On almost every day of the week for most of the year, a drive past the Washington Historical Society Museum reveals a white GMC Sierra parked in the lot. The car is sometimes accompanied by others, but it’s not uncommon for it to be the sole vehicle there. Its driver spends thousands of hours each year inside the building, poring over archives and exhibits and leading outreach for the museum. For 20 years this month, Marc Houseman has been the museum’s executive director and one of the faces of local historic preservation.
“The history of Washington is fascinating,” said Houseman, 56. “It has kept me enthralled for 20 years. I’ve tried to absorb it all like a sponge because that’s what keeps me going.”
Houseman’s main roles with the museum are curating donated items, researching and — one of his favorite activities — helping visitors. When people wander past his office looking at photographs or one of the museum’s display cases, Houseman springs into action, sharing knowledge gained over a lifetime of local history study.
He recalls his own interest in local history burgeoning with a present he received for his 12th birthday. His mom gave him a book written by Stanley Wilke in conjunction with the U.S. bicentennial in 1976.
“My birthday is in July, and that summer I probably read that thing three times cover to cover,” Houseman said. “That really got me hooked, and I thought we needed more of this (local history).”
Houseman remained fascinated with history, and after graduating from Union High School, he and a friend enrolled in mortuary school. He remembers once attending a meeting with the Washington Historical Society before starting the mortuary program, but he didn’t become involved then.
In 1992, he and his wife, Tina, married, and he started as an embalmer and funeral director at Nieburg-Vitt Funeral Home. He had been there a few years when his boss, Bill White, was asked to chair a fundraising committee at the Historical Society. The group has just purchased what is now its headquarters, the old Presbyterian Church on Market and Fourth streets, for around $125,000. Houseman said the group only had around $10,000 in assets at the time.
“I still remember the phone call,” Houseman said. “(Then-President) Skip Otto called Bill. Bill’s sitting right across from me, and he says, ‘I’ll do it, but I want a cochair.’ Skip says, ‘Who do you have in mind?’ and Bill kind of looks up at me, and this is a direct quote. He said, ‘I want Houseman because he’s actually interested in that stuff.’ That’s when I really jumped in with both feet.”
When Otto’s term ended, he recommended Houseman as his successor. At Houseman’s first meeting as board president, the topic of discussion was how to pay off the $125,000 bill. He spearheaded an antiques auction, which raised enough money to pay off the new building. In 1996, the group moved in.
“That (auction) really got me in good with the board of the historical society,” Houseman said, smiling. “I was 32 at the time, and some people had still been wondering who this young kid from Union was.”
In addition to the fundraising effort, Houseman pushed for two other major tasks as president and then past president on the board — improving the quality of membership and of the collection. He remembers that the society hadn’t updated the membership list in years and was sending mailers to lapsed members, some who had moved away. The group determined it had around 32 active members, a number the board immediately set out to increase.
“They decided the place needed to be open more hours, and my hand shot up,” Houseman said. “I said, ‘If you’re going to pay someone to be here, please let it be me.’ ”
The group agreed, and five years after the last fundraiser, it started a second one, this one for $500,000 to fund Houseman’s salary and museum utilities through 10 years. By April 2001, the money had been raised, and Houseman officially left Nieburg-Vitt and began his directorship at the museum.
“That money, because of good investments and us being good stewards and the continued generosity of the public, it has actually lasted 20 years,” Houseman said. “We do not throw our money away.”
The Secret to Life
In its first years as a full-time operation with a paid employee, the Washington Historical Society focused on getting the word out. Houseman attended several speaking events at libraries and schools, the group placed ads in newspapers like The Missourian, and Houseman often spoke on KLPW radio station. “We were, and I think we still are in some ways, Washington’s best kept secret,” Houseman said.
Houseman enjoyed working alongside local history idols of his, including Howard Mueller, who Houseman said curated “99 percent” of the exhibits, Ralph Gregory, a curator and researcher, and fellow local history enthusiast George Bocklage.
“Sundays here are research day,” Houseman said. “There’s nothing more thrilling than researching people we haven’t heard of yet. I’m still reminded of Ralph when he’d come in here with a manila file folder, papers sticking out of it at every angle, and he’d say, ‘I’m going to go in here and see what I can find.’ That was a man who loved local history. George and I would think, ‘Man, I’d like to be like Ralph.’ And by default, I kind of have become that. People say ‘Well, call Houseman, he’ll know,’ like they did with Ralph 50 years ago.”
Over time, the membership started to slowly increase, propelled by events, the growing collection and a team of dedicated volunteers, Houseman said. There were some discouragements. He remembers once hearing that even the museum’s next door neighbor didn’t know it was there.
“Someone walked up to the back door, and we weren’t open, and this neighbor was in her backyard and said to them, ‘I don’t know what kind of church meets there now, but they have the strangest hours,’ ” Houseman said, laughing.
But there also were moments of success. Today the museum has 500 members, and Houseman hopes to see still more, especially when the museum can again hold events following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m an old man, but I still learn something every day about humans in Washington, Missouri’s small town museum,” Houseman said. “I think we ought to have 5,000 members. ... A lot of folks erroneously think we’re affiliated with the city. We’re a privately funded, a nonprofit. We don’t get a penny from city, county, state.”
Other highlights for Houseman are times he’s gotten to go through donated items. His most unforgettable finds now hang in the museum, professionally cleaned and displayed, but they both arrived in a dusty brown paper bag. A woman had been cleaning out her mother’s house in Warrenton, Houseman recalled, and said she had no use for the twin paintings of her great-great-great-grandparents, who were from Washington.
“Well do you know their names?” Houseman wondered aloud.
“Yeah, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Eberius.”
Houseman was in shock. The portraits’ subjects were the first German couple to settle in Washington.
“Here they were passed down through family all these years and are just sitting in Warrenton,” Houseman said. “I couldn’t fill out the donation form fast enough.”
Houseman said less transformative items also make him “happy like a kid on Christmas morning.” He recently explored a plastic tub of archives and news clippings and learned about two former Washington businesses for the first time.
“If I can still get that feeling, then I know I’ve done the right thing for me by being here,” he said. “Ralph lived to two days shy of 106, and he’d tell you the secret is to keep learning. If you have a desire to learn, then you have a desire to live.”
Houseman’s involvement in local history isn’t limited to the museum. He chaired the Franklin County Bicentennial committee in 2019, giving his keynote speech dressed as county namesake Benjamin Franklin. He’s a member of the Boone-Duden Historical Society, Four Rivers Genealogical Society, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. He also founded and served as president of the Friends of Daniel Boone’s Burial Site in Missouri, and he is president of the Hamburg Cemetery Association and the Franklin County Cemetery Society, which he founded in 2006.
“We had about 15 or 20 people at that first (Cemetery Society) meeting,” Houseman said. “Now we’ve worked on more than 100 cemeteries, and we’ve never charged a cent. ... I’m extremely proud of that (work). There’s no better honor than working for the dead because they can’t help themselves.”
In 2003, the Washington Historical Society first broached the topic of bringing in a second employee. Eighteen years later, the museum is hiring for a part-time paid administrative assistant, and Houseman hopes it will only keep growing.
He recently was going through a donated collection and found a photograph of a grave at Odd Fellows Cemetery from 1916. The grave was for a young man, Purdy Smith, whose grave Houseman knows he has likely cared for at some point over the years.
“Just that one photograph proves to me we’re all connected. We’re all in the same city block, same town, same state, same country, same world. It all ties together,” he said. “This world is one fabric woven by one pair of hands. If we live knowing that, maybe someday we’ll stop killing and hating. Maybe we’ll even start loving. ... I guess if I’ve done anything successful, I hope I’ve helped use that thread to pull a lot of things together.”