Archive for Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Historical society in search of resources

April 9, 2008

George Cooper stands inside the newly remodeled barn at the Tonganoxie Community Historic Site during its annual open house.

Cooper, former historical society chairman and now vice president, tells a story that is indicative of some of the problems facing the community-based organization.

Nearing 90 years old, Cooper spoke about all of the energy he used to have while working on his ranch back when he was 60 years young.

"My wife used to say that she barely saw me," Cooper said. "But now I can't do half the things I used to do."

They come from a pre-google generation where learning about history was done in the tangible world of museums and libraries and not computer screens and browser windows. And they want to share this world with the people of Tonganoxie - especially the children - and show both the good and the bad of what makes Tonganoxie, Tonganoxie.

But a low number of active members and volunteers make this difficult because the museum can only be staffed for six hours each week.

"The growth and span of work has put an increasing workload on our volunteers, in particular those who have key responsibilities," wrote Cooper in a letter to the Mirror. "It has been difficult to find volunteers to accept responsibilities that take a frequent and continual workload."

He said he estimated that the volunteers probably spent about 1,200 man-hours working at fundraisers and about 2,200 man-hours working at the historic site, not to mention the number of hours worked outside of the site by the members, which he estimates at about 1,000.

"As in most volunteer organizations, most of the burden of organization, research, coordination falls on just a few and we would like to see some relief in the near future."

But it's also not just the number of volunteers but their ages. Like Cooper, many of the active members and volunteers for the Historical Society are past their retirement years.

Allan DiSanto, current chairman, believes without an influx of younger members, the society could be doomed.

"We are going to die out if we do not get some young blood," DiSanto said comparing the historical society to the protestant Shakers community.

But it's not just the lack of new volunteers that are putting a hurt on the society. As the society expands its programs and as the historic site expands, funding has become a key issue.

The volunteer organization gets its annual funding from modest membership dues, - $10 for a single membership and $15 for a family membership - a chili and soup dinner once a year, fees charged for renting out historic site buildings, operating a concession stand at the Leavenworth County Fairgrounds ball fields and monthly labeling for a newsletter.

They also receive donations, but Cooper said it was usually small sums that could not be considered as part of their primary source of income.

His hopes are that the city will be able to start contributing yearly funds to the society so it can hire a full-time curator. The paid employee would be able to keep the museum open for at least five days a week.

During the March 26 Tonganoxie City Council meeting, Bill Peak, the society's vice president of financial planning, came before the council asking for any type of funding with the ultimate goal being an annual contribution from the city's budget.

The council was hesitant to give any specific amount of money or provide any services to the society in fear that it would "open the flood gate" of organizations coming in asking for funding.

Peak told the council that the society was a community organization that was solely based on preserving Tonganoxie's history and educating people about that history.

On Monday, City Attorney Mike Kelly gave the council a list of city's around the state that provide annual support to their local museums and the amount given.

Council Member Jim Truesdell said he would be interested in looking into including the site in the 2009 budget.

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