By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — The future of Salem Pioneer Village is up in the air as Gordon College announced this month that it will not renew its agreement to manage the city-owned living history site.
The Wenham college will continue programming and school tours at the village through June.
Mayor Kim Driscoll said she has begun to “explore options” for Salem Pioneer Village — both to keep the site open through the remainder of the summer season and to maintain it long-term.
“I’d hate to see it move backwards, because (Gordon College) has done so much work there,” Driscoll said. “I wouldn’t say anything is off the table. I’m trying to understand what all our options are right now.”
The 5-acre Salem Pioneer Village, off West Avenue, was built in 1930 as a stage set for a city-organized pageant to mark the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Gov. John Winthrop to Massachusetts’ shores. With a blacksmith’s shop, wigwam and thatched-roof cottages, the site is meant to depict Salem as it would have appeared to settlers arriving in the 1630s.
Gordon College has managed the pioneer village and Salem’s Old Town Hall on Essex Street since 2008.
The college will drop Salem Pioneer Village this year in order to focus its efforts and resources on Old Town Hall, said David Goss, professor of public history and director of Gordon’s Institute for Public History.
“We had to sit down and say, ‘We only have so many resources, so many people. Where can we do our best job?’ ” Goss said. “It was a very difficult decision because I love the village. From a realistic point of view, we can only spread ourselves so thin.”
Making the village work, financially, has always been a struggle and has even caused the site to close in the past, Driscoll said. It’s located outside of downtown and is not within walking distance of the city’s other tourist attractions.
“(Gordon) was terrific in terms of bringing it back to life, but it’s really hard financially to make it work for them,” Driscoll said. “We’re glad to be keeping them at Old Town Hall.”
“We’re not in any way divorcing ourselves from our commitment to the city of Salem. We’re just trying to have a more realistic and doable agenda,” Goss said. “Running two historic sites was a pretty ambitious undertaking. It finally reached a point where we had to decide where to place our greatest effort.”
Despite its location, attendance at the village has risen steadily in recent years, Goss said. The village saw 12,000 visitors last year — half of whom came during the Halloween season.
Since 2008, Gordon College opened the village to the public on weekends through the summer and fall; ran living history programs and special events, such as a pirate-themed day; and did educational programming for school, Scout and other youth groups.
Gordon College had signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the city, Driscoll said — the city did not pay Gordon to manage the property or receive any revenue from its operation.
Last week, upon learning of the college’s decision, Driscoll said her “initial reaction” is that the city would not run the village itself.
“We’d like to find a way to make it work,” Driscoll said. “It would be great to have another nonprofit running it, managing it. Initially, our priority is short-term, something for the summer.”
“My preference is to keep it open this summer, but it’s not lost on me how hard that is,” she said.
Any long-term contract to run the village would have to go out to bid, she said. The issue will be discussed at a meeting of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission later this month.
Salem Pioneer Village is an extension of Forest River Park.
Numerous improvements have been made at Salem Pioneer Village during Gordon College’s tenure, including replacing broken windows, re-thatching roofs, reconstructing the fences around the property, building bridges over two brooks at the site and replanting gardens.
The wigwam has been rebuilt from the ground up, and the blacksmith’s forge has been restored and is once again functional, Goss said.
Gordon College ran the village with a staff of six, plus volunteers, he said. The site has 12 buildings, including five Colonial houses, two dugout structures with log roofs, the wigwam and the blacksmith’s shop.
“I’m very hopeful there will be a successor that will step in and continue these programs,” Goss said. “...The village is in pretty good shape and whoever takes it over will benefit from that.”
At Old Town Hall, the college will continue to run its first-floor museum devoted to Salem history and the “Cry Innocent” seasonal drama production.
The Salem Museum saw 30,000 visitors last year, Goss said.
They’re repainting Old Town Hall’s interior this month and opening a new exhibit this spring on Parker Brothers games, he said.
“We’re very committed to trying to tell the story of Salem,” Goss said. “(The decision to leave Salem Pioneer Village) is not a turning away from Salem, or in any way lessening our commitment to Salem.”
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.