I love Historical Societies. They educate us about our community, house our artifacts, contribute to community projects and are heritage powerhouses. Sometimes, though, they are not as well supported as they should be and ultimately membership diminishes, community government becomes indifferent and, ultimately, the community suffers because participants disband the society.
So what if this happened in your community? Would you want to pick up the ball and run with it? How would you revive your community historical society? What if your community never had a historical society?
I have found that in big cities and large populated Counties that historical societies are long-lived institutions. However, in smaller towns, this can be a spotty endeavor. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk about this very topic with the on-again, off-again (currently past) President of the Bloomingdale (Illinois) Historical Society, Bonnie Homola. The Bloomingdale Historical Society had been through two incarnations and I wanted to get her thoughts as to why historical societies fail and why they flourish.
Leslie: When was the historical society formed the first time?
Bonnie: I believe it was August 1973.
Leslie: So when was it disbanded – and why?
Bonnie: It was in December 1978. It disbanded because the president of the society had gotten sick and no one wanted to take her place; and there weren't enough people interested to keep it going.
Leslie: Who had the idea to form the historical society again and when did they do that?
Bonnie: I believe it started up again about 1981. Our town library director saw the need – she was wonderful! The library sponsored us and we started having our meetings at the library; I was vice-president at the time because everyone wanted to be involved, but no one wanted the responsibility of being an officer – so I was recruited! The need to revive the historical society came from the fact that there were many artifacts, textiles and documents scattered all over town that were in danger of being thrown out, unless someone took an interest and could take care of them. (Writers Note: Bloomingdale was founded in 1833 and, until the late 1970's was primarily a farming community. There were many 19th and early 20th century textiles, furniture and farming-related equipment that needed to be rescued).
Leslie: What do you need to achieve to maintain a successful historical society?
Bonnie: You should have an enthusiastic membership who are passionate about the community and are willing to work and be more than just members. You will need the support of your local government, as well, because without their support, you can't be successful or stay functional. You will also need to interface and partner with as many organizations as you can – such as the Park District, the library, the town or village and the chamber of commerce. Something that you have to make sure everyone understands is that the present is tomorrows history and you have to actively document the present, while also preserving the past; which would include preserving artifacts (and a place to house or store them), conducting oral history interviews with long-time residents, and working with the town, library and other entities to display and promote your society.
So, if you want to start a Historical Society, remember that you will need:
- Sufficient community and membership involvement (don't forget to court all age ranges from children to seniors
and as many of the following as you can get:
- Library support
- Village or town support
- Chamber of commerce support
- Park District
Bonnie has been a tireless promoter for Bloomingdale's history. She understands that past and present have a way of merging to tell a complete story. Bonnie was instrumental in putting together a book about the history of Bloomingdale by Arcadia Press. The Bloomingdale Historical Society holds their meetings at the Bloomingdale, Illinois Public Library.