Lunch with Mimi: While working to preserve the past, Mary Sorensen and the Centre County Historical Society are looking to the future
As executive director, Mary Sorensen oversees the day-to-day operations of the Centre County Historical Society, the Centre Furnace Mansion – a restored and furnished ironmaster’s house museum – and the Boogersburg School, a one-room schoolhouse. Prior to being named executive director in 2010, she volunteered for 10 years in the planning and development of the Centre Furnace Mansion’s period-inspired gardens.
Sorensen’s lifelong hobby and passion for gardening began at a young age, as she grew up on a family farm in Iowa. She has fond memories of planting lilacs to liatris with her mother. She was also involved in the Master Gardener program while living in Minneapolis and Denver. After coming to Centre County in 1995 with her husband, Peter, and son, Christopher, Sorensen volunteered for four years with the County Extension Office, coordinating their Master Gardener program.
Founded in 1904, the Centre County Historical Society is a community- and volunteer-based nonprofit educational organization that works collaboratively with local, regional, county, and state organizations in helping to preserve and promote the area’s historic, cultural, and natural resources. CCHS aspires to enrich the lives of residents by telling the story of the county’s unique past through its programs, collections, and facilities.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Sorensen at Otto’s Pub & Brewery to discuss the organization’s volunteer opportunities, unique collections, and future plans.
Mimi: How long have you been at the Centre County Historical Society?
Mary: I've been on staff since 2010, but I've been a volunteer since about 2000. I started with the Historical Society as the garden coordinator to coordinate the efforts in the gardens to create a more period-inspired feeling.
Mimi: And you've succeeded at that. What would you say is the most important activity at Centre Furnace Mansion and the Historical Society in your effort to save and protect?
Mary: I think that just simply protecting our part in preserving Centre County history is the most important thing that we do, and we do that in a number of different ways, from programming and publications to maintaining the Centre Furnace Mansion, the Boogersburg one-room school, and the properties that surround them. We do a lot with collaborations with other organizations in the community.
Mimi: I have an amazing admiration for what you do. As you know, this publication has as one of its goals an effort to reduce to writing important things that grow interest in people and places to preserve their history.
Mary: Town&Gown has been so important to that. We have a collection of Town&Gowns dating back to the beginning. They're invaluable in terms of going back and looking into not only Centre County history, but also the industrial and business history in Centre County, through the advertising, stories, and everything that is in Town&Gown; it’s an amazing resource.
Mimi: I'm glad you feel that way. I always call it my third child.
Mary: We have them indexed. And one of our volunteers has been working on expanding the search terms for that index.
Mimi: You also have an amazing collection of old photographs.
Mary: Yes, we do. We have an amazing collection of not only photographs, but postcards as well, including the Betty Cannon postcard collection, a collection of Centre County postcards. One of our collections’ volunteers, Monty Christiansen, has been working on these postcards to scan and add information to them. And a couple of years ago, he produced a program with the postcards and their importance.
Mimi: You know who has a remarkable collection of postcards related to the community and the university is Joan Brower.
Mary: Yes, she has been generous to offer that we may do research with her collection.
Mimi: She has a remarkable collection of memorabilia that directly instructs history, including a lot of history of J. Alvin Hawbaker and Park Forest Village and all the things that he did in the turning point of State College.
Mary: Right. And those are the kinds of things that are so important to capture, especially now that the mid-century period is becoming historic and as development downtown and in Centre County continues to expand.
Mimi: Actually, I personally felt one of the reasons I wanted to write a book was to capture a family history with which I was involved in the early period. What are we doing to save the important parts of what happens on the internet about this area?
Mary: That’s a good question. One of the things that we do is we maintain a Facebook page. And as people write little comments and tidbits about pictures and stories that we post, we're capturing that and keeping it in an electronic format.
Mimi: How many paid employees are there?
Mary: Myself and Johanna [Sedgwick], and Johanna is part-time. We have about 50 dedicated volunteers on a regular basis, from people who help us in the office with archives, office projects, other collections projects, gardening, and giving tours.
Mimi: Any idea how much traffic you handle routinely, and when we have all these things going on at the university and in the community, does that spike attendance?
Mary: We do expect a little bit more, but not significantly. We have about 5,000 visitors a year and I would say that safely, at least a quarter of those people are from out of the area.
Mimi: Do you want to attract more people?
Mary: Yes. We do advertise through the Central Pennsylvania Convention & Visitors Bureau in their guide and website. We also do some out-of-area advertising that is funded by the tourism grant.
Mimi: How can we, in this discussion, help people understand what a fascinating place it is?
Mary: I think people do need to understand that we critically need their support through funding and membership. But we also need it through volunteerism and contributions such as oral histories that we can organize to capture some of these stories. Sometimes people get involved, for instance, as a gardener or as a volunteer with our Stocking-Stuffer events in December and other fundraisers. But then they find out we have other projects and become interested in those kinds of things as well. Cathy Horner, who got involved in being a docent when she first started, then discovered that she wanted to participate in research requests and help with researching different topics.
Mimi: Do you get a lot of requests for research?
Mary: We get about 150 requests every year. Many of them are genealogy-based, and our collections don't focus on genealogy, but we do have resources. We help and find other areas in Centre County that do research.
Mimi: It’s fascinating stepping into the building because it's so old. What is the danger of it deteriorating?
Mary: If you walk around the mansion, you can see places that need help and funding. One of the things that we are hoping to do next year through the help of a grant is to replace our roof. It's probably going to cost upwards of $120,000. And right now, we're also working on our winter restoration workshop through the Old House Fair. We'll be doing a window fundraiser so that people can adopt a window or some part of the window.
Mimi: How much will a window cost?
Mary: It could cost anywhere from about $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the window, the size of it, and its restoration needs.
Mimi: Let’s start in this interview to round up some of the money. I’ll take a window.
Mary: OK, you got it! And whoever gets a window will get a little plaque up on the inside so that you can come and visit.
Mimi: Well, I want mine to be in the memory of Sy Barash.
Mary: That's wonderful, Mimi.
Mimi: Let’s talk about a man who has contributed probably thousands of hours to the cause: Dick Pencek.
Mary: Absolutely. Dick has been a part of the Historical Society since the early 1980s and he has an amazing collection of late 17th- and early 18th-century furniture, decorative arts, and artifacts that he will be donating to the Centre County Historical Society.
Mimi: Where are you going to put it?
Mary: We're looking for solutions as to how we approach storage and programming because part of this gift and Dick’s financial gift through his planned giving is to support a place that would also support historic preservation programming.
Mimi: So, it would be a real museum?
Mary: Yes, it would be a museum that would have exhibit space. We're hoping nearby. I can tell you that the development committee is working hard on figuring out how we can do this financially and to secure a site where this can be housed. Right now, the Centre Furnace Mansion is not big enough to house all the artifacts and documents that we have. If we were to expand, we would need to have people who could help us on a paid basis with collections, educational programming, property, and development as well.
Mimi: You’ve just opened an exhibit on Sherm Lutz. He was a character and a very important part of history in the valley, particularly airline service from this place. So, what is this exhibit like?
Mary: The exhibit features Sherm's history, the history of the State College and Boalsburg Air Depot, and the early beginning of aviation history in Centre County. This is all based on the Sherm Lutz collection of the Centre County Historical Society and was donated in 2001 by Phyllis Barr Lutz, Sherm’s niece.
In the last three years, we've been putting an extra emphasis on indexing all of the images. We have almost 5,000 images as well as dozens of artifacts and documents that are also being indexed and catalogued. It takes a long time and a lot of people to make that happen. We have about four student interns, several student volunteers, as well as other volunteers who have been involved in this.
Monty Christiansen has been at the forefront of this too. He's been scanning and documenting all of the solo flight portraits that Sherm took. Sherm was quite a photographer, and we have his collection of cameras and videography equipment as well. When people start to come to the exhibit and become aware of it, we're hoping to find more stories. Katie [O’Toole] is working on getting interviews of people to put together a podcast about this, or possibly two or three.
Mimi: She's given the Historical Society wisdom teeth.
Mary: She really has. And it's marvelous having her on board. We didn't know what we would do when Jackie [Melander] stepped down [as board president]. Katie was the perfect person to step into this position and really carry that torch that Jackie carried for so many years. I think that's the most rewarding part about working at the Historical Society, working with people who are really passionate about what they're doing, whether that's doing programs in the community, gardening, or giving tours; everyone involved makes a difference.
Mimi: Thanks for what you do to make this a better place to live, work, and play.
Mary: You are welcome and thank you for everything that you’ve done.