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Volunteers make glimpses into Valley's past readily accessible

September 30, 2001|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH, Staff Writer

The sign taped to the front door of Pioneers' Museum in early September said it all.

"Due to a lack of volunteers, we will only be open as follows … we are sorry for the inconvenience … we depend on the generosity of our volunteers to man the museum."

Pioneers' Museum and Cultural Center, across the road from Imperial Valley College on Aten Road east of Imperial, was just waking up from its summer hibernation and from the start there was a shortage of volunteers.

Lyn Housouer, director of operations for the museum, said, "Apart from myself as the only full-time employee, we're staffed by volunteers. As a non-profit organization we don't always have the funds to pay employees. We depend on volunteers tremendously."

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The Imperial County Historical Society was organized as the Imperial Valley Society in 1928 to preserve the life histories of early settlers in the Valley. In 1940 the society built a museum at the county fairgrounds in Imperial. From the beginning the building proved to be inadequate to house all the artifacts and in 1992 the museum moved to its site on Aten Road, where it sprawls over 10 acres.

Housouer is hopeful more Valley residents will discover just how interesting and varied the history of the Imperial Valley is by coming by the museum and having a look. She said visitors to the museum should allow at least an hour for a self-guided tour.

"I like to describe the museum as the Valley's best kept secret," she said. "The museum houses multiple galleries honoring the history of the different ethnic communities that make up our cultural history here in the Valley. We have a wonderful memorial to those who have served in our armed forces, from the Civil War to Desert Storm. And our farm equipment display out on the museum grounds is really interesting."

Right now Housouer is intent on finding new volunteers to help the museum grow and to lighten the load for those volunteers who have been contributing their time and efforts to the museum tirelessly over the years.

"I'd love for anyone and everyone to come and spend some time volunteering with us. You don't need to be a longtime Valley resident. In fact we have snowbirds who volunteer."

It was a chance meeting in an El Centro department store that lured one Canadian snowbird to the museum as a volunteer.

"One of our volunteers met her in a local department store and the lady asked if there was any organization that needed a volunteer. Our volunteer told her to walk, not run to our museum!" Housouer said. "She has been a wonderful help and typically puts in five days a week with us when she's wintering in the Imperial Valley."

Housouer said she encourages potential volunteers to come by Pioneers' Museum to find what they're interested in.

Volunteering does not necessarily mean being a guide or docent. Help is needed with archival preservation, restoring farm equipment, maintaining displays or helping preserve artifacts still in storage. Volunteers for the gift shop also are needed.

Housouer is adamant that because the work is voluntary, its important her volunteers not be bored.

"I'd like them to choose an area that really interests them. When you're volunteering, you don't want to do something boring," she said.

One area of the museum's activities badly in need of help is the slow but fascinating process of cataloging donated artifacts that have been stored behind the museum in two large shipping containers and an old boxcar. Because of the intensity of Imperial Valley summers, work in these storage containers is restricted to the winter months and Housouer is anxious to start working there again in the coming months.

Pulling back the boxcar door to reveal a dusty and gloomy interior stacked to the rafters with everything from a wooden milk churn to a fine example of the taxidermist's art — a large steer's head complete with a full set of horns.

Housouer exclaimed, "I can honestly say I'm not quite sure what is in here. I would love volunteers who don't mind a little dust to come out here, bring the artifacts in, evaluate, clean and preserve them and finally catalogue them so we can get the artifacts entered on the computer."

Housouer and her staff have already catalogued some 3,000 items in the museum's computer but Housouer estimates there are thousands more items waiting to be processed. The storage containers and the boxcar are not climate-controlled and Housouer is worried some items may be loosing integrity.

"We started putting stuff on computer back in 1988 and made excellent progress but last year the museum was broken into and our computer as well as a backup disk was stolen; so we've been faced with reconstructing a lot of information. Some information was lost forever but we've managed to reconstruct quite a bit," Housouer said with a hopeful smile. "It was tragic for us but because I take work home on occasion, I was able to reconstruct from my home files. But I felt it was a crime against the community."

Costs each year for the museum are high and Housouer says the tab is in the $80,000-90,000 range.

"We organize two major fund raisers each year to help cover those costs," Housouer said. "In October we're having a dinner auction and we hope to raise about $15,000 from this function. That should just about cover our power bill which is our biggest expenditure."

Slamming shut the boxcar door and dusting off her hands, Housouer was quick to emphasize it does not matter how much time a volunteer can spare to help.

"One hour a week would be fine," she said. "I'd love people to just come on by and have a good, leisurely look around and find something they'd be interested in."

If you'd like to volunteer at Pioneers' Museum, call Housouer at 352-3211 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

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