probably don’t have much knowledge of the city’s biography.

“Between fires, floods and the military, there’s a lot of drama in this,” Grove said. “This is a town so rich with history.”

History well-represented by his app.

Grove and Delente debuted their creation during Saturday’s Bell and History Day festivities in downtown Frederick. It is available for download on the iTourFrederick .com website.

The Tourism Council and Historical Society each earn $1 of every app download.

Leave a Comment