Olana’s Best Friends

by Melanie Hasbrook

By Paul Banks, Interpretive Program Assistant

Photo by Amy Hufnagel

Did you take a tour of the house at Olana last year? If so, you’re in good company. Last year nearly 28,000 people toured the house. That’s rather impressive when you consider that’s roughly equal to all the other tours given by New York State historic sites last year. That’s right. Olana alone accounts for about half the tours given in the 35 sites in the state of New York! How do we do it? Well, we have a reservation system that streamlines the process and helps us plan our staffing level, and we have self-guided tours on weekends, which allows more casual perusal of the home, and we have a small paid staff both of state employees and of The Olana Partnership that chip in to give tours. But what really makes this possible is all the hard work and dedication of our great volunteers. Volunteers make all the difference at Olana and they always have!

50 years ago a group of dedicated volunteers set about to save Olana from the wrecking ball. Think about that. In 1966 most Americans were focused on the future. Futurists wowed people with talk of sending a man to the moon. They promised labor saving technology (like the Facsimile machine) would reduce the work week to fewer and fewer hours. But the future of our history was looking fairly bleak as there was so little support for historic properties. Fortunately, that was not the case everywhere nor with everyone, and Olana was spared from oblivion. Volunteers, more than anyone else, saved Olana. They held fund raisers and gave tours and did whatever else they could to raise money until they had succeeded.

Volunteers remain a crucial component in the saving of Olana today. For even today, historic sites are white elephants in a state or county budget. They are usually the oldest, most unique places in most states and counties. That is why they are worth saving, but that comes at a cost. They are also often the most expensive to keep up. And in these times of super-tight government budgets, what bridges the gap between government finances and failure is the volunteer. They are the unsung heroes of historic sites throughout the world.

Our longest serving volunteer started in 1982 and she is still going strong today. We have volunteers who drive over an hour each way to get here. We have volunteers with full time jobs who drop by on weekends to lend a hand for a few hours. Last year, we had two volunteers who each donated close to 250 hours of their time. Overall, volunteers donated over 1,100 hours in total to Olana in 2015. Can you imagine how many fewer people would have been able to tour the house or how many fewer events we could hold–not to forget all the other help volunteers give from being board members to chairing fundraisers? Olana is popular because it’s an amazing place, but Olana is possible because of great volunteers.

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the saving of Olana, and it’s important to keep in mind who made this place what it is today. Frederic Church? Sure! And our volunteers carry forward the vision of Frederic Church every day! Saving Olana was largely a volunteer effort. Running it today isn’t what it was back then, but the volunteer component is still key. So while we don’t have 25 hour work weeks, and we no longer go to the moon, luckily, Olana and a few other historic sites are still here. So the next time you’re at Olana and see a volunteer in action, please show them a little gratitude, or even better, become one yourself.