, Salem, MA

May 31, 2013

Our view: Pioneer Village at a crossroads, again

The Salem News

---- — There’s no arguing Salem Pioneer Village is a city treasure.

Considered one of the nation’s oldest living-history museums, the three-acre village off West Avenue was built in 1930 for a city-organized pageant marking the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Gov. John Winthrop to Massachusetts’ shores. With a blacksmith’s shop, wigwam and thatched-roof cottages among its buildings, and with all the work done with methods and materials used at the time, the site is meant to depict Salem as it would have appeared to Puritans arriving in the 1630s.

Though small, the site is an invaluable window into an important era in the history of the region — and in the history of what would become the United States. In that way, it’s every bit as important as the city’s major historical attractions, including the Custom House and Friendship, the House of the Seven Gables and any number of museums and monuments addressing the witch hysteria.

Unfortunately, however, that historical importance may not be enough to keep the site open past June.

Pioneer Village enjoys none of the advantages of the city’s other historic and history-themed sites, with their downtown locations, interconnectedness and dramatic story arcs. Tucked away behind Forest River Park, it’s not easy to get to. And the story it tells is of daily life in the 1630s. There is no talk of pirates, secret staircases or witch trials. For those who treasure local history, that makes the site a labor of love.

For the last five years, the site has been managed, along with Old Town Hall on Essex Street, by Gordon College. By all accounts, the college has devoted a tremendous amount of time and effort to rehabilitating and running the site since it took over the property in 2008.

Over the past five years, the college has re-thatched roofs, replaced broken windows, rebuilt fences around the property, replanted gardens and built bridges over two brooks.

The college opens the site on weekends during the warmer months and makes it available for field trips and educational programming for a modest fee. There were about 12,000 visitors last year, and overall attendance has risen recently.

That still may not be enough to keep the site running, even as a labor of love. Gordon recently announced it will not renew its contract to run the site after June, even as it continues its work with Old Town Hall.

“We had to sit down and say ‘We only have so many resources, so many people,’” David Goss, professor of public history and director of Gordon’s Institute for Public History, told reporter Bethany Bray. “It was a very difficult decision because I love the village. From a realistic point of view, we can only spread ourselves so thin.”

Gordon College deserves the city’s thanks for the job it has done in tough economic times. And now the burden falls back upon the city.

Mayor Kim Driscoll said the city is working to find a way to keep the village open through the summer. What happens past that is anyone’s guess right now. Driscoll said the city likely won’t take on managing the property long-term. That’s a wise call for a municipality trying to keep its finances in order.

Still, it’s worth making one last, final effort to keep Pioneer Village alive.

The city would be wise to bring together local history experts as well as tourism and business leaders to try one more time to save the site. Salem, thanks to the contributions of people and institutions — Gordon College, Salem State University, David Goss, Salem Preservation Inc., Jim McAllister, and the minds behind the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, to name a few — blends history, commerce and tourism as well as any community in the country.

If they can’t come up with a viable long-term solution, it may be, unfortunately, that there isn’t one.