Westerlo seeking to charter its Heritage Museum

Enterprise file photo — H. Rose Schneider

Pieces of history: Westerlo highway superintendent Jody Ostrander observes artifacts of the town during the grand opening of the Westerlo Heritage Museum in 2017.

WESTERLO — In an attempt to reinvigorate the town’s languishing Heritage Museum, the Westerlo Town Board is seeking to have it chartered by New York State, thereby allowing it to become tax-exempt and to compete for certain grants. 

According to Mary Jane Araldi, the museum’s interim director and curator, the ultimate objective is to acquire more space so that the museum — currently operating out of a historic house on County Route 401 — can exhibit its largest artifacts, including a bandwagon and horse-drawn sleigh, each currently held off-site and out of public view.

“We have stuff located in different buildings and we don’t have any space for big items ...,” Araldi told The Enterprise earlier this month. “That’s what the town is trying to do, is look into chartering the museum and have either an addition or a separate building or both.”

Araldi hopes that, with more space and funding, the museum will be better equipped to enrich the community as intended.

“I think it’s important to carry on our heritage,” Araldi told The Enterprise, but acknowledged that, generally, town residents seem uninterested in what the museum has to offer, with “very few” stopping in to see the artifacts on display, such as old medical equipment from the office of Dr. Anna Perkins, a renowned physician and Westerlo resident who practiced in the Hilltowns for 65 years.

Araldi said she has tried opening the museum at the same time the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company holds its regular breakfast fundraiser, just around the corner, with advertisements for the museum placed at the station for diners to see. Ultimately, though, the strategy’s been unsuccessful. 

When asked why people might not be visiting, Araldi said, “I’ve got no clue … People, I guess, just aren’t interested.”



A charter is the means by which a museum (or historical society with collections) declares itself a not-for-profit private education corporation, exempt from taxes and, as a stand-alone entity, “protected from falling into the hands of the individual trustees in the event the museum or historical society with collections should dissolve,” according to the New York State Education Department, which awards charters through its Board of Regents. 

But first, the town has to adopt a local law recognizing the museum, which it had neglected to do when the museum was first conceived in the 1980s, Supervisor Bill Bichteman explained to The Enterprise earlier this month.

That no local law existed to establish the museum as such was unknown until recently, when the town board was doing research into the museum as it looked for ways to expand its presence within the community, Bichteman said.

“In doing research for that,” Bichteman explained, “we found that the museum was never created as a museum. The historical society basically got together and the town of Westerlo, back in the ’80s, agreed that they would be able to have a museum with the artifacts they already had and some they were going to collect. 

“[The town] purchased what was the oldest building in our town, but there’s never been any local law to actually establish the museum … The town board is now tasked with reviewing a resolution and making what changes they think we need to make and establish the museum and get the historical society involved again.”

Ultimately, that bill was sent back to the town’s attorney last week because it gave the historical society a major role in overseeing the town park, an unintended effect that stemmed from a misunderstanding on the attorney’s part, Bichteman explained at the board’s regular meeting on May 18.

So, while discussion around the bill’s provisions was limited, the board did agree that the museum should be overseen by a single board of trustees made up of members of the town’s historical society, creating a closer, more formal relationship between the two entities. The Westerlo Historical Society is a private organization. In his earlier conversation with The Enterprise, Bichteman also expressed an interest in involving the town historian, Dennis Fancher, as well.

“We have a great number of artifacts that the town has been able to secure; some are owned and some are on loan,” Bichteman told The Enterprise. “We felt that the museum has not been active for our community, so we’re looking at what we can do to ... make it more attractive to people, and show them where the town came from and what our history is.


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