Volunteers help organizations keep local history alive in South Hills

West Jefferson Hills Historical Society president Joyce Schmidt points out artifacts that were found along the Monongahela River.
West Jefferson Hills Historical Society president Joyce Schmidt points out artifacts that were found along the Monongahela River.
Photo by Randy Jarosz | For Trib Total Media
| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 9:09 p.m.

Local history would be in danger of fading away if not for the work of historical society directors, presidents and boards who continue to labor to keep the past available to the present.

The energy to maintain a town's story comes from the passion of a complement of retirees who staff front desks, archive materials and create welcoming spaces where visitors can research personal histories. The challenge for them all is to raise awareness, attract new members and keep their doors open.

“All-volunteer organizations are struggling,” said Rusty Baker, executive director of PA Museums, a non-profit that supports the state's museum community. “Being very small is difficult. You have to do a lot of things and those, relatively well.”

Joyce Schmidt, one of the originals of the West Jefferson Hills Historical Society founded 12 years ago, has found that interest in history waxes and wanes. Many young people haven't discovered history's value yet, she said, and those with young families have busy lives but no time to attend meetings. Schmidt remembers when corporations required their professionals to join civic groups, which doesn't happen much anymore.

“It would be wonderful for a group of organized ladies from business to dedicate their time,” Schmidt said.

Eighty active members fund their efforts. So do donations gathered after special programs, which often attract new members.

Schmidt is encouraged by each Eagle Scout who connects his project with history. And she is pleased when district history teachers offer extra points for students to engage in the society's work. She also has engaged students in hands-on projects in some of the borough's historic places in hopes of making a connection.

“I talk to the young people and ask them to take a look at the quality that is here.”

The Carnegie Historical Society occupies the first floor of the Husler Building and is full of items — including the Honus Wagner Museum, the military uniforms and honor wall, and the famous six-block Main Street model handmade by Walter Stasik for the town's centennial in 1994 — the society's biggest attractions, according to historical society president Dan McGrogan.

He took the lead from his parents, who founded the organization in the early 1990s.

“What we need now are archivists to figure out what we have,” McGrogan said. “We need to get a better inventory.”

This fosters better research for visitors of the society's family and business files.

“There's always something to do,” he said, welcoming anyone with one or two hours to spare. “We don't need strong backs, but organized minds.”

Bridgeville Area History Society president Mary Weise is happy to tell the stories behind each item at the center. The doors are open to those who want to view displays, borrow from the library, work on Eagle Scout projects or earn college credits. All the while, a few railroad aficionados meet at the restored train station to discuss their lifelong hobby.

“We're glad to have people come in and poke around,” said Larry Godwin, board chairman and a society member for five years.

Support comes from more than 100 dues-paying members and 300 people on the mailing list. Through their help, the society can offer new exhibits and monthly programs that attract 60 to 80 people.

“A person or two expresses interest every month,” Godwin, a former history teacher, said, “and we can always use more.”

They hope to soon be able to keep Saturday hours.

Relying on donations, it takes additional funding to meet greater needs, such as the upcoming painting of the building that could cost $7,000. They'll reach out to the community and other lovers of area history in hopes of their generosity.

Currently, Weise is helping a few South Fayette residents produce their own history book. She also works with historical societies in Peters Creek, Upper St. Clair and Carnegie.

“We have to keep area history as close to home as possible,” she said.

Baker, with the PA Museums, said sharing records is one thing that can help historical societies survive, as well as fundraising and staying in touch.

“Sharing problems and successes, you'll feel a lot less alone in the world.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5803 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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