State transferring control of historic sites to local societies

| Saturday, July 5, 2014, 5:56 p.m.

Life just became more complicated for Judith Nelson.

The transfer of six historic sites from a state agency to organizations such as Nelson's that have been managing them will mean big changes for some groups.

“At one point, we were a nice little organization. ... This makes it more of a business,” said Nelson, president of the Fort LeBoeuf Historical Society in Waterford, Erie County, which will take over three sites.

“We have to learn to be innovative,” she said. “Look at ways of generating revenue.”

Legislation transferring the Fort LeBoeuf Museum, Washington Monument Park and the Judson House from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to the Erie historical society for a nominal fee passed the House and Senate and is awaiting the governor's signature.

The Bradford House Historical Association, which manages the David Bradford House in Washington County, has been preparing to take ownership of the 226-year-old house for nearly 10 years.

“In 2005, we started to step outside the limitations we had set for ourselves. ... We said ‘we had to be more than that,' ” said Clay Kilgore, Bradford House director. “If we hadn't done that, yes, we would have to change.”

Legislation to transfer the Bradford House and two sites in Bradford and Susquehanna counties to local groups is expected to be introduced in October, said Howard Pollman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

The commission owns the properties and was considering selling them because of budget cuts. The agency's 2012-15 strategic plan calls for limiting its management to museums and sites with statewide significance while transferring oversight of other sites to local partners.

“These are properties that are incredibly significant to the local community but not so much in a state context,” Pollman said.

State funding for the sites was eliminated in 2008.

“With the budget cuts, they couldn't afford to keep all of them,” said Kilgore. “They weren't attempting to make money off them.”

David Bradford was a successful lawyer, businessman and deputy attorney general of Washington County. His house, built in 1788, was the home of the Whiskey Rebellion, the first domestic challenge to the new American government.

In Erie County, George Washington in 1753 delivered a message to the French at Fort LeBoeuf that they were trespassing on British territory and should leave. Washington Monument Park contains a statue of George Washington in a British uniform and Amos Judson, one of Waterford's earliest settlers, built his home there about 1820.

Some members of a group that runs Old Mill Village in New Milford, Susquehanna County, have been pressing for local control for more than 15 years.

“You're much more nimble with local control,” said Tim Button, president of the Old Mill Village Museum Association. “There are more funding options available to local museums.”

In addition to the Bradford House and Old Mill Village, which preserves the heritage of the Endless Mountains in Northeast Pennsylvania, the French Azilum, a settlement of French exiles along the Susquehanna River in Towanda, Bradford County, is expected to be transferred to local control this fall.

Historic sites in other states and some national historic treasures have gone up for sale as lawmakers cut their funding and the recession took its toll, Kilgore said.

“States took on some sites from the federal government. Now they're hoping the federal government will take them back,” he said.

From New Hampshire to California, historic forts, battlefields, homes, buildings and post offices are for sale, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Of the more than 200 historic properties listed as “at risk” in Pennsylvania since 1992, about 18 percent have been lost, 32 percent saved and 50 percent remain in danger, according to Preservation Pennsylvania, which publishes yearly profiles of the top endangered historic sites.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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