When Evan Quimby began volunteering as a docent at the Wilderstein Historic Site, it was kind of a retirement thing where she had some time on her hands and the desire to give back to the community. She quickly found, however, that she enjoyed giving tours, and even recruited her husband to join her. “We both came to really love it a lot,” she says now. “You meet the most interesting people from literally all over the world, particularly in the summer. And the volunteer staff is very nice, very welcoming to new people right from the start. We’ve become a close-knit group of people, and you become part of that community.”
Wilderstein is seeking a few more such good people in a volunteer recruitment event that it’s holding on Saturday, March 12 at 10 a.m. The volunteer event will begin with an information session, followed by free tours of the house for anyone interested in becoming a volunteer docent or greeter. An RSVP is requested by March 1 so they know how many people to expect. Call (845) 876-4818 or e-mail email@example.com.
Many people who later become docents begin as greeters, says Quimby, because one doesn’t have to memorize as much information. Greeters work in the gift shop selling admissions and gift items and chat with guests. “They don’t need to know a great deal about the house at first, but most eventually learn a lot and can share whatever they wish to, if they are comfortable doing so. And this position can be filled by someone with mobility issues, because you’re basically seated.”
All new docents are trained and mentored by experienced docents. New volunteers “shadow” an experienced docent on a few tours to get a feel for things before going solo, and have a mentor to call if they need advice about how to handle a particular situation or need more information. Docents are given a script containing the basic facts; but once they’re familiar with the house and the history of its residents, they can personalize the tour as they wish.
One of the best things about the volunteer positions, says Quimby, is that they don’t require a huge commitment of time. Wilderstein is open from Thursday through Sunday from May to October, and from Thanksgiving until the end of December on weekends only. Volunteers are asked to work two days per month (during the months that it’s open), and the schedule can be arranged flexibly to suit each person’s needs. The hours are from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m., so it’s really just ten hours a month for half the year that a docent or greeter is asked to commit to.
Volunteers are important to all of our regional historic sites, but in the case of Wilderstein they are essential. Because Wilderstein is not owned by the state or federal government, it doesn’t have access to those sources of funding, and the property only remains open to the public through the day-to-day staffing of volunteers. “We’re not part of the parks system, so there is no budget,” says Quimby. “We have to raise all our own money.”
Any funds that are raised go right back into preserving the house and property. The Wilderstein historic site is owned by the Wilderstein Preservation, a private nonprofit founded by Wilderstein’s last resident, Margaret (Daisy) Suckley. She lived in the multi-generation family home until her death at age 100 in 1991. A cousin and confidante of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Suckley traveled extensively with FDR during his presidency, gave him his famous black Scottish terrier Fala and helped to establish his library in Hyde Park. She was with FDR when he died at Warm Springs, Georgia in 1945. The letters that they exchanged during their friendship, discovered in a battered suitcase at Wilderstein, provide one of the best resources for understanding Roosevelt’s private life during his presidency.
The site’s collections – all original to the estate – number more than 15,500 catalogued objects that include textiles, clothing, art and personal items, photographs, books, sheet music, magazines and ephemeral items dating from 1540 to 1991. The estate’s archives include correspondence and bills from 1706 to 1991, along with hundreds of maps, architectural and landscape drawings, diaries, ledgers, account books, ships’ logs and business records relating to the Suckley family. The collection is considered one of the most comprehensive records of the history of the Hudson Valley.
The tours at present cover the first floor of the home. Future fundraising will enable the Wilderstein Preservation to open the second floor, too; but that is likely to be far in the future, says Quimby. The most recent preservation work was done in the carriagehouse on the property, which has now been made structurally sound thanks to a $500,000 fundraising project supported by the community. The Board of Directors at Wilderstein is now working on Phase Two of the carriagehouse project to make it usable. The exterior of the Wilderstein carriagehouse will be restored to its former glory and its interior transformed into space for exhibitions, educational programs and community events.