County museums face challenges maintaining the past
By Kate Hayden, firstname.lastname@example.org
For volunteer Chris Bottorff, it started at a Tupperware party three years ago.
“A friend of mine was throwing a Tupperware party and some of her friends came over and they were talking about the museum, the village,” Bottorff recalled. “I’m a stay-at-home mom, I was just looking for something to do, and I said, ‘are you looking for volunteers?’ All three of them looked at me like, ‘yes!’”
Bottorff is one of the volunteers who manage day-to-day operations at Chickasaw County’s Old Bradford Pioneer Village. She’s also one of many volunteers statewide who keep independent county museums operating for the public.
“Our local historical societies and museums are preserving the identity of their communities,” Executive Director Cynthia Sweet, of the Iowa Museum Association, said. “When a community loses the Main Street or the school to consolidation, many times historical societies are the last ones left preserving the identity of their community.”
“They are facing lots of challenges,” Sweet said.
The original town of Bradford sits one mile east of Nashua. Most of the original buildings are gone; the Old Bradford Pioneer Village today is built up with preserved buildings from Chickasaw and surrounding counties, including a depot, a family’s homestead and a schoolhouse.
“Bradford was a town of about 1,500 people at one point. It had an organ factory and four churches, hotels, it was a really big, booming town. It was the county seat for a while,” Bottorff said, staffing the gift shop one day with daughter Sydney, 16.
These days, the village is preparing for it’s annual “Christmas in July” festival. Volunteers will decorate the mid-1800s village with period-accurate holiday touches, and will serve pie and ice cream to visitors on July 22-23. In August, the village co-hosts the Little Brown Church’s annual wedding reunion next door.
Most county museums rely on a volunteer workforce to keep operations running, Sweet said.
“Many were founded in the late 1960s, early 1970s in response to the excitement of the bicentennial. That generation is retiring out of the workforce and being lost to death. We have a generational shift going on,” Sweet said. “In really small communities, it’s difficult to attract younger people to come back and take over.”
This summer, Old Bradford has four volunteers who run the gift shop seven days a week. The village is also putting up a new center behind the gift shop, and is assembling a historic log cabin on the property. The property receive help from students at the Cedar Lake Alternative High School program, who volunteer on maintenance needs periodically.
“[People] think, ‘It’ll always be here and someone else will take care of it’ — well, unfortunately that’s not going to happen,” Bottorff said.
In Floyd County, the National 19th Amendment Society operates the Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home just outside of Charles City. Society members manage the original home and voting rights exhibits, an interpretive center exploring life in the late 1800s, a prairie and an apple orchard on the property.
“It’s volunteer-driven, donation-funded. That’s what makes it hard,” member Cheryl Erb said. “We’ve been lucky that we have the donations, and we have an amazing site.”
Just like the Chapman Catt home and the Old Bradford Pioneer Village, many local historical sites and museums don’t ask for an admission cost, although donations are appreciated — the goal is to offer an experience free for public education, Sweet said.
“I’ve sat in on a number of conversations with boards asking, ‘do we charge?’ They really struggle because they don’t want the cost of admission to be a barrier,” Sweet said. “They have to decide what the best thing to do is. Even if they did [charge], it’s likely not enough to make a difference.”
Grants for projects maintaining or saving community artifacts are shrinking at the state and federal level, she added.
“Communities have to step up and decide what is important. Decisions need to be made from city councils down — is this organization important and how are we going to support it,” Sweet said. “We know that just admission fees are not going to support an organization. It takes grants, sponsors and community tax dollars.”
Before those dollars are spent, county museums have to make their message resonate with those around them.
“What I’ve come to learn is it’s making the information in your museum relevant,” Erb said. “Carrie’s home is to understand what it took to get the right to vote for women.”
The National 19th Amendment Society and Chapman Catt’s home has received renewed interest leading up to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s passage, and the organization is making use of that attention.
“We’ve had more inquiries in getting connected up with a national listserv that’s all about helping promote the 100th anniversary” in 2020, Erb said.
The organization is reconnecting with the national League of Women Voters — an organization Chapman Catt founded after the amendment’s passage — and local members are re -establishing connections with the state historical society and other Des Moines contacts who can help spread the message. Volunteers and the Chapman Catt home’s summer interns have also refreshed the website and are expanding the social media presence as a way to reach more visitors and supporters.
“The site continues to evolve and change and grow with the times,” Erb said. “We have gone into the world of Twitter, we have gone into the world of Instagram and Facebook, trying to get that promoted out there.”
All history is local history, as Sweet said.
“History matters. If we forget who we are, where we came from or how we developed, we lose a part of ourselves,” Sweet said. “Who you are as a community, county, state — there’s layers and layers of that identity. If we lose that core identity, that’s the basis of everything.”
Supporting that core identity is why the Iowa Museums Association supports Iowa Museums Week each year, Sweet said. This year’s proclamation, signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, designated June 11-18 as the week to recognize local museums and encourage visitors to these sites.
“Every museum needs to decide on how best to use it,” Sweet said. “Don’t neglect an opportunity to share what you do. We get so involved in that organization we love, and we think everybody knows … They need to use this to toot their own horn.”
Sydney Bottorff, 16, and her brother Sawyer, 7, have gotten to know their local history during the time they’ve accompanied Chris Bottorff at the Old Bradford Pioneer Village. Sydney occasionally sees other students on class trips or with families that stop by the property during road trips.
“It’s good to see kids curious,” Sydney said. “‘What is that’, or ‘how did that work?’ In school we have history books, but they don’t show everyday objects or how that works.”
“Museums provide alternate education that works in harmony with public schools,” Sweet said. “They bring in authentic artifacts, and we know that when people are confronted with an authentic artifact, deeper learning takes place, because they can make an emotional connection with that artifact.”
“People did something, they built this courthouse, held chicken dinners for the war effort … It’s all about people and local identity.”
MORE MUSEUMS TO SEE
Rockford Historical Society — 80 1st Ave. NW, Rockford. Facebook: @RockfordIAHistoricalSociety
Marble Rock Historical Society — 313 Bradford Street, Marble Rock. Facebook: @MarbleRockIowa
Rudd Historical Society — 305 6th Street, Rudd. Facebook: @RuddHistoricalSociety
Nora Springs Historical Society — 20 W Congress Street, Nora Springs.
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home — 2379 Timber Avenue, Charles City. www.catt.org
Charles City Arts Center — 301 N Jackson Street, Charles City. Facebook: Charles City Arts Center
Fossil & Prairie Center — 1227 215th Street, Rockford. www.fossilcenter.com
Floyd County Historical Museum — 500 Gilbert Street, Charles City. www.floydcountymuseum.org
Mooney Collection — The Charles City Public Library, 106 Milwaukee Mall, Charles City. www.charles-city.lib.ia.us/artgal
Borlaug Learning Center — 3327 290th Street, Nashua. www.farms.ag.iastate.edu/borlaug-learning-center
Carnegie Cultural Center — 7 N Water Avenue, New Hampton. www.carnegieculturalcenter.org
Old Bradford Pioneer Village — Highway 346, one mile east of Nashua. www.chickasawtourism.com/bradford.html
Plum Creek Art Center — 115 W Main Street, Fredericksburg. www.plumcreekart.org
Twin Ponds Nature Center — 1811 240th Street, Ionia. www.mycountyparks.com/county/chickasaw
OUT OF BOUNDS
The Music Man Square — Mason City. Information on Meredith Willson attractions available at www.themusicmansquare.org
The Stockman House by Frank Lloyd Wright — Mason City. Information at www.stockmanhouse.org
The Grout Museum District — Waterloo. Information on the veterans museum, history and science museum, children’s Imaginarium and more at www.groutmuseumdistrict.org
Waterloo Center for the Arts — Waterloo. Information at www.waterloocenterforthearts.org
Find more Iowa museums — www.iowamuseums.org