Building a future on the dreams of the past



By Lynn R. Parks


At the conclusion of the creation of a strategic plan, the Seaford Historical Society is poised on the edge of a multi-million dollar fund-raising campaign. But several key questions remain, among them the financial goal of the campaign and exactly how the money will be spent. "We are building new strategies," said Claudia Melson, former society president and director of the Ross Plantation, which is owned by the historical society. "We are still so much in the talking stage. We want to let the community know what we are doing and ask, are you interested in helping us?" With the receipt of a $10,000 grant from the state tourism department, the historical society commissioned Tom McFalls, Newark, to formulate a plan for the society's future. Following many public meetings and discussions among society members, McFalls came up with six initiatives that members would like to implement by the end of 2005. According to Melson, by July the society's 15-member board will decide how best to accomplish those initiatives and what the cost will be. The fund-raising campaign should get under way before the end of the year. The six initiatives are: Continue to upgrade and showcase the Ross Plantation and its outbuildings and construct a new education/exhibit building on the plantation.
* Consider relocating the Seaford Museum, or upgrading it by making additions which would give the visitor a view of the Nanticoke River.
* Create a heritage center in Seaford, with access to the Nanticoke. The center would begin a visitor's journey along a newly-designed heritage trail.
* Explore the possibility of combining the museum and a new heritage center into one facility along the Nanticoke.
* Link the historical society's facilities at the Ross Plantation and the museum with other western Sussex County heritage resources into a heritage trail, through maps, signs and walking and auto tours.
* Encourage the preservation and presentation of historic resources in nearby towns to expand the educational and tourist opportunities in the area.

Primary on the to-do list is installation of new heating and air conditioning systems in the Ross Mansion, Melson said. The society also wants to restore the exterior of the building to its appearance at the conclusion of its construction in 1860. That would entail building balconies over the front door and the south-facing dining room windows and putting porches on the west side and on the north side, along the dining room. It would also mean that the horse weather vane that rides the top of the tower would be replaced by a decoration similar to the one that is shown in a picture of the young mansion. Melson would like to see the current three-car garage at the rear of the building transformed into an education center and meeting rooms. Eventually, with the construction of a new visitor's center behind the house, that area could become a genealogy room and offices for staff. The society's annual budget is about $40,000, half of which goes for the plantation and the other half for the museum. Much of that money comes from its annual fund drive and from one-time grants. Through the upcoming fund-raiser, Melson would like to see the society get endowment funds that would pay for ongoing expenses such as salaries. Currently, the historical society has only one staff member, a part-time guide for the Ross Plantation. But that has to change, Melson said, if the plantation is to grow as a tourist attraction. "We have built it, and people want to come," she said. "But so much of the time, we're not open. If we want to have bus groups coming in, we have to have a full-time staff." The society rents the building in which the Seaford Museum is housed. An application has been submitted to the US Postal Service for permission to take over the post office on High Street after it is vacated. If the museum stays where it is, Melson said, it could take over additional space in that building, including, with the addition of an elevator, the second floor. "From the second floor, visitors could see the river," integral to Seaford's history, she said. "The museum could become the end of Seaford's River Walk." The proposed heritage trail, which initially would focus on sites in Seaford and then perhaps expand to sites in other areas, would feature such places at the UNOI (formerly the Hearn and Rawlins) grain mill, the Woodland Ferry, Mason-Dixon markers and nature preserves. Melson envisions a time when tour buses regularly pull up to the Ross Mansion, when tourists spend a week in western Sussex and take day trips to the beach. She sees the plantation - and the unique Civil War-era story it can tell - as rivaling the Colonial-era John Dickinson Plantation near Dover. "The ideal would be if we could become a working plantation," she said. "We would also like to start working with the schools, to maybe have a junior interpreters program. There is deep satisfaction in that, in knowing that [you] are leaving something for the future."

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