Staying afloat

Historical organizations find ways to deal with pandemic

January 13, 2021 Cranberry Local News

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Jennifer Ford, executive director of the Butler County Historical Society, leads a tour of the Senator Walter Lowrie House in Butler last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't just hurt historical societies' bottom lines. It has, in a sense, marred their spirit.

“Our mission, our purpose in life, has been compromised, and that is public service, educational outreach, educational programming,” Butler County Historical Society executive director Jennifer Ford said. “All of those things are on hold.”

The financial pain certainly stings, Ford said. But the loss of the societies' — and their docents' — raison d'Ítre is more important than the financial loss, she added.

Even when the societies were able to host events, before the most recent government mandate that closed down museums, they limited the number of people who could be in attendance. Ford said the county society's cemetery tour is a prime example: Typically, they'd expect 18 people in a tour group. This year, they limited it to six people, one-third of the usual attendance.

Sara Donaldson points to members of the Sullivan family whom lived in the Lowrie House for multiple generations and left much of their belongings behind.

While one may think those interested in history enough to work or volunteer at a local historical society are happy enough to spend their days with musty documents and daguerreotypes, maintaining these collections is the means to an end.

“The historical society exists to preserve historical objects, documents and photographs from the past, and we're certainly able to do that when we're shut down,” Ford said. “We're working hard on those things. But we can't share them with the public, so we're looking forward to the time we can open up again and fulfill our purpose.”

Rodney Gasch, Harmony Museum president, echoed Ford's comments, saying there was a period of asking himself, “Why are you here?” when the museum was largely closed.

“That has been a challenge, because you feel like you're just spending your time applying for grants and asking for donations,” he said.

But it's not all negative. Business slowdowns caused by the pandemic presented a unique challenge. In turn, the Harmony Museum came up with a unique idea, teaming with the Zelienople Historical Society to conduct a joint scavenger hunt.

“On a somewhat bright side, it has caused us to think a little bit outside the box,” Gasch said. “We did a scavenger hunt that we probably wouldn't have done, except COVID-19 made us think, 'OK, what can we do?'

“It was a great chance for us to work with another historical society, which we were trying to do but couldn't come up with an idea, but then we were forced to put on our thinking caps.”

Rodney Gasch, Harmony Museum president, says historical societies have been forced to think outside the box because of theCOVID-19 pandemic.

Virus, not mandates

State mandates surely haven't done the societies any favors. But it's largely been the virus, not the mandates, that have frozen the museums' finances and operations.

Both the county history society and the Harmony Museum shut down some operations before they were told it was required under the governor's most recent order.

“We stopped doing tours prior to the governor's most recent announcement on closing museums, partly for the safety of our docents who tend to be over 60, because our tours last over an hour and most of that is indoors,” Gasch said. “We just didn't think it was the right thing to ask our volunteers to spend an hour indoors with five or six strangers doing a tour.”

Ford said the most recent dictate affirmed her decision to close the society's buildings.

“I erred on the side of caution and, both in March and again last month, closed us down before the state mandated us to do so,” she said. “My staff's safety and visitor safety has to come first. The only thing the state mandate did was back our decision.”

Harmony opted not to host even its most popular outdoor events, such as the annual German-style Christmas market, which have generally had fewer and looser restrictions throughout the pandemic, because of the threat of viral spread.

“We have about 100 volunteers who help us, and most of them are over 60,” Gasch said. “We didn't feel we could recruit volunteers and put them in a position where they would be out during a potential COVID-19-spreading event.

“So while the governor's rules have been very challenging for us, we're not upset about the rules because we have a lot of members and volunteers that are in the age group that are especially susceptible to COVID-19.”

Historic Harmony president Rodney Gasch explains features of an old mill stone from the old Harmony area mill.

Pinching the purse

Like most other businesses, the societies have seen a dip in revenue because of the pandemic.

Gasch called the impact of the virus “devastating” on Harmony Museum, which earlier in the year had to get creative with raising funds for both itself and local businesses by holding raffles for gift cards to local shops.

“We depend on events and venue rental, which are all indoor venues, for our income,” he said. “It's been very painful for us, and we have a special challenge with our museum because we give guided tours.” Those tours require a volunteer and are not self-guided.

Both Harmony and Butler County societies received a state grant aimed at keeping their operations running, and Harmony Museum made use of other government funding opportunities to keep it up and running.

“What's helped us this year is government funding from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act and the Payroll Protection Program, both of which we jumped on when we heard they were announced,” Gasch said. “We aggressively went after them, we filled out the forms and followed up on the paperwork, and that's been crucial for us.”

Beyond these funding programs — which Ford agreed has helped them stay afloat financially — it seems members have remained loyal to the museums, continuing with donations and seeing if they could help in any way. Gasch said one donor purchased the gift cards Harmony raffled away earlier in the year as a fundraising drive. Ford said there hasn't been any significant drop-off in member contributions this year.

“I think, in the main, people are continuing to support us because they want to support Butler history and the work that we do,” she added.

Still, societies have become more crafty in their efforts to raise funds, even if out of necessity.

In Butler, Ford said, the county society has started only to accept cash and check contributions for online raffles after the treasurer's office informed nonprofits that credit card payments were not permitted for such fundraisers. And in Harmony, Gasch said some events have been conducted virtually, like the Silvester 5K jogging course. The museum will sell carryout pork and sauerkraut dinners as a fundraiser.

“This is a traditional German dinner that brings you good luck for the next year,” Gasch said. “We had a dinner for last New Year's Eve, so I'm not sure what that says about the tradition, but I'm sure it'll work this year.”

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Alex J. Weidenhof

Alex J. Weidenhof