Our Historical Societies: Keepers of the Flame
Ed Adamczyk | Oct 1, 2012, midnight
This is an extended version of an article that ran previously in the June 2012 issue of Buffalo Spree.
There are at least 100 of them — spread across Western New York, small societies with an interest in local history. Typically, they offer research capabilities and a display of artifacts, like ephemera from a long-deserted factory or grainy photographs of a rural town’s funeral practices. These are independently-operated historical organizations, offering splendid looks back with tiny budgets and volunteer manpower, generally without government support.
Depending on one’s viewpoint on the past, they are either isolated little outposts that traffic in memory or nostalgia and thus an acquired taste, or jewels in the crown of this remarkable part of America. A growing number of Western New Yorkers favor the latter attitude.
You likely know some of the big ones. There is the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, with its marble pillars and architectural antecedents in the Pan-American Exposition. Or there is the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, formerly the Amherst Museum, a 35-acre spread of one-room schoolhouses, old churches and similar 19th-century structures.
Others include Genesee Country Village, the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site (operated by the federal government and technically a national park) and those places in Niagara Falls which offer sensationalist approaches to thinking about that waterfall’s history.
Then there are the more intimate ones: the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society, the Museum of disABILITY History, historical societies in Hamburg and Orchard Park.
You may have to search for it, but your hometown likely has one, a small building staffed by amateur historians, societies with variable hours for prowling through archives and observing the artifacts of whatever made your town “Your Town.”
Most of these organizations offer presentations, lectures and PowerPoint programs full of old cars and beaded men holding farm equipment and insights on what went on before paved roads and radio came.
Admittedly, the enthusiasts and the audiences skew older. It is a truism that one doesn’t care much about history until he or she makes a little of his own (the way a 30-year-old who suddenly notices modern rock music borrows heavily from his favorite bands of just a few years ago), and the state education requirement for an understanding of local history stops at the fourth grade.
Ask around, though, and everyone involved in these satisfying and enlightening adventures in history and museum management is optimistic, eager to share and deeply invested in their projects.
Consider the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society, founded in 1929 and housed in a small, brick circa-1849 church abandoned by a German Evangelical congregation whose building was given to, then renovated by, the Town of Tonawanda.
The pews, pulpit and a small pump organ remain. The rest of the place has been given over to displays and research material pertinent to what went on, out there. A display is devoted to the Erie Canal, while another has souvenirs from a local Curtiss-Wright plant that built the fighter planes that won World War II.
“About 110 members,” says past president Graham Millar of the rolls, each of whom pay $10 for membership. The monthly lectures are free.