History Under Fire
As States Close Parks, Work Falls to Volunteers
By Darrin Youker | Online Only | Jan. 25, 2010
To the disbelief of many Americans, the state of Pennsylvania, along with several other states, has shut down many of its parks.
"It's hard to image that a state as rich in history as Pennsylvania would abandon [these parks]," says Linda Kaat, one of the volunteers who has taken over the task of operating Brandywine Battlefield State Historic Site, a Revolutionary War battlefield in Chadds Ford, Pa. "These are hallowed sites that need preservation."
Pennsylvania is not alone in closing parks and historic sites to balance its budget. California and Arizona have closed state parks, and Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and Tennessee slashed park funding in 2008. Idaho and Colorado are considering similar paths. Read more >>
"This past year we saw probably the most aggressive dismantling and threat to state preservation programs ever—and not just for parks and sites," says Adrian Fine, director of the Center for State and Local Policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Fine says "the hit list" includes not only state-owned sites and parks but heritage areas, state historic-tax credits, Main Street programs, and even State Historic Preservation Offices. "In 2010, we expect it will continue and get worse, chipping away at what's left."
The situation is perhaps most dire in Pennsylvania, where the state's far-reaching budget cuts have forced the closure of almost all of its historic sites. When Pennsylvania's budget was adopted in October, lawmakers slashed $7 million from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a decrease of 37 percent. All told, 200 employees were furloughed. The Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission operates 23 historic sites across the state, and it was the agency hardest hit. This year, the future of a number of historic sites in Pennsylvania—and in other states—will depend on volunteers.
"All our sites are either working on reduced hours or closed," says Kirk Wilson, a department spokesman. "We will have to rely on 'friends groups' to help keep them open."
One "friends group" is doing just that. Brandywine Battlefield State Historic Site closed on Aug. 14, 2009. Miraculously, volunteers like Linda Kaat managed to raise money to hire part-time staff and reopen the site just 10 days later. The Friends of the Brandywine Battlefield have essentially replaced 11 staff members lost after the commission's cuts. The state still maintains the grounds, but keeping the historic buildings open to visitors is now the responsibility of volunteers.
The situation is far from ideal, Kaat says. Every year, her group will have to raise money to support operations.
"We valued the state's presence," she says. "They brought talented people, experienced staff, and we liked being able to work side-by-side with them. Now we stand alone."
While Kaat feels fortunate that Brandywine has stayed open, other sites were not as lucky. Nearby Washington's Crossing, where Gen. George Washington led troops across the Delaware to sack Trenton in 1776, is closed. There was not an active friends group there to keep the site staffed, Kaat says. Other sites, like Old Economy Village, a historic Christian commune near Pittsburgh that the state has owned since 1916, only learned in late November that they were closing. Volunteers there are trying to put together a plan to keep the site open, says Linda Thomas, who is employed part-time by the Friends of Old Economy Village.
Friends of Old Economy Village held two fundraising events last month, but the future of the National Historic Landmark is still up in the air, she says. All of the state staff, except for a maintenance person, was let go abruptly in November.
"We did not know this was going to happen until the state walked in and handed papers to the staff," Thomas says. "Without volunteers, the site would be closed."
So far, Thomas' group has committed to finding every way possible to keep the site open, even on a limited basis, she says. Fundraising will be crucial. But going into the busy spring season, when school groups come for tours, Thomas isn't certain that volunteers will be able to meet every request.
"The nine people the state let go had hundreds of years of knowledge," Thomas says. "Some of my greatest resources the state sent out the door."
Another friends group is struggling to reopen a famous scientist's house. Next month, the friends of the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland, Pa., hope to have an agreement set with the state that will allow them to open the site on weekends. Priestley's early 18th-century home and laboratory in central Pennsylvania celebrate the life of the man who identified oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Fortunately for the Priestley House, members of the National Chemical Society have chipped in to keep the home open, says Thomas Bresenhan, co-president of the friends group.
Priestley's home and adjacent laboratory, built after he emigrated from England, offer an excellent picture of how early chemists conducted experiments. Preserving it was an absolute necessity, Bresenhan says.
"We have a nice cadre of volunteers," he says. "There was major apprehension that the building would close or be sold."
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission plans to appeal to residents this spring, according to Wilson. The agency is considering a campaign to "reach out to the general public to visit the sites that have limited hours, to volunteer, or to donate money," he says. It's an unprecedented move, he admits. "Being a state employee and asking people to donate money to the state is a little weird."
In the meantime, the job of telling the history of these sites, and explaining their significance, will fall to people willing to dedicate their time and energy. But the future for some of Pennsylvania's historic sites looks grim, says Kaat at Brandywine Battlefield.
"Once they are closed," Kaat says, "it is difficult to get sites reopened."
Darrin Youker is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.
Darrin Youker is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.
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