Volunteers fight to preserve Pennslyvania. historic sites -

By Kari Andren
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (AP)

When the state slashed funding and cut positions at Bushy Run Battlefield three years ago, Kelly Ruoff and a cadre of volunteers vowed they would not let history die.

Ruoff and the others are winning their war to preserve the 213-acre battlefield in Penn Township where British and Native American forces clashed in 1763 during a pivotal battle for control of the Ohio River Valley.

It’s a story playing out at historic sites across the state where volunteers have been forced to step up to preserve the past or see those sites close to the public.

“We were really hurt. It was like, how did we get picked out?” Ruoff said about the state’s steep cuts that nearly led to closure in 2009. “I grew up there and knew how significant the history was to Western Pennsylvania. Some of the kids today don’t know it. ... If this goes away, they’ll never know it.”

That’s why the site’s volunteer group, the Bushy Run Battle Field Heritage Society, stepped up to run the site in 2010 and why they’ve started a fundraising campaign to raise $1 million for an endowment to keep the site open.

Stephen Miller, who oversees historic sites for the Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission, said the days of looking to public funding as the sole support for historic sites are gone.

“The idea of looking to Harrisburg to solve all these problems, it never was necessarily a solution, but it’s definitely not a solution now,” Miller said.

At one time, the commission was involved in 60 historic sites and museums across the state versus 40 today. The state maintains the buildings, grounds and artifacts, but serves as active administrator at only 14 of those properties, Miller said.

State funding for historic sites was cut 40 percent in the last five years, from about $23.2 million to just shy of $13.8 million this year. Funding for Miller’s commission has dropped from $50.4 million to $22.7 million, a 55 percent cut.

The agency’s biggest cuts came under former Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, when funding was slashed 45 percent in 2009. Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed a 3.7 percent cut to the agency for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“Local residents have come to understand that historic preservation requires a true partnership approach,” said Gary Miller, a spokesman for Corbett. “Governor Corbett appreciates the importance of these sites, as well as the increased involvement of community and volunteer organizations.”

As the state pulled back, community groups and volunteers became site administrators, educators, tour guides and gift shop staffers.

Today, Bushy Run, Pittsburgh’s Fort Pitt Museum and Erie’s Maritime Museum and Flagship Niagara have found ways to sustain their operations despite hefty funding cuts.

Miller said “there is no other partnership that works anywhere near as well as” the Heinz History Center assuming control of the Fort Pitt Museum, which tells the story of the region’s role in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the evolution of Pittsburgh.

The history center had the full range of industry skills needed to maintain a site – curators, archivists, interpreters, information technology professionals and security personnel – so it was natural for the center to take over Fort Pitt, Miller said.

Andy Masich, president and chief executive officer of the history center and chairman of Pennsylvania History and Museum Commission, said the center gets about $200,000 annually from the state toward the operating costs for Fort Pitt, about one-third of the funds needed, so it still must raise $400,000 a year. Still, visitors to Fort Pitt are up 50 percent since the history center assumed operations, he said.

“We’re not miracle workers (who) can just make things happen without costs,” Masich said. “We are able to raise money in our local community more effectively than the state could coming into our community.”

Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, said there’s no question that fundraising capacity and a steady stream of volunteers will be the keys to making local control work.

“Local control can produce fundraising, local events that make money ... and can produce a lot of volunteer commitment,” Ziegler said. “The one primary ingredient must be that if you get a good group of volunteers, a good volunteer board, it must continually be bringing in new people because some people stay committed for years. ... (But) some lose interest, and you must keep your board and volunteers actively recruiting for more.”

As the number of historic sites turned over to the community increases, there will be some that won’t make it, said Terry Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Nashville-based American Association for State and Local History.

“There’s not enough money to save everything ... so there are going to be some sacrifices,” Davis said. “We don’t like that. That’s not the goal; it’s just the reality.”

“As a historian, I do hear alarm bells when we need to turn over historic sites to organizations not affiliated with state or federal preservation efforts. ... Part of that is because it can’t help but be uneven,” said Brian Black, professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona.

At Brandywine, the 52-acre Revolutionary War battlefield in Chadds Ford, near Philadelphia, Friends of Brandywine Battlefield is still rebuilding after losing nine of its 10 state-paid employees in 2009, including a site director, site educator and five or six interpretive guides. The site closed for 10 days that year and still cannot afford to hire a site administrator.

“We really laid a lot on their laps all of a sudden,” Miller conceded. “They really worked hard to come up with the resources to continue the programs there.”

George Thorpe, past president of the Brandywine Battlefield Park Associates, said cuts have forced reduction of off-season hours.

“Admission fees don’t begin to cover the costs,” Thorpe said. “We’ve had to solicit funds from grants, which we have been somewhat successful, but it’s a never-ending, very, very difficult procedure.”

Davis, of the national association, said that if a historic site that’s been turned over to the community fails, it signals that perhaps the site wasn’t as valuable to that community as was once thought.

“If the community wants them to succeed ... then the community will step up and take care of things,” Davis said.