By Julie Zasada, Cedar Lake Historical Association, Cedar Lake, IN
The #AASLH2022 Annual Conference theme of Right Here, Right Now: The Power of Place resonated with me immediately. Checking in at the registration table, my badge ribbons succinctly identified how I came to be in that place on September 16, 2022: Small Museum, Scholarship Recipient, First-Time Attendee, and Award Winner. However, it was the tremendous power of steam that actually brought me to that moment.
The Power of a Place
Amelia Earhart is attributed as having said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity.” I am the volunteer Executive Director of the Cedar Lake Historical Association. It’s a role that I never sought out. The power of place, namely of Lassen’s Resort, drew me in. I felt compelled to act, to continue the preservation efforts of our association founders, from the first moment I laid eyes on the building in 2008. Its history captured my imagination. I have worked tenaciously to establish reasons for people to care as much as I do for the 101-year-old former resort hotel.
Founded in 1977 to preserve town history and save the hotel from demolition, the association has been operating The Museum at Lassen’s Resort as a local history museum since 1986. We suffered from the one-and-done syndrome that plagues many small local history museums. Once you’ve visited, you’ve seen “the things.” There was no reason to return. My journey to Buffalo, New York, and the AASLH conference began in February of 2018 with an innocuous email titled, “Ted, meet Julie.” Those three words changed everything for the Cedar Lake Historical Association.
The Power of Steam
When my colleague, Ted Rita, General Manager of the Hesston Steam Museum in LaPorte County, Indiana, toured for the first time in 2018, he took one look at the photograph of Lassen’s Resort Dewey Line steamboat circa 1896 and exclaimed, “You know what you need? You need a steamboat!” In that moment, the tremendous power of steam began the process of establishing the power of place for our museum.
For thirty-two years, we had been displaying objects, but we weren’t connecting our visitors to the stories that shaped our community and the experiences that established Cedar Lake’s place and its relevance.
In 2021, we partnered with Hesston Steam Museum to present Steam through History. It was a humanities-based program that enticed over 1,000 guests to visit the Museum at Lassen’s Resort in one week, compared to our average twenty visitors per week. They experienced the science of steam power and the resort-era history that brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to Cedar Lake’s shores from 1881 through the 1930s. The highlight was a twenty-minute roundtrip ride aboard an authentic 1915 steam launch that took passengers from the museum to the site of the former railroad depot on the opposite shoreline. This partnership between two volunteer-operated museums displayed the vigor, scholarship, and imagination that is necessary to earn AASLH’s highest award for organizations, the Albert B. Corey Award.
The Power of Connection
Far too often, small museum leaders find themselves feeling overwhelmed in a crusade to save local history. As a first-time attendee of an AASLH conference, I was concerned that convening with historians on a national level would leave me feeling further overwhelmed and challenged by the disparities of our organizational capacity. However, I found the opposite to be true.
The power of place in Buffalo was a convention center full of colleagues filled with the same passion for sharing stories that bring history to life. The power of place was a conference room filled with fellow museum administrators who were striving to implement standards of excellence in daily operations and could empathize with the obstacles that small budgets pose. The power of place was a conversation in a session filled with peers who helped each other brainstorm new ways to earn revenue. The power of place was a plenary luncheon where the speakers demonstrated the value that historical sites have and the inspirational determination it takes to save them. The power of place was an awards ceremony honoring the unique people, projects, exhibits, and programs of more than fifty organizations across the nation… and being one of them.
The power of place at the 2022 AASLH conference in Buffalo was realizing that I am not alone in my decision to preserve and interpret local history. AASLH is a vibrant network of historians where professionals from any museum can find their inspiration to persevere. Right here. Right now.