People who are looking for historical information on anything related to Washington, Mo., often start in one place: the Washington Historical Society Museum at Fourth and Market streets in Downtown Washington.
About 10 years ago, when a man from Spokane, Wash., came to town looking for information on his ancestors who once owned the Eitzen building on Jefferson Street (where Wiemann and Pues Insurance is now located), it was members of the Washington Historical Society who helped him find those roots.
In return, the Eitzen descendant showed his gratitude by becoming a member himself.
“He just fell in love with the town,” recalled Director Marc Houseman, noting that he even came to one of the group’s annual dinners.
Currently, the Washington Historical Society has around 300 paying members, but the group is hoping to multiply that number by the end of the year.
A membership drive, “Preserving Yesterday Today . . . for Tomorrow,” will launch this Friday, Nov. 1, and run through Dec. 31, with special pricing that cuts $10 off the cost of a new membership, making it $20 for individuals or $30 for families.
“Our only mission is to preserve Washington’s proud history for today and tomorrow,” said Nancy Wood, campaign chairperson. “In keeping with this mission, we work hard to share our history through programs and events with businesses, community groups, school groups and all who seek our help.”
The goal is to register 120 new members, and longtime member Suzanne Hill, who manages the group’s Facebook page, believes that is more than doable, especially considering more than 4,600 people “like” the content of old photos and stories posted on the Facebook page.
Wood, who became a member around 2003, believes anyone who has even the slightest interest in history will find rewards in joining the Washington Historical Society.
“The more I know about local history, the more interesting it becomes,” she said. “And we have a very rich local history.”
Founded in 1959
The Washington Historical Society was founded Jan. 13, 1959, as the Washington Museum Society.
Eleven people met at City Hall to organize the group. Buck Sincox was acting chairperson. Officers included Lucille Mauntel, president; Tom Nolan, vice president; Dr. H.G. Cassidy, treasurer; and Dick Boneau, secretary. Ralph Gregory was appointed the curator.
The name was later changed to Washington Historical Society.
One of the group’s first activities was to help the community prepare for Washington’s 120th anniversary.
Other early work included acquiring the Herman G. Kiel files, accepting donated items from Washington families, leading tours in and around Washington, and setting up exhibits at venues such as the Washington Town & Country Fair and area antique shoes.
The group stopped meeting in 1964, but by 1978, efforts to revive the group were under way. Gregory, who had left town for work, led the charge upon his return to the community.
Membership has been a part of the group from its beginning, said Houseman. In the early years, however, perhaps it was more of a social group than a true historical society.
Some members were less knowledgeable about the history of the town and more interested in socializing, Houseman explained, but in some ways that was beneficial. Having members who were gregarious and social attracted more members to join.
Today, it takes both kinds of members — people who know history and love it, and people who don’t know the history, but want to support it — to make the group successful, said Houseman.
Benefits of Being a Member
Members of the Washington Historical Society receive a 10 percent discount in the gift shop and are on the mailing list for the group’s quarterly newsletters and various events, which include dinners held in spring, fall and at Christmastime.
But the biggest perk of membership is satisfaction, said Wood.
“It’s knowing that you’re a part of this, helping keep history alive,” she remarked.
“The No. 1 reason people should be a member is because they want to support us,” he said. “And we have pretty good programming.”
The group holds a free Evening at the Museum program the second Tuesday of every month beginning at 7 p.m. As many as 100 people a month have turned out to learn about local topics like Catawissa serial killer Bertha Gifford, the Odd Fellows, the life of county namesake Ben Franklin and the Civil War in Franklin County.
“We have a faithful crowd that comes in every month,” Wood commented. No reservations or tickets are needed.
The Washington Historical Society also holds special events like ghost tours and educational program for students.
The group has several buildings under its care, including the museum at Fourth and Market streets, the AME Church at Fourth and Walnut streets, the interior of the Firehouse Museum at Fifth and Stafford streets and the Kohmueller Farmstead buildings between the YMCA and Lions Lake
Membership Is Vital to Operating Budget
Many people may not realize it, but the Washington Historical Society is completely independent from the city of Washington, said Houseman. It receives no tax money from the city to operate.
The group’s operating budget is getting close to $100,000 a year, and membership dues brings in around $14,000 each year, Houseman said.
“Membership is a significant part of our budget. It’s not the biggest part,” he admits, “but we’d like to grow that, because we still run on a $30,000 to $40,000 a year deficit, which means it costs us a lot more to operate than what we bring in total. So any increase in membership will help close that gap just a little bit.”
In addition to memberships, the Washington Historical Society raises revenue through an annual fundraising dinner and golf tournaments.
Last December, the Washington Historical Society fell short of its operating funds and had to dip into funds in the Washington Historical Society Foundation.
The Foundation was established 13 years ago using large planned gifts, life memberships, funeral memorial donations and other occasional revenue. The plan was to build the balance up high enough so the group could just draw on the funds generated by the interest, but that hasn’t happened yet.
The current membership drive may not bring in a significant amount of money initially, but down the road it could, by way of members making a larger donation or putting the group in their will, said Wood.
“We are building,” Houseman commented. “And membership is extremely important to our funding.”
In addition to individual and family memberships, the Washington Historical Society offers memberships to businesses at $55 a year.
The group also offers several higher levels giving classes — Contributing, $75; Supporting, $125; Patron, $500; and Life, $1,000.
Current members are encouraged to buy a gift membership for a relative or friend for $20.
The Washington Historical Society also welcomes memorials, bequests, gifts of stock and qualified charitable distributions from IRAs. People should contact their financial adviser to discuss those options, said Houseman.
To Become a Member . . .
There are several ways to become a member of the Washington Historical Society:
Visit the Washington Historical Society Museum at 113 E. Fourth St., Washington. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., or go online to https://tinyurl.com/WHSnewmember.
People also can print off the membership form and mail it to Washington Historical Society, P.O. Box 146, Washington, MO 63090.
Wood and Hill plan to add promotional content to the group’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/washmohistorical/)to highlight the membership drive. They will be sharing videos of members from Washington and beyond noting why supporting the Washington Historical Society is important to them.