When Mary Zawacki first showed up at the Schenectady County Historical Society and took a look around, she was amazed at all the really neat stuff.
“I was incredibly excited to see the collections because of how diverse they were,” said Zawacki, who became curator at SCHS in 2014 and executive director in 2017. “There was a little bit of everything, from furniture — my favorite — to bizarre half-broken tools, to paintings and just about everything else. Things were a bit disorganized, so it meant a big, long project I could really sink my teeth into.”
Zawacki, a native of Westchester County, said she immediately felt at home in the historic Stockade District. So too did Marietta Carr. The librarian/archivist at SCHS, Carr sensed she was in a special place during her first visit to the facility’s Grems-Doolittle Library back in 2019.
“When I first walked into the library, I felt a connection to the research space,” said Carr, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “Generations of researchers had uncovered their family stories and developed new knowledge with these books and documents, and I felt the thrill of potential. The library’s collections contain so much information.”
The Dora Jackson Home at 32 Washington Ave. houses both the museum and library, but the society owns another historic property in the Stockade, the Brouwer House Creative, as well as the Mabee Farm complex out on the southern bank of the Mohawk River in Rotterdam Junction.
Zawacki and Carr both laud the work of a large and enthusiastic group of volunteers that has helped bring the SCHS into the 21st century. But while volunteerism might be the lifeblood of many nonprofit organizations, a well-trained and professional staff to handle the reins is an even bigger key to success.
That’s how Bob Weible feels, and before he became president of the board of trustees at the Schenectady County Historical Society in 2017, he wanted to make sure his fellow board members felt the same way.
“Former presidents like Marianne Blanchard and Ed Reilly did a tremendous amount of work acting as an executive director and chair of the board, and I wasn’t about to do that,” said Weible, who in 2015 retired as New York state historian and chief curator at the New York State Museum. “The society had been run by a hands-on board, but I wanted to hire a professional staff and have them responsible for operating our organization. In September of 2015 when I joined the board I went to my first meeting, and it was like nothing I’ve ever seen. There were too many people. What we needed was an executive director.”
Richard Lewis, a Glenville resident who has volunteered with the historical society for more than 20 years and served as the group’s vice president, fell in line quickly with Weible’s idea.
“There used to be many more committees, and looking at the Mabee Farm for instance, all the decisions were made by committee and then approved by the board,” said Lewis, a retired teacher and former reporter for The Gazette. “The president or the committee chair were much more active and could sometimes be dictatorial. Things are so much better and more efficient with a professional staff.”
So in May of 2017, when Zawacki became the group’s first executive director since its inception in 1905, SCHS shifted into a higher gear. The society has had a professionally trained museum and library staff for much of the past two decades, but not to the extent it enjoys today. Along with Zawacki, SCHS has Plattsburgh native Susanna Fout as exhibitions and collections manager, and Mike Diana of Guilderland as education and programs manager. Fout spends much of her time in the group’s museum headquarters in the Stockade neighborhood, while Diana is usually out at the Mabee Farm. Both were hired within the past four years.
While Carr oversees research in the Grems-Doolittle Libary, other paid employees include administrative officer Mary Treanor and facilities manager John Ackner. Treanor is the first person visitors see when they enter the building on Washington Avenue, while Acker is at both sites and also serves as a blacksmith for the Mabee Farm’s education program.
Along with its strong staff, the society is bolstered by its endowments and its fundraising ability.
“The community we’re in is quite generous, and we’ve also secured some money through federal and state grants,” said Weible. “We have an executive director who knows how to find these grants, write up the application and then make it work. We’re very lucky to have Mary.”
And then there are the volunteers.
“SCHS simply would not function without volunteers,” said Zawacki, who grew up in Briarcliff Manor in the lower Hudson Valley and studied at SUNY New Paltz before getting her master’s in public history at Newcastle University in England. “We depend on our volunteers for so much — just about everything. This used to be a volunteer-run organization. We’ve professionalized a fair amount with paid staff, but so much important stuff happens entirely because of volunteers.”
In the Grems-Doolittle Library, Carr has a strong nucleus of volunteers. Some are retired school librarians who make her job much more manageable.
“Volunteers are essential to the work we do in the library,” said Carr, who went to Northeastern University in Boston before continuing on to the University of Pittsburgh where she got her master’s of library science degree. “Our volunteers bring their own personal interests and skills to the library’s projects, which allow us to better understand the materials in our collections and create a variety of resources to help researchers find the information they need. There is so much irreplaceable material in our library’s collections and in our community, it would be impossible to process and preserve all of it without the time, energy and passion of our volunteers.”
The volunteers, without exception it seems, thoroughly enjoy what they do. John Angilletta, a Glenville native who has volunteered for roughly 10 years, mostly at the Mabee Farm, was in his glory at last month’s annual Mabee Farm FallFest.
“We had five of us giving house tours on the hour and it was great fun,” said Angilletta. “We didn’t get a break all day, but that was fine.”
When Angilletta first showed up at Mabee Farm, it was a volunteer, Lewis, who showed him the ropes.
“I love volunteering, especially after I became a docent at the farm, and I had some really good people train me, like Richard Lewis,” said Angilletta. “We’ve always had good people out here, but the staff we have now is the best. Mary is involved in every aspect of what happens out here and Mike has taken our school program to a whole new level.”
As for the Grems-Doolittle Library, volunteer Gail Denisoff began helping on small research projects back in 2015. She quickly graduated to bigger projects and became a regular contributor to the library’s blog. She also recently had an article published in the society’s newsletter. It was Carol Lewis, who’s been volunteering at the library for 20 years, who brought Denisoff into the fold. Both are retired librarians in the Schenectady school district.
“Carol had been trying to get me to come in for a while and when I finally did I found it to be quite enjoyable,” said Denisoff, a Schalmont graduate and currently a Niskayuna resident. “You meet great people there and I love doing research. I’ve been doing my own genealogy for years, but getting involved in somebody else’s research project and helping them out is a lot of fun and can be very interesting.”
Among the many research tools in the Grems-Doolittle Library — along with the hundreds of books on local history — are family files, church records, family scrapbooks and a number of local newspapers on microfilm. Carr, an area resident for just two years, says having volunteers like Denisoff and Lewis, who thoroughly know the area, makes her job a lot easier.
“I’ve seen people be inspired, shocked, fascinated and moved to tears when they have the opportunity to handle documents that their ancestors created or see photos of the houses their relatives built,” said Carr. “Having volunteers who have lived in the area for years and contribute their own knowledge to understand and preserving our history is very important.”
Volunteers also help Fout in the museum, although rummaging through old things is something she could do for hours and hours.
“I love helping to preserve artifacts for future generations as well as interpret objects and history for the here and now,” said Fout, who went to college at SUNY Oneonta and then earned her master’s in medieval studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “Most of my professional career has been working at small to mid-sized organizations, and I’m always amazed by the wealth of information in our region’s museums. This was no different when I first came to SCHS. The variety of objects and just the amount of history is pretty incredible, and to have a research library is a wonderful resource.”
Diana, who earned a history degree from Hamilton College, enjoys all aspects of his position with the historical society, including leading Stockade walking tours and short kayak trips on the Mohawk River. Most of the time, however, he is leading the education program at Mabee Farm and immersing himself in upstate New York’s 18th century.
“The Mabee Farm, despite its humble experience, tells the really important story of what went on here,” said Diana. “It’s not about just any one individual or family. The house tells the history of this entire area better than any other single location can do it.”
Diana, who never made it to Mabee Farm as a high school student at Guilderland, said he loves sharing the history of the site with the public.
“It’s a really great organization to work for, and all the people, the staff and the volunteers, are all happy to be here,” said Diana. “It’s a very cooperative endeavor and all the people who show up to learn about the farm want to be here. It’s a very positive environment.”
Volunteer Nelson Curtis of Niskayuna, a recent retiree but a longtime volunteer, says helping people learn more about history is rewarding.
“I am an amateur historian, and when I moved to Schenectady I knew little about the area,” said Curtis, who now helps at both Mabee Farm and the society headquarters on Washington Avenue. “I went to the Mabee Farm, heard they were looking for volunteers, so I set my mind to learn more about the area’s history. I really do enjoy it. It gives me a greater appreciation for those who came before us, and I also enjoy that I can play a small part in passing their story on to those who will give that knowledge to future generations.”
As much as Zawacki is thrilled to visit an old house museum, check out an antique shop, view historic folk art or just read a good nonfiction book, she also loves the volunteer vibes she experiences through her work nearly every day.
“I like matching volunteers with projects they’ll love and find gratifying, and always hope they’ll stick around long enough to become part of what I consider a really lovely and healthy SCHS volunteer network,” said Zawacki. “I think some volunteers have made really good friends here. I know they call each other or go out to dinner, or just hang out outside of the society, and that’s incredible to watch and to be a part of. It’s great that a little bit of local history could bring folks together like that.”
Schenectady County Historical Society
Mission: The Schenectady County Historical Society shares stories, inspires dialogue and encourages understanding of the history, people and cultures of Schenectady County.
Areas served: Schenectady County
Quote from director:
“SCHS simply would not function without volunteers. We depend on our volunteers for so much — just about everything. This used to be a volunteer-run organization. We’ve professionalized a fair amount with paid staff, but so much important stuff happens entirely because of volunteers.” — Mary Zawacki
At a glance
Here’s what Schenectady County Historical Society has to offer:
The Dora Jackson Home: Located in the Stockade at 32 Washington Ave., the 1895 building houses the administrative offices, the museum and the Grems-Doolittle Library.
The Mabee Farmhouse: When it was built in 1705, it was the westernmost, nonnative American home in the Mohawk Valley.
Franchere Education Center: Built in 2009, it has administrative offices, meeting rooms and several exhibits on display.
The 18th-century Dutch Barn: Originally built in the 18th century in Johnstown, it was purchased by SCHS and reassembled on the Mabee Farm grounds in 1999. It has exhibits and is a concert venue.
The Brick House: Built in 1767 just outside the farmhouse, it housed guests and servants as well as slaves.
Blacksmith Shop: Reenactor John Ackner demonstrates the art of blacksmithing for special events and programs.
Gardens, nature trail and animals: SCHS has working gardens on the grounds, along with a short nature trail along the Mohawk River and plenty of animals, including goats and chickens.
The Brouwer House Creative: Formerly the Kindl Home on North Church Street in the Stockade, it is a space for art and culture, and includes artists’ studios and offices for nonprofits. The only Colonial-era Schenectady house open to the public, it was built around 1730 and includes a backyard garden.