NORTH TONAWANDA – Imagine discovering Grandma’s attic full of treasured memories of the past. Then imagine all of the Grandma’s attics in North Tonawanda gathered in one place.
That is the North Tonawanda History Museum.
Executive Director Donna Zellner Neal said the all-volunteer museum began as a vagabond collection in people’s homes in 2003. It moved into a 300-square-foot storefront on Oliver Street and then to its current location at 54 Webster St. – a two-story, 41,500-square-foot building, with complete basement, which has continued to grow since it was purchased in 2009 – pushing out a tanning parlor that had rented space in the building.
“We had to be nomads hauling our stuff from space to space,” she said of the search for a permanent site.
Neal rules the roost. She is outspoken and informed on each item that comes through the door, clearly a woman on a mission to illustrate the city’s ethnic heritage and its rich industrial past as “the Lumber City.”
“It takes a lot of work and commitment,” said Neal, who is a volunteer herself and knows about hard work, having raised seven children, mostly alone as working mother, widowed three times.
She said she had to work hard at various office jobs but also volunteered for 30 years of her life while she was working full time, retiring in 1996, fully disabled due to arthritis and a back injury. She is in pain all the time and describes herself as “crabby.”
“If I had known then what I was getting into, I wouldn’t have gotten into it,” Neal said of the growing museum. “But I said yes, and if there is one thing I taught those seven kids and my grandkids and great-grandkids are learning – if you make a commitment, you keep it. I made a commitment to these initial six members that I would start a museum, and once word got out in The Buffalo News about the new museum, people out of nowhere, from across the country, started contacting me.”
She said that the museum currently emails a newsletter to 7,000 people and that she considers all of them as owners of the museum.
“I have to live long enough and have enough people on the board, so that someone in their right mind will take my job,” Neal said.
She said that when the museum first started, she was putting in 20-hour days, seven days a week. She said she still puts in 14-hour days, seven days a week.
“I stopped counting when it got over 70,000 hours. Right now, there is nobody else, but we have to get to the point that we have paid staff,” she said. “I’m pretty proud of what we’ve all accomplished.”
Due to the continued growth, Neal said, they recently began closing the Gateway Cities Welcome Center in the entrance of the building. The space was needed for the growing reference library and time needed for paying customers of the museum.
According to Neal, the Welcome Center had more than 3,500 people who would stop in and ask for assistance, while taking away valuable time from museum work.
The had a little over 17,000 visitors in 2011 and 17,432 in 2012, with 60 percent coming from beyond the Tonawandas.
The collection is vast and varied, from a full-size 78-year-old river cruiser made in North Tonawanda to locally made wooden sewer pipe and antique bobsleds and scooters to women’s hats from the 1940s and 1950s. Photos and paintings of well-known and, in some cases, lesser-known historic figures line the walls, while partitioned rooms, formerly tanning rooms, each have different themes. There are also portions of the museum dedicated to historic families, such as Rand and Wurlitzer; veterans; churches; nationalities; and the many businesses that once made up the booming “Lumber City” years ago.
One large room has been dedicated to a permanent display of the intricate Pan-American Exposition model, which was built at the University at Buffalo in 2001 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the exposition. The 1:160 scale model was built in 2001 by a group of 25 students from the City of Tonawanda under the direction of teachers Demelt F. Shaw and James C. Steele. The two teachers, now retired, brought the model out of storage in 2010 to be rebuilt and restored – a painstaking process that is still continuing.
There are no shortcuts to viewing the 10,000-square-foot museum. A recent grand tour lasted more than an hour and a half.
Neal has had a hand in the layout of every display and can tell the background on every piece that came through the door. And she has grand plans to continue to expand and put $1 million of investments into renovating the old Webster Street building, which has its own history as a former G.C. Murphy five-and-dime store in North Tonawanda’s heyday.
She said that there will be no serious renovations until the museum “gets rid of the mortgage.” Once that happens, renovations would include a new roof, motion sensor lighting, zoned heating/air conditioning, a sprinkler system that would allow the basement to be turned into a meeting room, restoration of the tin ceiling and plank flooring of the historic G.C. Murphy, and a plan to turn the rear entrance into the former Sugar Bowl, recreating the North Tonawanda ice cream parlor, complete with a working soda fountain donated from Nestor’s.
More urgent are the needs for crash bars on the front door, repairs to exterior brick, removing siding on the Manhattan Street side of the building and repairing the freight elevator.
“We get a lot of visitors, especially in July with class reunions and Canal Fest,” Neal said.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays after Memorial Day, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturdays after Labor Day. It is staffed by volunteers and closed most holidays. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for senior citizens, veterans and free for members of the museum and active duty military. Group rates are available.
Research library fees are $25 an hour for nonmembers; the service is free for members. An appointment is required.