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Mark Simonson

June 18, 2012

Iroquois Indian Museum grew from humble beginnings

The last week of May was a special one for The Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave. It marked the 20th anniversary of the opening at that site, on the road leading to Howe Caverns. That opening was a milestone for the museum, having originated nearly a dozen years earlier in another nearby location.

An interesting sequence of events made the origin possible, all taking place during the 1970s. Two anthropologists, Christina Johannsen and John Ferguson, had been working with an Iroquois organization to create and publish "Iroquois Arts: A Directory of People and Their Work." In this, more 600 Iroquois artists and craftspeople had been interviewed and their work photographed in 14 Iroquois communities from Wisconsin to Quebec. In an Iroquois kitchen of Tam and Stan Hill, Tam suggested to Johannsen that, "You have learned so much about art and craftwork, you should have a museum." The idea was well taken, but not immediately acted upon.

Some years later at a Schoharie County Arts Council gathering, Ferguson and Rudy Snyder were talking about a vacuum left in the region with the closing of the popular Iroquois life group dioramas at the New York State Museum in Albany. The discussion led to the idea of starting an Indian museum in Schoharie. Snyder was then the head of the Schoharie County Historical Society and offered to help.

Johannsen had been working on her doctorate in anthropology and museology at Brown University around this time. She was present at a meeting in the living room of Catherine and John Ferguson, with Gail Shaffer, then a member of the New York State Assembly and a native of Schoharie County. Johannsen was job searching for a museum position in an urban area, and Shaffer urged her to stay in Schoharie County to build something of value, rather than taking her talents away to the cities.

All of these ideas came together when a board of trustees for the Schoharie Museum of the Iroquois Indian was formed during the summer of 1980, first chaired by John Ferguson, a professor of anthropology at the State University College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill.

By December of that year, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the new museum and the Schoharie County Historical Society, allowing use of the second floor of the Badgley building in the Old Stone Fort Museum complex for up to 10 years, with free rent and utilities. Plans for the long term were made for a permanent home in Schoharie County.

The Schoharie Museum of the Iroquois Indian opened its doors to the public May 10, 1981. Johannsen was the first director, a non-salaried position.

Popularity of the museum grew slowly, and the first Iroquois Indian Festival was held in September 1982 on the grounds of the State University College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill, an annual event still popular today in Howes Cave.

The museum board of trustees began searching for a site of the museum's permanent home in 1983. They selected a site at the base of the hill of Howe Caverns, a successful tourist destination for many years. The trustees raised enough money to put a down payment on a 48-acre plot, taking a mortgage from the owner for the difference. The mortgage was paid off quickly.

For the next several years, fundraising, planning and architectural work followed. Getting a major funding source was difficult, so the original plan for a $2.8 million museum building with a longhouse-like appearance had to be considerably scaled back to $1.2 million, and from 20,000 to 7,100 square feet. With the help of the Farmer's Home Administration financing, building got under way in September 1991. In an effort to save money, volunteers hand-stained 30,000 cedar shingles used on the building during the winter months.

"What we've ended up with is a compromise between what we'd like if money was no object and reality," John Ferguson told The Daily Star just days before the museum's opening day, Friday, May 29, 1992. "Once we've paid off the money we've borrowed for phase one, we'll start phase two."

At the time of the opening the Iroquois Indian Museum had an outdoor amphitheater, children's museum, contemporary and historic Iroquois exhibits, a museum shop and a 40-acre nature park.

This weekend: Oneonta was a busy convention center in June 1922.

City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or e-mail him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.

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