The Peekskill Museum, housed in the circa 1877 Herrick House, was once the home of Dwight Stiles Herrick. He taught classes at the Peekskill Military Academy, and his office was located on the second floor of the Griffin and Lent Drug Store, at 936 South Street. | Photo courtesy of Peekskill Museum
With their very survival on the line, historical societies in Westchester County are fighting to remain relevant amid digital innovations.
In early 2020, the Larchmont Historical Society posted an S.O.S. on its website, imploring the community to save the organization by joining or renewing a membership. A few years ago, the Scarsdale Historical Society divested itself of its headquarters, the 18th-century Cudner-Hyatt farmhouse, to concentrate on digitizing its collection for wider dissemination. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, some historical societies pivoted to online presentations to maintain their connections with members and the larger community. For many of Westchester’s historical societies, the issue is how to maintain their organizations despite fewer members, fewer resources, fewer volunteers, and the effects of the pandemic.
Of the 35 historical societies in the county, Westchester County Historical Society, established in 1874, is one of the oldest in the country. Yonkers Historical Society was founded in 1952 but existed in some form as early as 1877. The Peekskill Museum is 75 years old. The North Castle Historical Society and the Hastings Historical Society celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year.
“Historical societies are important because we are the caretakers of the collective memories of a community,” explains Natalie Barry, president of the Hastings Historical Society. “Each community has its own history and a unique personality, which are reflected by the organization that serves it,” adds Barbara Davis, codirector of the Westchester County Historical Society.
Yet, many historical societies wrestle with maintaining and increasing membership and generating interest within the community. Only a small number of a community’s residents are members of their local historical society. According to Peter Marcus, president of the Ardsley Historical Society, the organization’s “current membership is exactly 201 people and businesses,” in a village of about 4,500 residents.
Memberships primarily support the efforts of historical societies to maintain and digitize collections; disseminate information via blogs, newsletters, publications, and websites; and organize exhibits, events, and tours.
The Larchmont Historical Society’s “S.O.S. campaign was effective in providing a temporary surge in memberships and donations that helped us sustain the pandemic,” says its president, Chris Moon. Irvington Historical Society board of trustees’ member Chet Kerr notes that “working to expand the number of supporting members is a key concern.”
It’s also a concern and challenge to generate and maintain interest in a community’s historical society, especially among young people and newer residents. “We know that people have an interest in history and the events we sponsor but have busy lives and limited time to participate,” admits Mamaroneck Historical Society co-president Gail Boyle. Thus, historical societies are digitizing their archives to make them more accessible for viewing and research.
The Scarsdale Historical Society’s transition to a virtual organization “in the Digital Age is allowing for a resurgence of community engagement,” according to trustee Leslie Chang. “Scarsdale’s rich history is now a click away and [is] easily accessible to all.” Kerr concurs, saying, “Attendance at our programs has soared because we have moved things online,” which was prompted by the pandemic.
Many historical societies are active on social media — including Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, and Twitter — and work on keeping their websites engaging and up-to-date. The Westchester County Historical Society is including local societies in Clio (www.theclio.com), an app and website featuring thousands of historical sites throughout the country. The grant-funded project includes nearly all 242 Westchester County sites on the National Register of Historic Places.
A key to sustaining interest in historical societies is to stay current on social issues as they relate to local history. The Mamaroneck Historical Society’s recent research on diversity in the community was well-received and “indicates that ongoing presentation of historically relevant material creates increased involvement in the society,” says Boyle. As COVID-19 emerged, several societies asked residents to upload and share their pandemic stories on their websites.
Another key is through education, explains co-historian Sharon Tomback of the North Castle Historical Society. “The role of the society is education. North Castle’s rich history is told through the use of the ancient buildings and their collections and furnishings” at the Smith’s Tavern Educational Complex, which includes four historic structures maintained primarily through donations. “The society sustains interest among young people through Colonial Crafts Days and the Halloween Haunt,” adds NCHS president Ed Woodyard.
Bedford Historical Society executive director Evelyne H. Ryan notes that stories are a draw. “Children love stories, and we have many stories to tell.” Several societies schedule school visits and presentations and are assisted at their headquarters by student interns.
Sustaining interest is also tied to financial stability and attaining the resources needed to support these nonprofit organizations’ work and their headquarters, some located in historic buildings. In addition to memberships, businesses, sponsors, and donors provide other sources of revenue, but the competition for charitable dollars is fierce.
George Oros, president of the Peekskill Museum, located in the circa 1877 Herrick House, says, “The key issue is continuity. Some donations vary depending upon the economy. Entergy was always very supportive of our programs, and with the closure of Indian Point, their contributions will leave a gap.”
Resources are key to the upkeep of many societies’ historic buildings. So is planning, according to Ryan of the Bedford Historical Society, which purchased its first property in 1916 and now maintains nine historic structures. The society was able to raise $2 million for preservation and education because “the residents of Bedford value the historic character of the town.”
Some historic properties are village-owned — such as the 1860 Draper Observatory Cottage, in Hastings-on-Hudson, and the 1853 McVickar House, in Irvington — and are leased to the historical societies that pay their operating costs through membership fees, donations, and fundraising campaigns.
A few organizations derive a modest revenue from their physical and online gift shops, which sell merchandise related to the community’s history. Oros says that one of their popular items is a baseball jersey with the lettering “Peekskill,” as worn by Madonna in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. The Hastings Historical Society webmaster has noticed an uptick in online merchandise sales following a new blog post, attesting to the power generated by a good story.
The gears that drive the historical society engine are volunteers. Many organizations, however, struggle with “the decline in consistent volunteers so vital to keeping the societies afloat and financially solvent,” says Davis. Volunteers also need to be tech-savvy and have time to create media content and mount exhibits. Volunteers also work to partner their historical societies with libraries, schools, and other organizations to create varied programs.
The future of historical societies depends on the unheralded assistance of volunteers who make the organizations work. The stability of historical societies rests on them, the community, and sponsors, or they risk becoming history.