Thirty years ago a group of senior citizens from in and around Millet, Alberta, decided it would be a good idea to collect and publish the stories of their community. They set themselves a goal, committed a reasonable amount of time to it (they were busy people after all) and set off. They organized themselves into the Millet and District Historical Society, delegated tasks to over twenty individuals, and within two years produced The Tales and Trails of Millet, which eventually paid for itself and then turned a profit. They might have dissolved their organization at that point and returned to their regular lives. Instead, the Millet and District Historical Society looked at the needs within their community, found another project, reshaped their objects, and started on a new path which would make the Society arguably the most dynamic and central volunteer organization in their town.
Thirty years on, the Millet and District Historical Society has been responsible for the building and management (in the early years) of a senior’s lodge which allows retired community members to stay in the community when they can no longer live on their own. The Society has built, with the cooperation of the town administration, and operated the town’s Museum, Archives, and Tourist Information Centre for many years. They have spearheaded or taken leading roles in the Millet Mural Project, Communities in Bloom projects, which included the recreation of an historic garden, and a memorial garden at the local cemetery. They have produced plaques for historic buildings and written a walking tour which takes in all those sites and more. Members of the Society are frequently asked to sit on various other organizations’ committees, including the town’s Visual Arts Committee and the Tourism Advisory Committee, because their leadership, experience and knowledge are considered vital to the success of any local initiative.
The directors of the Millet and District Historical Society will be the first to admit that they have not achieved their success on their own. Although very competent people in their own right, (they include teachers, business people, farmers and professionals) they have a sense of their own growth experiences during their time serving on the Society’s board and committees. They have learned to “work smart” by harnessing human resources in both their own organization and from the broader community; including advisors from the Alberta Department of Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture (Historic Sites Branch), and later from the Alberta Museums Association and the Archives Society of Alberta, and their constituent members. Although they have never been in the financial position to make such arrangements permanent, the Society was always willing to contract with professional museum and archival personnel when they needed assistance, advice or education in specific areas. Members of the Society have taken advantage of the Alberta Museums Association’s educational workshops and the Museum Excellence Program to increase their knowledge and skills.
Thirty years, however, is a considerable commitment for volunteers, and the Society is now coming to a cross-roads. Many individuals have come and gone within the lifespan of the Millet and District Historical Society, but there are a few who have been making a contribution since the beginning. Their experiences, their practical knowledge, and their sense of what the Society is and does have been vital to the organization since its inception. As these founding members now are pulling back from their involvement, either for health reasons or because they are leaving the community to live closer to relatives, the Millet and District Historical Society must face either losing their perspectives and wisdom, or find a way of transferring that knowledge to the next generation of Society members and directors.
In 2006, the Society applied for a Alberta Museums Association grant to capture the Succession Memories of one of their long-term volunteers and directors, Jean Scott. Because of her regular articles published in the local papers, and her frequent appearances as a docent and interpreter at the Museum for school programs and special events, Jean personifies the Millet and District Historical Society to many in the community. As part of a process of writing the history of the Society within the community of Millet, the Board of the Historical Society is hoping to capture the essence of Jean’s spirit as a volunteer and a leader. Her evaluation of what has worked, and what has not, and why, may give them valuable insights into how to continue in the future.
Based on a research plan developed by consultant Lawrie Knight-Steinbach, historian Kathryn Ivany was hired to complete a series of oral history interviews with Jean Scott. Other interviews were conducted with the Board of Directors, present and former staff, and current and former volunteers. Other community and society members were used as comparative and corroborating witnesses. The questions for those interviews were drawn from research undertaken in the minutes of the Millet and District Historical Society and other documents found in their archives. Other research undertaken highlighted how the Millet and District Museum and Archives fit into the broader community of Alberta’s cultural institutions.
While the archival documents give the progression of events and projects which made up the history of the Society, the Board felt that the personal reflections and experiences of planning, organizing and carrying them out, was more important for the Society to review and internalize. The oral interviews were planned to bring out the nature and values of the individuals who had a guiding hand in how the Historical Society grew, developed and interacted with other organizations within the community. The evaluation at the end of the research process sought to identify both those qualities which make a great volunteer and the way in which they can be recruited, trained and maintained. They hoped it would provide information to help the society plan for continuity, change, and to develop successors to those founding members.
The question sets for the oral interviews with Jean Scott were, therefore, focused on her recollections of how the Historical Society operated. While the first interview gave attention to gathering biographical information, it did help establish Jean’s character, her connection to the community and why the Society became important to her. The second and third interviews worked through the major projects of the Historical Society in the first ten to fifteen years. These projects were quite diverse – publishing a book, building a seniors lodge and starting an exhibit room for the interpretation of local history – yet they fit the needs and interests of a group of people over that stretch of time. In the fourth and fifth interviews Jean Scott talked about what she valued about the Society and how she thought it worked. In part, she showed that the Historical Society was successful because it managed to adapt to the changing interests of its constituents while employing the same operational strategy to achieve the new goals.
In each case Jean Scott recalled that the Historical Society set a very clear and achievable goal. The current president of the Society, Bill Kemp, stated in the interview with the Board that he remains active in the Millet and District Historical Society because he has a real sense of the purpose of the organization. While the Society may face challenges in obtaining funding and recruiting volunteers, those who are involved remain committed because they understand at a fundamental level the importance of preserving the history of their community and providing the museum and archives services to those who are now, and who may in the future be, interested in learning about Millet.
Once the goal was established, the directors of the Society identified people within their own community who could undertake specific tasks to advance their project and recruited them. They were willing and eager to find partners within the community to assist them with the resources they required. In the case of publishing The Tales and Trails of Millet, they researched publication grants from the Alberta Government and received the New Horizons’ grant. They also used the experience and expertise of a publisher who specialized in community histories. For the seniors’ lodge they partnered with the Provincial Government’s Housing Corporation to ensure its completion. In the case of the exhibit room, the Society built on their previous success in fundraising and partnership development to collaborate with the town administration to ensure that both parties acquired a building which fit their needs. One of the important points mentioned by Jean Scott in her third interview was that the members of the Historical Society understood that they had to forge alliances with other organizations – but that they never underestimated the need for those relationships to be defined by clearly articulated agreements. In almost every case, the services of a lawyer was very important in ensuring that the relationship remained strong and misunderstandings were avoided.
The fundamental skill in setting and achieving the goals which led to the success of the Historical Society, according to Jean Scott, was the ability to communicate. In the first instance, the members of Society were able to listen to one another and articulate what they thought was important for the community. Helen Moonen, the first President of the Society was very good at identifying talents in individuals and finding a job for them within the organization that fit those talents. She was able, with a mixture of kindness and firmness, to explain her expectations, shape the project, enforce timelines and still keep the process fun and enjoyable for the people working on it. When the project was complete, the Society was able to draw on that example to reassess their interests and develop a new goal by talking out the needs and desires of the community. It was never an individual decision, partly because in working on the first project together, the members of the Historical Society recognized that they were all working for the good of Millet and the district. Although arguably this might seem easier in a small, close knit country town, it is also possible in a community of like interests in other more diverse populations.
The other aspect of this ability and willingness to partner, and its major advantage, is that the members of the Millet and District Historical Society acknowledge that they cannot accomplish everything by themselves. By participating with other individual’s or group’s projects they can ensure the goals of the historical society are attained while allowing others to contribute their resources. In the mural project, the Historical Society acted as advisors, providing the historical research and archival photographs which inspired the artists to create works which accurately reflected the history of the town rather than a “romanticized” stereotype. When the Legion wanted to create their own display of donated war artifacts and uniforms, the Museum assisted them with creating proper storage and display spaces rather than attempting to take the artifacts into their own Museum space. In this way they ensured that the historic artifacts were properly maintained without using their limited resources and space in the Museum. They also gained an appreciative partner and ally in future endeavors.
This ability to assist without “taking over” a project was another of those people skills modeled by Helen Moonen, according to Jean Scott. It brings out the best in others to support them, advise them, but let them realize their own dreams. It also makes sense not to burn out your own volunteers trying to do everything. One further benefit is that teaching awareness of the organization’s own history can help to advance the historical society’s goals by showing how history can be integral to any activity from the Legion to the hockey association.
The Millet and District Historical Society seems to have been blessed by the positive role models among their volunteer corps. Not only did people like Jean Scott, Helen Moonen, Jerry Scott, Margaret Mullen, Jo Moonen, and Bert Loader commit long hours over many years to the Society, but they have been willing to mentor newer members coming into the organization. Perhaps because there were already ties of family and friendship between them, the atmosphere of their meetings, work bees, and social/fundraising events were friendly and enjoyable. General comments around the table during the interview of the current Society’s board praised the social aspects of belonging to the Historical Society and the culinary treats offered at every Society function.
In spite of the enjoyable aspects of their meetings, or perhaps because of them, the Society members have accomplished a great deal. In the first few years of the operation of the exhibit room they would host three or four temporary travelling exhibitions a year. When their permanent exhibitions were installed, they continued to have special feature exhibits annually which continued to bring in members of the public and school groups. They were able to do so much, according to Jean Scott, because they had a very clear vision of what the exhibit room could be. They were inspired by that vision, and worked to transform the vision into action. At the same time, they were learning on the job, and they took the time to take available courses from the Alberta Museums Association to ensure that they were caring appropriately for the artifacts placed in their custody.
There is no magic formula for the recruitment and retention of such ideal volunteers, as Bill Kemp ruefully stated in the board interview. There are, however, some indicators as to where to look. People who have become involved with the Millet and District Historical Society all share an interest in discovering, preserving and educating others about the history of the town and surrounding areas. Some have that interest because it is their own history; their families settled and farmed the area for years. Others care because they have made Millet their home in more recent years and they want the best for their new community and to become a part of it. For those people, the Historical Society offered an opportunity to make new friends and to learn about their new community.
Next the volunteer must have time to give to the work of the Society. All the interest in the world will not keep someone involved if they can never attend the meetings, participate in the work parties and share the learning in the workshops. Jean Scott noted that the participation of her spouse after his retirement meant that the work at the museum was an activity that they could share, and Linda Webber and Pat Thorkman find that their friendship is strengthened because they can share time together working for the museum. Although the board does have some formal mechanisms for recruiting volunteers, such as an information table at their openings and at other community events, they have found that it is the personal conversation at social events about their involvement at the Museum which has yielded the best results.
Another way that people are asked to become part of the museum’s team is when they have specialized skills which are required by the museum. When Jerry Scott started to build the display units for the lower level, he recruited other workers like Bert Loader to assist him. Similarly, the services of volunteer fire fighters and old car enthusiasts like Al Hegge, Howard Ertman (who also donated his shop as a workspace) and Morley Moonen were called upon to assist with the reconstruction and restoration of the fire wagon that now sits outside the museum building. An added benefit was the growth in the volunteer fire brigade. Audrey Sanetza contributed over a hundred hat mounts to the museum’s storage facilities after taking an Alberta Museums Association workshop with other Society members and finding she had a flare for that particular job. Even the initial book publication project found the right individual to slot into particular jobs. Margaret Mullen was asked in 1977 to gather stories from the Wang district for inclusion in the Tales and Trails of Millet and stayed with the Historical Society though the years.
Volunteers with a passion for the museum also appreciate the opportunity to learn more about it. The Millet and District Historical Society fed their hunger for more information by encouraging their members (and staff) to take Alberta Museums Association workshops. They even hosted some of the workshops so that more of the locals could attend and learn new skills and procedures. While the training obviously benefited the Museum, it also allowed the volunteers to take on new opportunities and gain a sense of accomplishment at their rising skill levels. While some volunteers may want to continue doing the same comfortable job, they have the right to be able to raise it to the highest skill level possible. Jean Scott’s first job with the Historical Society was to edit the submissions going into The Tales and Trails of Millet. Now Jean’s forte is the researching and writing of various articles in the local papers, and last year she completed the Society’s sequel publication, Signpost in a Slough.
The Succession Memories project did not make any radical discoveries about how the Millet and District Historical Society has succeeded through the years. There was no magic formula to uncover and no treasure buried in their archives that will guarantee that suitable volunteers are recruited and stay for thirty years. What the project did accomplish was to allow the Board and some of their longest serving volunteers to muse aloud about what is important to them, and what makes their experience with the Historical Society both rewarding and enjoyable. The exercise was valuable because, for most organizations, many of the values and the day to day operating principles are not written down. Often they are not talked about because they are assumed to be part of the collective ethos. They are internalized and reinforced during the processes of working through projects. Often in dysfunctional organizations that ethos can be easily disrupted if someone comes in who is not in agreement with those values, or since they are not expressed, misinterprets what the values are. What was interesting about the Millet and District Historical Society is that they do express their values, both verbally and in practice.
According to Tracey Leavitt, the Museum’s Director, the Board is very good at articulating their goal at the beginning of every planning session and in keeping in the forefront of their plans their aim to preserve and promote the history of Millet and district. This allows new people coming into the organization to internalize the aims and early on to contribute to the advance toward the same goals.
The choice of Jean Scott as the subject for the Succession Memories project was inspired not only because of her long years of membership. Her leadership qualities and vision for the organization inspire others, and, perhaps because of her education background, she has been able to mentor others’ leadership skills. Jean, in turn, was mentored by Helen Moonen who emphasized and modeled the art of communication, delegation (or as Tracey Leavitt phrases it, “giving everyone their own piece of the pie”), and recognition of individuals’ unique contributions. Because the directors of the Millet and District Historical Society have set themselves a common goal – to preserve their community’s history - and they work within a set of values which emphasizes good community relationships (family, friendship and fun) they have created an environment where they are able to transform their vision of a historically aware community into action. Despite being a basically volunteer run, not-for-profit operation, the Millet and District Museum and Archives have been recognized within the Alberta heritage community as model for others. Their thirty years of history and experience in the Museum field is only the beginning. Future directors and volunteers, imbued with the spirit of community service will continue to serve and follow in the footsteps of the early leaders of the Millet and District Historical Society.