History Under Fire

As States Close Parks, Work Falls to Volunteers

Re-enactors at Brandywine Battlefield State Historic Site's annual Patriot's Day celebration

Credit: Rex L. Hughes, Friends of Brandywine Battlefield

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."

11 most markPennsylvania 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."

Old Economy Village in Ambridge, Pa., is a National Historic Landmark and state historic site. It has remained open thanks to a group called Friends of Old Economy Village.

Credit: Friends of Old Economy Village

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."

Read more about the Perfect Storm under way now 

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Submitted by CrankyYankee at: February 26, 2010
While I too dislike the fact that many parks are being closed, the fact of the matter is that states simply don't have the budgets to do everything that they traditionally have and hard choices have to be made. The annoying part of the whole discussion is that the people who are decrying the closing of the historic sites are the same people screaming the loudest that states need to curtail spending. Sorry, my friends, you can't have it both ways.

Submitted by Ankee at: February 9, 2010
Is this part of the plan of the Far left secular progressive movement to Change American History? Eradicate and change. Stop taxing the rich they are the ones who provide jobs and support the presence of our History.

Submitted by dave at: January 28, 2010
It is interesting that the Historic and Museum Commission suffered a 40% cut while no other agency or commission was any where near that deep of cut. However if you look at the Sustainability Report the commission put out earlier you could see it coming. In the report with comments added, not by the committee that did the report you could see the desire to get the state of PA out of history by wanting to turn sites over to local, county even national hands. It is tragic and one wonders if the people/person in charge of that commission actually belong there.

Submitted by Larry Slater at: January 27, 2010
Thanks to Preservation Magazine and to writer Darrin Youker for turning a spotlight on the single largest catastrophe in memory to hit historic sites in Pennsylvania and other states. Thanks to mindless pols taking from one department's budget to finance a pet project in a totally unrelated area and failing to provide for the proverbial rainy day, Pennsylvania is at grave risk of losing a huge portion of its (and the nation's) historical heritage. As a former board member of Friends of Old Economy Village, I was especially thankful to see the graphs and images devoted to problems at this particular historic site. Friends of OEV is indeed hard at work raising funds and volunteers to keep the site open and has already presented to the Legislature and Governor's Office a petition signed by well over 3,500 people. Unfortunately, Linda Thomas does NOT speak for Old Economy Village or the Friends group. There are in fact three PA employees still on staff at OEV - the curator, one person in maintenance and another charged with groundskeeping. And quite where Ms. Thomas gets the impression that "some of MY greatest resources" were laid off by the Commonwealth, I don't know. If anything, she reported to the Commonwealth employees, not the reverse. So far as I know, she did not seek Board permission before she spoke to the media, did not suggest that your reporter speak instead with the Board president, and did not even let the Board or other Friends of OEV members know that this very beneficial article was in the works. All that said, however, the article was an excellent wake up call to preservationists and lovers of history to carefully watch actions in their own states regarding historic site closures. Well done, well said and extremely important.

Submitted by Richard Ford at: January 27, 2010
Very sad. It's especially sad that good things have to suffer as a result of years of irresponsible spending on other things by a wastrel government.

Submitted by Califronia_Jim at: January 26, 2010
Can states who no longer wish to operate these historical sites donate them to the National Park Service?

Submitted by Andy at: January 26, 2010
Time for volunteer groups to mobilize and get more active. For too long, they have had difficulty keeping a good organizational relationship with each park. It's about free choice and not govt. dependency. Like giving time and money to projects you believe in...even ex president's libraries, right, Jon?

Submitted by George at: January 26, 2010
Hey, Jon...so a person can't give to W's library and to the National Trust?

Submitted by Jon at: January 26, 2010
and to think people are giving money to things like dubya's library...

Submitted by Bill Hosley at: January 26, 2010
Typical gutless bureaucrats and pols. Frankly, every state has parks they never should have accepted, that are a drain and that they could sell back into private use and few if any would be at a loss. Instead, they cut across the board - damaging national treasures that matter. Time to make harder smarter choices, seems to me