Historical Society's focus turns to preserving itself

Funding scarce, its Main Street building is in dire need of repair

December 28, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

For more than 120 years, the Historical Society of Harford County has served as a repository for documents, books, artifacts and photographs.

For much of that time, the society's collection was split up and housed at various locations. The headquarters was a building on Courtland Street in Bel Air, the archives were stored at Southampton Middle School, and the court records were kept at the old Aberdeen High building.

In 1994, the society - recognized as the oldest county historical society in the state - found a home when the county turned over the old post office building on Main Street.

"They built a new post office, and the county had no use for the building," said Maryanna Skowronski, the director and only paid employee of the Historical Society. "The society plays an important role in helping to preserve local history, so the county turned the building over to us."

However, since it was built in the first half of the 20th century, the post office building sorely needs more than $250,000 in repairs, upgrades and renovations. With an annual budget of about $120,000, the society does not have the means to cover the cost of these repairs without assistance from private donors, and competition is steep, said Joe A. Swisher, society president.

"The nonprofits in the county go to a lot of the same people," Swisher said. "People are very nice to us, but demands for donations are rising, and there is only so much money."

Work began in the fall to repair the flat tin roof ($40,000) and install a new heating and air-conditioning system ($50,000). But there is more to be done. The cupola needs to be repaired ($10,000), the heating system in the basement needs to be removed, and the space needs to be renovated ($50,000). The outdoor iron railing needs to be replaced ($10,000), the four restrooms need to be upgraded and renovated ($25,000), the canopy on the loading dock needs to be painted ($10,000), and all the windows need to be replaced ($25,000).

"The heat system was so antiquated it was eating up our budget," Swisher said. "And the roof was leaking. We had to make those repairs first."

But with the urgent repairs under way, the society is looking to start the second phase of work in the summer, including some of the exterior repairs, he said.

At some point, the society plans to add more computers ($25,000) for business and community use, and a projector and screen ($10,000) for presentations.

The society's board members are trying to find ways to generate funding by publicizing the society's purpose, Swisher said.

"Our primary purpose is to preserve our beautiful history of Harford County," Swisher said. "We have people who come to us and they dig very deep into history. Then there are people like me, who like to know a little bit about everything. The society can satisfy both."

The society's collection includes family genealogy records, court records that date back to the 1700s, historical photos, print materials on the county and state, maps, microfilm, newspapers and African-American history files.

The Historical Society primarily provides original items that will help people look into the lives of the early Harford County residents, Skowronski added.

"The Historical Society's collection gives people an opportunity, not just to see the beautiful, decorated house, but also what people did inside that house," she said. "It doesn't matter if we go back 50 years or 100 years ... people are still people. Even though we send e-mail rather than writing letters with a quill pen, people are the same."

The Historical Society is not a high-profile organization, but instead a research facility and a tourism entity, she said. People visit the facility to find out more about things with a national significance.

"The Booths are a prime example," Skowronski said. "The interest in the Booths goes beyond John Wilkes, and [Abraham] Lincoln."

Highlights of the society's collection are court documents referring to John Wilkes Booth and papers belonging to the Hays family, including a document handed down by the legislature that gave Hays the task of laying out the town of Bel Air, she said.

"We are constantly given papers and documents, and they turn out to be capsules of what life was like," she said.

In addition to $35 membership dues paid by the society's 799 members, several fundraisers are held throughout the year, she said. Fundraisers include activities such as a holiday tea and a wreath and greens sale. Other funding is received from the state, county and municipalities.

But the strain on the private pocketbook is getting tighter, Skowronski said.

"People are very willing to give to medical charities because it affects them personally," she said. "When you get a chance to give to Jerry Lewis or the ballet, Jerry will win."

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