The Town's Attic: The Importance of Our Small Town Historical Museums and Societies
Why the little things of our past can resonate so largely
My wife was recently watching a video shared on social media of a vibrant and bustling shopping mall in Somewhere, USA. It was the late-1980s or maybe the early-1990s, evident from the synthesized harmonies and the comforting familiarity of the camcorder's graininess, poor lighting, and awful sound quality. It was a vibe that tugged on the nostalgic heartstrings: the aesthetic, the arcade, the clothing, once popular stores long out of business, all rekindling an ache for this pre-internet era — not simpler times, necessarily, but certainly different times.
"Should we record us just walking through the Millcreek Mall?" she asked. "So the boys have it when they are older?"
I understood her point. The Millcreek Mall, which first opened in 1975, is very different today than it was when we were kids. Who knows what it will look like two or three decades from now? For the previous generation, the same can be said of their memories of State Street's Boston Store, which closed in 1979 largely due to competition with the flashy suburban mall.
What at one time seems mundane often becomes more meaningful with the passage of time. While sometimes yesterday's junk (or grainy video footage) remains just that, sometimes it becomes something more. The old cardboard Troyer Farm Potato Chip bin in my parents' basement comes to mind or my grandfather's vintage Avon colognes that I have stored away. Somehow these items dodged the garbage bins over the years and now they each tell part of a story, however small.
Many of these stories do get lost in the landfills though, lost to time, disappearing from our collective memories each time somebody dies and their untold stories go with them. Each time someone's 50-year-old love letters are thrown in the trash, or an old building is razed to make room for a parking lot, or old VHS tapes of family gatherings wear out, the stories within are lost forever.
These seemingly inconsequential stories — interpreted through photographs, video, documents, and artifacts that may have at one time appeared mundane — are where our small historical societies and museums thrive.
"State and national history [that is] studied [often] focuses on big, general topics," says Dale H. Docter, president of the nearby Cambridge Springs Museum and History Center. "A small town museum exposes residents to where they came from on a local level."
Docter adds that small town museums interpret the stories of the accomplishments and failures of those who established their town, the tales of its business and industries present and past, and provide us with a glimpse as to how people entertained themselves in bygone eras.
The Museums Association, the oldest museum association in the world, believes that exposure to such information can even change lives. "Museums can increase our sense of well-being, help us feel proud of where we have come from, can inspire, challenge and stimulate us, and make us feel healthier," the organization contends.
Dick Tefft is well-known for his research and writing on North East, Pennsylvania. He's also the treasurer for the North East Historical Society. He believes that their role since their founding in 1989 has been to preserve the history of the North East community so that residents will always have the knowledge of what came before them.
"It is a history that is more personal than the kind of history that you learn in school," Tefft explains. "It might be a history that maybe is not as important as the bigger histories that are taught, but nonetheless, it is important to many who live here. People can come to learn about something they may have heard about or maybe they even remember something about. They can find information about the lives of their families that lived here before them."
Preserving local military history (left) is one of the services that local, mostly volunteer-run historical societies do. Facilities in Corry, North East (top and bottom right), and Cambridge Springs, along with other small municipalities in Erie County, do important work with very few resources. (Contributed photos)
The preservation of documents and artifacts is also an essential role of these organizations. Ann Clark, president of the Corry Area Historical Society, notes that they house over 20,000 artifacts including a coal-fired Climax locomotive engine that was built in Corry by the Climax Manufacturing Company, along with their extensive archives.
What captures people's interest and imagination often varies. It might be the fashion of the time period or reading through someone's daily journal. Other times it is looking through old newspapers and seeing the day-to-day happenings and advertisements. Sometimes it is simply looking at past photographs of buildings and comparing them to today.
"There are a couple of things that are always a hit for local people who visit," Tefft says of the North East Historical Museum. "One are the signs of businesses, no longer in existence, that we have hanging on our walls. They will walk around and see an old favorite and talk about the 'good old days' when they shopped there."
The other is high school yearbooks. "People love to look up their parents or grandparents to see what their school days looked like and what they participated in," says Tefft.
When asked what he wished people knew about the Cambridge Springs museum, Docter is straightforward: "We want people to know we exist. We, as the town's attic, are one of the town's best kept secrets."
He remarks that many locals do know them from their two major history nights presented each year, but many more don't, even with their community outreach and widespread promotion.
"People need to know we have The Enterprise News microfilms from about 1900 until the paper quit publishing; that we have an extensive collection family genealogies and obituaries, binders of history on the hotels, cottages, the golf course, the schools and sports, Alliance College, the businesses on the various streets, and more," continues Docter. "The two floors of our museum allow visitors to get a glimpse of our past and the items we used in our daily lives. We want people to understand that knowing where we are from helps one know who we are today and where we are going."
Clark notes that while Corry's museum has regular hours (which can be found on their website), they also open for requests and appointments too. This is the case with many of the small local museums whose maintainers — most of whom are volunteers — are eager and excited to share local history.
So, what's the plan for 2024?
Clark says that the Corry Area Historical Society will spend this year working on stories and signage for their displays and increasing community involvement. They will also continue to maintain, preserve, and improve the museum building, grounds, and materials as well as the continuous tasks of adding information to databases, scanning the archives for digital access, and, of course, researching local history, genealogy, and whatever other requests come their way.
As for North East, Tefft says they have a few popular projects being worked on. "One is applying large photos with a little explanation of long lost buildings on current buildings around town," he says. "Another is applying bronze plaques on storefronts that trace the history of all the businesses that ever existed in that business location."
In Cambridge Springs, they have two new programs in the works. "The first in May or June will be about the major fires in town… and we have had some big ones," says Docter. While many likely remember the kitchen fire that tragically leveled the 132-year-old Riverside Inn in 2017, local history aficionados also likely know the story of the massive 500-room Hotel Rider (then part of Alliance College) and its 1931 demise.
"In addition, we are in the process of scrutinizing the collection to determine the items that best show our history and what needs to be removed," Docter adds. "We are in an ongoing process of securing archival materials to protect photographs and vintage clothing. With the clothing stored properly, new exhibits can be developed in those freed-up spaces."
Docter also says that they have been working to combine their four postcard binders (totaling nearly 1,800 postcards) into one and sell off their duplicates. Vice President Vikki Hendrickson adds that this is being accomplished by volunteers as well as through a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission for Historical and Archival Records. She also highlights that they have a historical display case located at Cambridge Springs Pharmacy which they change every two or three months.
If you speak with those who help keep our local museums operating, you cannot miss their passion. Of course, passion alone doesn't pay the bills or fund projects. In a 2012 article for the American Historical Association, Debbie Ann Doyle described how most of these small town organizations and museums are "tiny, underfunded, and understaffed."
"[M]any societies simply don't have the resources to update their exhibits or conservation practices," she wrote. "Declining attendance at history museums may be one consequence of this inability to update interpretation and programming."
This is not a new worry. As far back as 1925, scholar James O. Knauss was discussing the importance of "collection and preservation" for accessible archives and the importance of public support.
"[If people] cannot be roused to a sense of their value, they will inevitably disappear, and the reconstruction of our past in accurate detail will be almost impossible," stressed Knauss. "It is right here that the fundamental importance of historical societies lies. They can and must teach our citizens the imperative need of locating, collecting, and preserving such material."
Despite this, with what resources and volunteers that they do have, our local historical societies and museums are doing wonders. Swing by the Union City Museum and you'll witness the labor of love in their two floors of exhibits and displays. Talk with those at the Fort LeBoeuf Historical Museum and you'll leave knowing more about flint knapping or 18th-century gardening than you could have ever imagined. Take a ride out to Albion to see work that the Elk Creek Township Historical Society is doing on the Little Church on the Hill and prepare to be amazed.
Whether it's the Hagen History Center, the Baldwin Reynolds House Museum, or smaller communities such Edinboro, Fairview, Girard, Harborcreek, Lawrence Park, Saegertown, Titusville, Wattsburg, or even across the states lines into Ohio and New York, supporting our many local history museums is not only fun and fascinating, but also essential for their survival.
"In a long term goal, it's our desire to have more of an interactive experience for visitors and to create experiences to get more visitors through the door [of the Cambridge Springs Museum]," says Docter. "As we stand, we don't have enough visitors to offset the expense that would be incurred to make interactive a reality. Still, it is worth investigating our options."
Fortunately, those who do know and already engage with the local museums are often just as passionate. As Clark is eager to point, she is grateful for the "wonderful support of the community … and the great work by the numerous volunteers."
"We can answer just about any question anyone can ask about the yesterdays of North East," Tefft concludes — a sentiment that can likely be echoed throughout our historical societies and museums. So whether it's by simply visiting and sharing our experiences with others, donating or making a purchase in their gift shops, or volunteering our time to help in whatever way that we can, it's up to all of us to keep the attics of our towns open and accessible so that our stories may continue to be passed on.
Jonathan Burdick runs the public history project Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org