Suzanne Dietrich took a temporary job for six months — and she’s leaving it 17 years later.
Dietrich had researched the history of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the city of Edwardsville prior to serving on the board of the Madison County Historical Society. She had only been on the board for a year when the museum’s executive director resigned in 1999.
“I said I would do it for six months, which would give us time to find someone new,” she said, laughing.
But six months turned into a year and more, and Dietrich’s work so impressed the board that the search for a new director never progressed. For 17 years, Dietrich has run the Madison County Historical Museum, expanding it into a four-building campus with research library and collections center, and coordinated the programs of the museum in preserving Madison County’s history.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Management and maintenance of the facilities is different than pure research. “Creativity has, by necessity, sometimes taken a back seat to preservation,” she said. Part of that was the expansion to an archival library in 2002: it was necessitated because the second-floor library could no longer bear the weight of the books.
It’s a family affair for Dietrich: Her grandfather, William Waters, was president of the historical society in the 1930s and lived in the restored Godfrey Mansion. As a very young child, Dietrich would visit her grandparents in their museum-house. “The museum was home,” she said.
The county museum now lives in an 1836 home that was originally a doctor’s office and residence, passing through a number of families before it was sold to the historical society in 1964. It operates as a nonprofit; Madison County provides minor maintenance such as mowing or basic repairs, but the primary responsibility for the museum has remained with the historical society.
That has been a heavy responsibility of late, after spring rains found their way through the roof and forced temporary closure of the museum. “You do what you can with Band-aids, but there comes a time when you have to fix it,” Dietrich said. The museum was able to get a new roof and tuckpointing, and has applied for grants to install a new heating and air conditioning system.
Other planned renovations include rebuilding and restoring the chimneys, restoration of doors and windows and more. But that will require raising more funds.
The renovations will change the look of the museum after so many years: the white paint over the brick traps moisture, and so the tuckpointing will leave the original brick exposed, Dietrich said. The roof repair was unusually challenging: the roof had inadequate flashing and none of the rafters were supported by a header, so they all had to be raised and reinforced.
For Dietrich, the museum provides an experience for visitors of all ages to step into another world. “I see the usefulness of it in so many areas that it almost makes you lose your breath,” she said. “I came away learning so much about what people are looking for, what they’re yearning for.”
Dietrich remembered when a mother and son came in, and the boy was “a little bit on the hyper side, which you’re watching in a museum,” she said. They were there for 45 minutes, and Dietrich spent time with the child, showing him around the museum.
When their visit was done, the mother pulled out a $100 bill for her voluntary donation. “She said this was the first time he’d been able to quiet down, to look and listen,” Dietrich said. It moved her, and underlined for her the importance of the museum.
The renovations required closure of the museum on July 1, and every artifact that could be moved has been stored. Those that could not be moved are shrouded in plastic — “I own part of Home Depot now,” Dietrich said, laughing.
The timeline for reopening is still in flux, as the historical society is waiting to hear on the grants that will determine whether they can afford the new $200,000 HVAC system.
Meanwhile, the museum recently received a $17,812.50 anonymous donation — an unusually specific amount. “I keep thinking someone has donated us the interest from something,” Dietrich said. Meanwhile, the archival library received a donation of $1,500 from Charles McKittrick.
Dietrich said while she is looking forward to her spare time, she will miss working with the museum staff. “The people were just acquaintances when I came,” she said. “But after you work with them and do things with them… they’re friends now.”
The museum plans a holiday book fair at the archival library. Authors of nonfiction books about Madison County history will sell and sign books and answer questions, and the museum will offer gift certificates for membership in the historical society to raise money for the renovations. The book fair will take place 1-4 p.m. Dec. 4.