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CAROLYN CRABTREE: This is Carolyn Crabtree; the date is October 28th, 2009. I am doing an interview with Jim Thomas at the McDowell House and Apothecary. Mr. Thomas, tell me a little bit about yourself.

JIM THOMAS: I just celebrated my 70th birthday yesterday so I'm still sort of ringing from that.

CRABTREE: Well, Happy Birthday.

THOMAS: Born in Philadelphia, my parents moved to Kentucky I think when I was 15, moved to Louisville. My father was a textile executive. I grew up the rest of the way in Louisville, went to college at the University of Louisville, became interested in historic preservation in 1962 and went to work for, at that time -- it is now called Historic Locust Grove but back in the early sixties it 1:00was one of two properties owned by the Historic Homes Foundation. And I was there from 1962 to 1964 and in 1964 I was invited to come and be the assistant to James Lowry Cogar who was returning from Colonial Williamsburg where he had been a resident for over 30 years. And the first 18 were in the service of Colonial Williamsburg as the first curator and Mr. Cogar was asked to do the restoration of Shakertown at Pleasant Hill and over a period of a year we'd had 2:00conversations about when he might need an assistant and when I could come and my employment was started in May of 1964. I remained there for 41 years, the last 30 as president. And my principal job in the early days and a good portion of my job for my whole employment was working with the buildings, with the natural landscape and I was very honored and lucky to work in such a beautiful, wonderful, environment with buildings that had had little care since Shaker ownership. So during that time Mr. Cogar was elected to be a member of the board of the McDowell House and his concern after a few years of service was that the 3:00board was top heavy with older, primarily physicians. And that he thought it would be very helpful for the McDowell House and indeed to establish a new direction, to have younger members on the board. So, I came on sometime in the early to mid-seventies and remained on the board until 1990. And then went off because I had a very, very busy schedule at Shaker Village. I came back on upon my retirement; it was probably either in late 2005 or maybe 2006, so I'm on my 4:00second stint.

C: What do you feel like your accomplishments have been as board member here?

T: Well, perhaps having served before for a period of time I offer continuity from earlier board service, and hopefully because I was involved in historic preservation for a total of, oh gosh, 43 years before I retired including my service at Locust Grove, that I had a prospective which would -- could be helpful to McDowell House, certainly the preservation of the building, the stewardship of the collection and hopefully be some help to Carol and the board if things came up which were related to the administration of the house inside. 5:00I had the authority for a very large project, I guess it was the largest project in the state of Kentucky in the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties.

C: When they restored this again?

T: Well, I was thinking of Shaker Village.

C: Oh, at Shaker Village.

T: That's how I think I could have helped her is the experience that I had is certainly applicable to a house museum, which this is. So therefore I felt that maybe I could share some of my experiences and some of my opinions, if you will.

C: I know we want to talk about McDowell House but I am curious. I have lost 6:00track of trying to put the time sequence together with Shaker Village. When did that work actually begin where they rerouted the road and all that sort of thing?

T: The road was actually rerouted in my memory and I haven't had to use my institutional memory in the time I've been retired for 4 ½ years. But as I recall, I think it was moved in basically two phases. The first phase involved the center of the village down somewhat past the West Family and that was in 1966 and '67 which allowed us to open as you enter the village presently in 1968. The second part of that phase or second phase was done in the early '90s 7:00and it involved taking the road out to the old west lawn entrance and at that point a new bridge was built over the Kentucky River -- excuse me, not over the Kentucky River but over the Shawnee Run Creek, which flows into the Kentucky River. That allowed for the road to be -- the complete road all the way out to Highway 68 to be restored. Most of the original road is only used for pedestrian traffic and light vehicular, authorized vehicular traffic.

C: Now, concerning McDowell House you mentioned that Jim Cogar -- did I say that 8:00correctly? --

T: Yes.

C: -- felt like the board should have some younger blood in it. Have they continued to keep younger people on the board so that that continues -- that fresh idea?

T: Well, I think so; it is hard. The gentleman who was involved with the Perryville restoration, Stuart--

C: Sanders.

T: And I was very impressed with him and then he went to work for the Kentucky Historical Society and I think that he felt that it was somewhat of a conflict of interest; I guess it really involved some programs that the society operates 9:00for the historic preservation community, and so therefore, he resigned. I thought he was really a splendid choice and that kind of person I hope will come on the board again, although I think he had very unique talents. He was a very, very intelligent and attractive young man. But I think that kind of person, male or female, would be just absolutely terrific for the board and there are one or two other younger members, but I think perhaps the same problem exists. And I'm a senior member myself and I am only basically here until maybe they can find somebody who has a background in historic preservation and some administrative 10:00experience. I must have come on the board when I was in my early thirties and I was really busy at the time, because I was very busy with the restoration of Shakertown and I was being trained to follow Mr. Cogar, who had been made president while I was made executive vice president of Shaker Village. And at the same time we had in the middle seventies the bicentennial of Kentucky and the celebration was centered in Harrodsburg around the Harrodsburg Historical Society and I was asked to be president for two years before and after that, before and during the bicentennial. And then I went on the board of the Kentucky Historic Society, was president of the Historical Society and they, oh gosh, hundred and fiftieth anniversary which would be the sesquicentennial and that was in 1985 and '86. So I had a period of time there where I was extremely busy 11:00and I was in my mid-thirties to my mid-forties and that's a really good age, but it's also an age where young people maybe get over-committed. But we really do need the perspective of the younger generation, because, unquestionably, historic house museums, history generally and the attendance to museums, regardless of whether they're history museums or cultural museums, has fallen off very dramatically. It has everything to do with changing demographics, how 12:00people view cultural projects and that sort of thing, and young people will, I think, be invaluable to developing new approaches to visitation, support, and just general relevance in the community.

C: I was going to ask you about that. I know we have this "Disney" mentality about vacations and things like that. How has that affected places like McDowell House? You've answered that for me a little bit. Do you have any idea what to do to improve that whole mentality for young people, young couples?

T: Well, I think what one has to do in each individual property is to find out what your audience wants and what your audience expects and then try to measure 13:00that with what you are doing and what you'd like to do and craft individually a program for each site that will be appropriate and appealing, and mission based. So I don't know that there's one panacea, like I know there isn't, but it takes a good deal of soul-searching. When I was involved in preservation as a young person and indeed for many, many years, if we were doing what our mission intended us to do and if we were doing it well, chances were at that time that you were quite relevant and we didn't at that point in time have competition for 14:00all the things that are in society today and all of the activities that counteract and compete with one another and attendance was quite easy to motivate and to improve and increase. In today's world there's so many things going on, so many organizations who want to work compatibly but don't know how to, that we all suffer from kind of a mentality of too many things and we 15:00compete against one another and we don't join forces and become stronger. We compete against others and become weaker so--.

C: There are places like Shaker Village, who have living history people there at all times.

T: Yes.

C: Do you foresee anything like that here ever happening where people would be dressed in period costumes and give the tours in a different way than they do now for especially school groups and things like that?

T: Well, we always felt that period costuming reinforced what we were trying to do because it allowed the visitor to have and come back with a mental impression 16:00of the interpretation as it unfolded. I think that period costuming is very important and I also think the idea of interacting so that you can make something that is 200 years old relevant to the times. There is the third person interpretation involving actors and that works well if you have skilled actors and you have done enough research to know the character well and to have the character make some sense out of what you are saying. But I think the main thing is that you want to try to give energy to the interpretive effort, and you want to be accurate and you want to be memorable and you have to be, in today's 17:00world, efficient because everything costs so much.

C: I was gonna say, the cost of hiring actors --

T: Hiring and training actors is very expensive and what it comes down to normally is now people who are professional interpreters are there who have acting experience. When you go to, let's say Colonial Williamsburg, you see Thomas Jefferson. He's a superb actor, absolutely a superb actor and he knows all about the period; he knows all about Jefferson's life personally, and he can engage in repartee that is interesting. It really, I think, grabs the visitor; 18:00it's a way of engaging.

C: I have to admit, that is does. I've been to Plymouth.

T: Sure. Plymouth Plantation does a great job.

C: And places like that.

T: Yep.

C: It does, it's an experience, you never forget even as an adult.

T: Now the next thing is -- does it really drive attendance up? And sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn't. One of the things that we found over a long period of time is that special events where you are doing something that you only do once that year or once in a period of years, and if the special event is planned correctly and marketed correctly so that people know what you're going to do because the best event that's not marketed and publicized will fall on it's own, basically because people just don't know about it. But what we found is that special events do attract people and do attract a new audience. What is interesting though, when you compare the audiences of, let's say, the seventies 19:00and eighties and well into the nineties and the audiences of the new millennium is you only get one chance in the new millennium. And you can expect that that first chance will give you the highest attendance. In past times, if you were going to do a certain event each year in September or in the spring, you could think that with some accuracy, that in three to five years your attendance would rise each year and that you could expect, if it was done correctly, to have a substantial increase at the end of a three or five year period. That doesn't seem to bear out today.

C: Why is that?

T: I think it's because people are so inundated with new information, new 20:00opportunities to visit and go. The average visitor is, many, many young people suffer from this, they would rather be engaged on the internet or in some web experience, and that, virtual reality is really more important than reality.

C: Oh, how sad.

T: And that has been reported time and time again as a real factor in attendance to history sites.

C: Do you think that could be because so many of them put a virtual tour on the internet of their buildings so they feel like they don't have to go?

T: That may be part of the reason. I think that this whole emphasis of 21:00information gathering, for all the good that's inherent in having infinite possibilities for getting information, is also contributing to in particular young people who are only excited when they see something that is extravagant, that's over the top, that is exciting because of special effects and they don't give what would be considered to be a natural interpretation a chance, because 22:00it's just not the kind of overblown thing that they're used to.

C: Well, in every area of the media it seems like that's the way it is. You know you have extreme events in every area--movies--

T: Absolutely. Even watching the news you know; I've just gotten immune to that with the exception of trying to watch for the early morning weather and what local news might be interesting besides the home invasions and all of the things that were reported.

C: Right.

T: But I must say that everything has to be blown out of proportion in order to be heard, listened to, remembered, and the dispassionate way of reporting the news as done by BBC, PBS, for most people is a negative. It can be even a generational thing. Most of our generations were taught to write, to use the 23:00cursive style, to be able to explain their thoughts on paper and to be able to read. And you look at the modern day generation and there are not only problems with math and science which I know are severe, and certainly in your field. Dr. Todd was speaking about this the other day for university training but there's just a dereliction there of discipline and understanding. And somehow, someway, America and American society has to come to grips with it. It's very serious.


C: I believe you're right. I think our young people have no heritage; they have no understanding of where they and their families came from. They're so scattered and separated.

T: Very true.

C: This has to affect their feelings about buildings like this.

T: Absolutely.

C: Museums and other things. I worked in the tourism office across the street for a few years, and I've noticed that senior citizens, the retired generations tend to be the ones who do the traveling to places like this. But, there are a lot of school children who come here as well. What should be done to bring them back when they get older, in your opinion? What can be done here?


T: Well, I think that we have to make the history more relevant. We have to make it more interesting. I got such a late start in life with children personally. My wife and I have two boys and the first boy was born in 1990, first child, and my second child was born in 1994, so I know firsthand the strengths of our present day educational system and I know the weaknesses.

C: Um-hmm.

T: And both boys have more than an average interest and desire to learn history.

C: Oh, that's good.

T: But that's because I've taken the time to take them to sites and really try to make the experience fun and interactive and personal. And it can be done in 26:00today's world, but it takes a lot of effort and time. In some way the history has to be made more fun and the children have to be a part of the history, not only in terms of being interactive with the interpreter but to understand that these historic events one upon another have created this country. This is not something that is a distant past, but something that is within the area of memory of many people who are still alive and when I was growing up my mother 27:00told me about her grandfather who was a surgeon in Lee's army of Northern Virginia, and he was born in 1835, and he died in 1915. Well, my mother was born in 1908, and so she remembered her grandfather and what she could tell me about visits to her grandfather, who lived both in Virginia and Maryland as a physician were really fascinating and I tried to make that relevant to my children. That I could know my mother and talk to my mother about things that happened before her childhood and I could relay that firsthand to my children, and all of the sudden I think, you know, a period of 150 years was coming together for them and it wasn't something that was so far back and so 28:00misunderstood that they could not identify with it. So I think that we have to find ways to get into their psyche in ways that are fun and exciting and are not dependent on these kinds of Internet experiences, if you will.

C: Well, I know for me, I was not that interested in history until I started doing genealogy on my family.

T: A wonderful way to start.

C: But we don't have any kind of classes in high school or grade school that help these children see that -- hey, these were real people living in the Civil War --

T: Exactly.

C: --that were part of your family, for example.

T: Exactly.

C: And, and as you were saying earlier, most children have a disconnect. I mean, after their parent's generation, they didn't live with their grandparents. Or they didn't know about their great-grandparents, or their great-great-grandparents and I guess it's the sign of a mobile society where 29:00you're born here and then you move to here and then blah, blah, blah and ad infinitum.

C: We have a lot of families breaking up.

T: Absolutely.

C: When you have split families and all of that has to affect it, too.

T: Absolutely.

C: Well, my granddaughter came here when she was about ten for the first time I think. She absolutely fell in love with the place. And she still loves this place. And I see that in the eyes of some of the students that come through the building, but you have to tell the extravagant stories, like you say, the unusual ones to get some of their attention.

T: You know you have to find a way to engage them. And you're competing with the 30:00Internet; you're competing with the television. You're competing with things that are just, in my opinion, over the top. You have these terrible detective shows and shows with all sorts of violence and just kind of general mayhem.

C: Um-hmm.

T: And it's hard to be that interesting because when children watch that, they're just sort of sitting back watching it; they don't have to do anything; it's all done for them. They don't have to use their mind; they don't have to use their imagination. You don't have to imagine anything; it's all right there.

C: Well, when I was teaching I can remember telling my students, "Mathematics is not always fun but you have to learn it." That's the mentality it seems to me of a lot of students today. They have to have everything fun or everything, you know jumping all the time, to even care if they learn it or not. What are your 31:00dreams about what McDowell House should be in the future?

T: McDowell House has a very important part in the community, because it is a reference to the early part of the 19th century. And it's a continuing reference, and it's part of the psyche of people who are fortunate to grow up in Danville and Boyle County and for young people and families who come from out of the state and out of state and I think it's always important to make sure the house is in excellent condition and one of the board's

most important functions, I think, it to make sure that they continue to be good stewards of this property and that the property remain in excellent condition. I think it's important to continue research about the house and the family that 32:00lived here and the members of the families that lived here, which yields up so much good information for continuing to improve the interpretive history. It's important to have a good acquisitions committee that will continue to search out for portraits and art that belonged to the family, furniture and accessories, that are at the very least of the period and appropriate for a Kentucky House of this age but hopefully have a family connection. And things do come back over time and I've been lucky enough, over a period of close to 50 years now, to watch properties such as McDowell House be the beneficiaries of some really 33:00interesting things, and again they're family things that are really important, so it's kind of a multi-faceted approach for those of us who have been involved in McDowell House and love the house and what's it means to this community and beyond.

C: Do you keep in touch with people who have items that may eventually come to the McDowell House in anyway, or do you keep track of things like that?

T: I'm not on the acquisitions committee and I and so, therefore, I'm not sure from a board perspective whether that's done. I do know that Carol has done a wonderful job over a long period of time in staying in touch with family members 34:00who are sympathetic to the McDowell House and she has a wide range of good connections so that's really helpful. And I think it's important for Carol and any person who serves as the director and head of staff for a project like ours to be immersed in the institutional history and to be the spokesperson for the institution. And it should really fall on the staff members because board members, although their service is valuable and the greatest contribution the board members can make is to make sure the mission of the institution is followed. But if you have a good executive director and good people working to that end then you can be pretty much assured that this is being carried out but 35:00the most important thing for a board member I think is to make sure it is being carried out. But I think to have somebody who knows the institutional history from the very beginning and what this place looked like in the period of the depression and what it looked like prior to restoration, I guess the first time in the mid-to-late thirties, WPA, and then, of course, to follow the different administrations of chairmen. Laman Gray was the first chairman when I came here and did a very fine job and was here for many, many years and was a very prominent surgeon from Louisville; and his successor, I think, was Rouzier, and Russ did a wonderful job and his successor was Chas Martin so I think I've been here during the administration of three separate chairs, and I think the chair 36:00should always be a physician.

C: You do?

T: Because of the ownership of the Kentucky Medical Association and the need to remember and to put first and foremost why we're so involved with this house.

C: Uh-hmm.

T: It's because of Dr. McDowell.

C: Now it works with an endowment?

T: Yes.

C: Do you feel like the endowment you have now to work with, is sufficient? Does it need to be increased or how, I don't know a thing about the money angle here.

T: Well, I know about the size the endowment is and I do know that the endowment took a hit in, you know. the recent financial downturn but because of good 37:00management of the endowment it was not hit as hard as many endowments that provide for institutions and the endowment has come back to a great degree with the market improvement. I've always believed that endowments are the safety net for any institution and the institutions that I've been involved with, principally Shaker Village and to a lesser extent the Kentucky Historical 38:00Society, have both been well served with endowments and the McDowell House is certainly in that same category. So I think it's the safety net and I don't know that you can ever be satisfied with where you are.

C: You shouldn't be probably.

T: Because of the most recent downturn, how quickly it came on, how deep it was for most everybody involved. Anybody with a 401K or IRA felt it, or a TIA, whatever. I mean everybody felt it, so I think the board needs to think of always improving, increasing endowments. It's the hardest money in the world to raise, but it's probably the most important.

C: Do you have anything else you'd like to share with us today, with me, about 39:00the House, about your thoughts about the House?

T: Well I think that the House is so well done and the things here are so appropriate; it's amazing that a House of this quality could be restored and maintained and interpreted in a town the size of Danville. And I credit the citizens of Danville that have gotten behind it and the board that's insistent on doing the right thing and the staff that's carried it out. You know, I think McDowell House has done some really extraordinary things and yet it's a very small house museum.

C: Um-hmm.

T: And I think it's the way the preservation effort has been taken very seriously; the people who have been involved have been very professional. The 40:00board has wanted to do the right thing, and I think the house should be complimented for all that's taken place, again in an environment that's very small. I don't really know of a comparable house in the Commonwealth that has done as much with the assets of the institution.

C: Now, I've traveled a good deal around the state and I was in Georgetown just recently. Ward Hall--

T: Um-hmm.

C: I could not get in; it had a gate closed, you know, this kind of thing. I'm not sure, White Hall, is it open in the winter?


T: That's a very good question, the state, had to change their operating procedures for all their state historic, as they call them, shrines, and I know that the hours are greatly reduced in the wintertime and there's some properties that are closed. I know last year, for instance, at Fort Harrod in Harrodsburg was closed oh, for a good long time.

C: So was this park, Constitution Square.

T: Constitution Square was closed for probably six months, or maybe not that long.

C: Not quite.

T: A long time.

C: It was about four months, I think.

T: Marcheta Sparrow, who has the oversight of the state parks, I think has done a masterful job in trying to keep the most important things intact; but it's 42:00been very difficult. They have just had reduction after reduction, and I know it's very disheartening for staff and it's disheartening for people who want to see these properties open and know that they can visit them.

C: While I was working across the street at Grayson's when this happened and they kept their staff, but they did not have the buildings open. We had so many complaints from people coming in who wanted to see the buildings. And I just wonder if that is something that you see is going to continue for awhile. Do you believe that that is going to have an effect here? Because it seems to affect, when people come over there, they will come over here.

T: That's true.

C: And vice versa.

T: Yeah, I mean the idea of the state parks, not even thinking about the 43:00historic sites, has always been to bring people to the specific site and then have private enterprise operate in that sphere to take care of the many needs that visitors bring. I'm really surprised; I didn't realize that people were kept on and yet the buildings were not open, because it would seem that it would be a fairly simple way of inviting people in and even if you're on low heat, you can wear an overcoat and sit in the family dwelling. Shaker Village is one of the coldest places in the world for four months of the year, and yet if the interpretation is hot, everyone is very excited about it. I do know that the interpretation for most historic sites is seasonal. The seasons vary, of course, 44:00according to the geographic region, but in our geographic region you can expect to have 80% of visitation from April through October and then the 20% in those other months. You know, no matter what you do in the wintertime it is harder and harder to sustain, even break even. I know that we did Elderhostels for many years at Shaker Village, and all of a sudden they started drying up. The Elderhostel concept which was really wonderful for Shaker Village and many other institutions; colleges were using Elderhostel, not in the winter as we were using it, but in the summer when the campuses were empty and the dormitories were not used. It's a wonderful way to engage faculty who might be remaining for the summer and to use the facilities that were unused.

C: Is that what hurt the ones at Shaker Village?

T: Absolutely, and it was a national trend. We went from having perhaps five or 45:00six a year to I think -- I'm not current at Shaker Village, but I don't think there were maybe more than three if that.

C: Well, they have added an event over there which seems to be very, very popular, that music event that they have in May.

T: Oh, sure, absolutely.

C: I forget the name of it.

T: They're partnering with Centre College.

C: Yes.

T: George.

C: Have they ever done anything like that here with string quartets or something like that for entertainment?

T: Oh, gosh, that's probably a question with Carol because her knowledge on a 46:00day to day basis is much better than mine. The problem that one has with this house and trying to do special programs, particularly performance programs, is that there's no space.

C: That's true, it is like a house.

T: You know you have a hard time getting people to stand for longer than ten or fifteen minutes and things are very crowded; the rooms are quite small. Outdoor things, I'm sure would be better, but if you have bad weather, you don't really have another facility to go to. And, you know, there have been attempts to have dinners here. The facility is really not set up. I know at Shaker Village we have to hone our hospitality services to finance over a long period of time because if somebody comes long distance in particular, they come from Lexington or Louisville or whatever, they really want to have the very best and they 47:00deserve that and you have to have professional people in the hospitality services and you have to have the right amenities. If you don't have that then people get mad and they take it out on you, they expect you to have it. It's hard to do those kinds of things.

C: I really appreciate your coming and doing this interview.

T: Oh, I'm happy to; thank you, thank you.

C: If you have anything else you'd like to say before I cut off the machine you're welcome to.

T: I'm talked out.

C: Thank you very much.

T: Thank you. Good to see you; good luck.