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Historical Society hires new director

After 16 months without a permanent executive director, the cash-strapped Southern Oregon Historical Society has hired Allison Weiss, 42, of Philadelphia to take the reins and help the organization survive on its own.

Weiss will begin her new job next week, allowing Terrie Martin, interim director, to return to her post as chairwoman of the society's board of directors.

Weiss, who led several startup historical projects on the East Coast, faces the immediate task of working with the SOHS board to evaluate which of its many historic properties it can afford to keep operating two years after Jackson County eliminated funding for historical societies.

On Tuesday, Weiss will go into an all-day brainstorming retreat with SOHS staff and board, said Martin, "to figure out the question of the properties we must manage and determine what we can afford and what we have to let go."

"We're operating a huge number of buildings, the same as when the county was funding the society, but we're just not going to have the same budget we had then," said Weiss is an interview while driving her belongings across the country.

Topping her priorities as director, said Weiss, will be educating the public that SOHS is no longer supported by the county and it's up to residents and other funding sources to support it.

Weiss said she wants to move SOHS in a more pragmatic, contemporary direction so the historic properties "make a connection between the past and the present and reach out to the community."

She listed the Beekman Bank in Jacksonville as an example. Instead of being frozen in time as the first bank in Oregon, the bank could be put to work "in a more relevant way in this enormous financial crisis" as a place for financial education classes.

Weiss, who was one of four finalists, has 13 years' experience in museum management, including setup of two new organizations, the Speaker's House in Collegeville, Pa., and the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum in Sterling, Va.

Startup experience will be vital to her new post, she said, because SOHS "will be starting from scratch, going from being entirely funded to reinventing itself."

She also worked with the Main Street American program in Mount Joy, Pa., the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington, Ill.

Weiss earned her cultural anthropology degree from the University of Oregon. She served in the Peace Corps in war-torn Sierra Leone, where, she noted, she learned a lot about survival skills, which may be important to her new job.

"I saw people in the most difficult situations and the experience showed me that anything is possible," said Weiss. "I'm very excited about it. The staff (at SOHS) has huge energy. They're almost doing the work of over 50 people they had during county funding. And I love Oregon, the beauty, the people and the lifestyle."

The 63-year-old SOHS thrived for decades on a voter-approved levy of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, but a 1997 statewide ballot measure merged all such levies into each county's general fund. Over the next decade, commissioners gradually eliminated funding for SOHS and the other historical societies across the county.

Going from $2 million to nothing in three years "was like slamming on the brakes," said Martin.

To help get SOHS through this transition period, Ashland businessman and former Mayor Alan DeBoer gave it a credit line of $600,000, of which about $400,000 has been spent.

SOHS has increased membership by several hundred to the present 916 and hopes to top 1,000 by the end of summer. It tripled the hours per month that attractions are open, got a grant for a half-time fundraising person and maintained ownership of all seven properties and kept them up to code, Martin said.

Of Weiss, Martin commented, "I'm thrilled. She's a really wonderful person with a lot of talent and energy and is exactly what we need now."

The society "is still standing on its own two feet without county money. We proved we're important to the community," she added.

SOHS owns the building in downtown Medford where it operates a research library and the 37-acre historic Hanley Farm outside Jacksonville. It maintains and manages the U.S. Hotel, Beekman House, Beekman Bank, the Jacksonville Museum of Southern Oregon History, the adjacent Children's Museum, and the Catholic Rectory building in Jacksonville. It also maintains an archive building in White City.

For more information, go to www.sohs.org.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.