Volunteers keep Old Economy Village running

| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

When longtime Old Economy Village volunteer Patty Clendennen heard four years ago that the historic Ambridge site might close, she didn't take it well.

“I broke down and cried,” she said.

Drastic state budget cuts led to eight jobs being eliminated at the 19th Century Harmonist settlement. At one point, a posted sign said the picturesque village would shut down, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission planned to keep enough staff only to maintain buildings, said her husband, Bob, who served on an advisory board for the site.

After the initial shock, “Then I got mad,” Patty Clendennen said.

The Friends of Old Economy Village pressured the commission and state legislators to keep the attraction open, and negotiated a deal to run visitations and special events, said Bob Clendennen, vice president of the Friends group. The Clendennens live in Patterson.

“Things are going very well,” said Old Economy administrator Michael Knecht, hired in December 2011 to supervise the first Pennsylvania-owned historical site.

“I think we've really turned a corner in terms of weathering the storm. It was a tough time, with cuts at (historical) sites across the state.”

Old Economy Village, which will host its Erntefest: A German Harvest Festival this weekend, has seven staff members whose salaries are paid by the state, another seven employed by the Friends group and about 100 volunteers who help at various times.

Attendance rose 36 percent from June 2011 to June 2012, and another 7 percent through June 2013 for a total of 13,000 visitors in the past year, Knecht said. That's much less than the 40,000 to 50,000 visitors to Old Economy during its tourism heyday in the 1970s.

Even after funding was slashed, “It was never truly closed. It was open on weekends,” volunteer Sandy Smailer of Franklin Park said of the village, as she demonstrated silk reeling in the Feast Hall at a recent Old Economy event. Staff and volunteers show how the Harmonists, a celibate, Christian society, worked as they awaited the second coming of Christ.

“It's part of who I am. It's in my heart,” Sandy Carroll of Hopewell said of the site. She's a paid director of volunteers, but she started as a volunteer at age 12 in the 1970s.

“When I heard they pulled the funding … I took it very personally,” Carroll said. “Old Economy is a treasure … If it weren't for the volunteers, we would have been closed.” The village reopened on weekdays in 2010.

Visitors on Saturday and Sunday can visit the 17 Harmonist buildings on six acres, and try activities ranging from churning butter to making rope.

The community originally covered 3,000 acres and built a textile industry powered by steam engines, founded a bank, won awards for silk production and developed interests in railroads and oil before it dissolved in 1906. The state acquired the complex in 1916 and opened it to the public in 1919.

Staff members and volunteers point out that Old Economy's buildings are originals that the Harmonists built in the 1800s along the Ohio River, not reproductions. Visitors can see tools, bottles and other items the Harmonists used. They talk with tour guides dressed in Harmonist attire.

“I wish people in the area would realize what a neat thing we have in our hometown,” said volunteer Mallory Reed, 23, of Ambridge. “Not a lot of people get to say they have history in their backyard like this.”

The state operating budget for Old Economy is $697,000 for the fiscal year ending in June 2014, compared to $954,000 in 2008, said Howard Pollman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Another $140,000 will go toward capital improvements this year. The nonprofit Friends group projects a $280,000 budget for this year, “up significantly,” Knecht said.

Knecht is telling businesses that the village qualifies for the state's Education Improvement Tax Credits program, meaning donations can be counted as tax credits. Schools from Beaver, Allegheny and other counties are booking tours, he said, but Old Economy competes for visitors with other historic sites and activities.

“The board and the staff are satisfied” with progress since 2009, Knecht said, “but we all have greater aspirations for this site and what it can do.”

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer.

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