Costly utility bills, an aging building and too few helping hands appear to be straining Smith County Historic Society resources, but members vow to press on in efforts to preserve the past.
Rob Jones, chairman of the historic society's board of governors, said the organization and museum seem to have reached a crossroads in terms of community interest.
“We need more volunteers, more members and more money,” he said. “We'd like the public to join us as a member and participate as a volunteer … if we don't have anyone volunteering, it (museum) won't open.”
Organization members continue to celebrate the rosy outcome of its latest fundraising auction, hugely important in meeting its annual budget that can run between $40,000 and $48,000 annually.
Jones said last week's auction efforts produced a net gain of $20,000 in sponsorships and another $11,000 from the auction, which included gold coins and a bronze sculpture.
“We were between $12,000 and $14,000 in the hole,” Jones said. “Now we're in the black.”
Staying in positive territory is a constant struggle.
The nonprofit organization leases the old Carnegie Library from the city of Tyler and maintains it, using donated funds and some support from the municipality.
Under the terms of its lease agreement, the society is responsible for care and upkeep of the structure, considered historically significant because it once housed the city's library.
It's also the first downtown building to include a water closet, which is still operational.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and offers a free history museum with artifacts ranging from Victorian dresses and Civil War memorabilia to Caddo Indian arrowheads.
The offerings routinely attract about 150 visitors a month, including out-of-state and international travelers, according to the guest registry.
But there's a steep price to pay to preserve all this history.
Utility bills average about $1,000 per month.
A few years ago, the organization shelled out more than $12,000 to replace a malfunctioning air conditioning unit.
Keeping up with repairs is not a choice, members said.
The museum houses an extensive collection of fragile antiques, photographs and documents, which can deteriorate quickly in unfavorable conditions.
“The last big thing we did was tint the windows,” Jones said. “That helped a lot with the temperatures.”
On the wish list for the future: a new elevator, upright display cabinets and more space to showcase new photograph collections.
“We'd like to start publishing The Chronicles again,” Jones said. “We used to put two of those out a year.”
The society has about 276 memberships, which start at $7.50 for students and go up.
Membership drives meet only about a quarter of the expenses, Jones said.
The group also sells literature and photographs to generate cash, in addition to its annual auction.
Jones said the organization is especially grateful for the support it receives from the city.
Records show Tyler gave the organization $15,415 in support during the last fiscal year and a total of $175,476 since 1998.
City officials said it is money well spent.
“The Smith County Historical Society is the caretaker of our local history,” Mayor Barbara Bass said. “The volunteers have a passion for preserving our heritage through archives, artifacts and stories, which remind us that Tyler's greatness is the results of many years of caring citizenry.”
Society members said their big need is people with enough time and enthusiasm to help figure out ways for drumming up new interest in old history.
Society member Iris Mayer said one day last week a man showed up unexpectedly, asking to see some old records, and spent several hours learning about the city's history.
For that reason and others, it's important to keep the doors open, members said.
“He had driven in from Lafayette, La.,” Ms. Mayer said. “They seem to come from everywhere.”