Saving history: Volunteers work to save Doan History Center and Heritage Park

The Herbert D. Doan History Center was built in 2003 just outside the campus of Northwood University. Housing the Midland County Historical Society archives and the rest of Heritage Park’s historical assets including historic Bradley Home, Carriage House, Blacksmith Shop and the Herbert H. Dow Museum.  

The facility was planned and constructed around both the flooding levels reached in 2017 and 1986 at minimum to accommodate for the storage of many of the artifacts that make up the fabric of Midland’s history.

Yet despite the careful planning, as a result of the collapse of the Edenville Dam and the failure of the Sanford Lake Dam, an estimated 24 inches of water accumulated inside, putting that history at risk.

A volunteer sorts materials in the lobby.

The water finally receded on Friday, May 22, allowing the team to see both the destruction and what they had to work with.

In the days that followed, over 200 volunteers came to assist with cleanup and recovery efforts.

With the gravity of the situation, requests to help poured in from all over the art and museum community and help was on the way in the form of several volunteers with specialized training and a recovery plan.

Over 200 volunteers helped in the effort over Memorial Day weekend.

Lisa Craig Brisson, executive director of the Michigan Museums Association (MMA), one of the organizations that helped, noted the timing of the event was fortuitous.

“We were in the process of planning a large-scale emergency response and strategy for our network organizations and broader museum community for rollout this year and then we started seeing the news coming from Midland,” says Brisson. “From the overall planning and recovery efforts, Midland was bit of a test case for the system we were already working on.”

Not even two years prior in 2018, MMA had helped Houghton County Historical Society and the associated research facility, recover from flooding in the Upper Peninsula.

Items sorted on the lawn of the historic Bradley Home.

One of MMA’s fellow members, Jared Yax, who by day is the Collections Curator & Off-Site Facilities Manager for the Tri-Cities Museum in Grand Haven, has also been trained in the Smithsonian’s Heritage Emergency and Response Training (HEART). HEART training helps facilitate emergency response measures for heritage and artifact recovery and organizational response.

“Jared and I had actually been talking for at least six months prior to the event in Midland about trying to formalize a communication plan and emergency response structure in Michigan,” says Brisson. “So, we had already had conversations about what that structure would look like and how to move forward.”

Yax estimated that recovery efforts in Midland would need a minimum of 20 additional volunteers with museum training to help. MMA also assisted the Sanford Historical Society and the Sanford Centennial Museum as well.

An estimated 24 inches of water filled the building from the events in Sanford and Edenville.

“The process for recovery efforts of this nature is very specific, actually. Nearly anyone can take something off a shelf and put it somewhere else,” says Brisson. “With museum training you approach handling and recovery very specifically orienting objects and materials so they are safe. Artifacts need to stay stable, so packaging often requires storing them straight up and down, and all done with extreme care.”

The timing was also not optimal for such a significant effort.

“We weren’t sure how many volunteers we would get over a holiday weekend, at the last minute and not to mention during a pandemic, so I signed up to come help as well,” says Brisson. “Thankfully and with the efforts of the broader museum community, we had enough volunteers to make it work. We were lucky enough to get assistance from people all over the state, during another crisis situation, and it was just amazing to see all the support.”

A volunteer carefully tends to recovered materials.

As part of the recovery efforts, the Doan Center and the Bradley Home drew in help from over 60 volunteers from outside of the Midland community, including those assisting from MMA and a group of students from Central Michigan University working under Dr. Jay Martin, Director and Curator of History and Museum Studies.

“The generosity of our community continues to inspire me as I witnessed hundreds of people step forward to help us save the archives and preserve Midland County’s history over the holiday weekend,” says Terri Trotter, Midland Center for the Arts President & CEO. “We are truly grateful for the swift action of our local volunteers and the museum professionals from across the state that worked tirelessly to save the stories and memories that make our county so special.”

Terri Trotter, President and CEO of Midland Center for the Arts during cleanup efforts.

Jenifer Acosta, a Midland Center for the Arts board member, commented on her pride of the greater Midland community while volunteering to help remove items from the archives. One of the things that stuck out specifically to Acosta was the ongoing culture of service in and around the Midland community, especially during this time.

“I was especially proud of Midland that day and it was also touching to see other people come to help from far outside our community,” says Acosta. “We have a true culture of service and a significant volunteer base, all of which was apparent as several people stepped in to help during this time of need.”

“I love history and that’s apparent in the development work I do with old buildings and in communities. All of our work that weekend involved hauling as many of the artifacts and documents as we could, but under different circumstances I could have easily spent an entire weekend flipping through the pages of Midland’s early years.”

“We are truly grateful for the swift action of our local volunteers and the museum professionals from across the state," says Trotter.

“One thing that stood out to me in helping the Doan History Center recover contents was all of the history in our community and how it has changed over the years,” says Acosta. “It was very inspirational to see and gave me hope that we will get through this together.”

The quick help from volunteers was effective, as the timeline for remediation with water damage is very short.

“The general rule for recovery and mold remediation is 48 hours with something like this,” says Brisson. “That’s about the maximum amount of time you have to work with.”

A volunteer helping clear out the Bradley Home.

Volunteers helped safely pack and remove items from storage. Items that were wet were removed to go through a separate recovery process. Dry items, once packaged, also needed to be numbered, organized and well-marked for their eventual return.

“According to national museum accreditation standards, you should be able to look in the system, search for an item and find where it is stored,” says Brisson. “In this instance, all the items needed to be labeled, boxed, the boxes all labeled and more. This process makes it so when items are reinstated, records, location and identification are all correct.”

Brisson says the restoration efforts will continue with volunteers from around the museum community continuing to help the Doan Center later this summer, along with local help.

Volunteers stack boxes of documents and materials to move to another location.

The result of the work in Midland has formalized MMA’s launch of a recognized emergency response and communication protocol, which is set to be finalized in June 2020. The effort will include a database of volunteers and their certifications and training in collection care, their availability and contact information, split by 24-hour emergency availability and regular availability.

“Because of our work in Midland, this has allowed us to get the network up and running faster than we would have normally,” says Brisson. “Now, moving forward, if there is a crisis, all somebody needs to do is make one phone call or email to us and tell us what they need in terms of volunteer efforts and we will be able to send that communication out right away.”

One of the things MMA is planning to help art and museum organizations with is the training and development of disaster preparedness plans.

Volunteers help recovery and label instruments.

“Midland had a plan, but there are so many communities and historical organizations like Sanford who don’t,” says Brisson. “Even just having a small plan in place can make a really big difference and having a detailed plan can have a huge impact on the level of recovery.”

“I feel absolutely horrible for what Midland and surrounding communities have been through, and this will help create infrastructure to assist other communities prepare and recover in the long run.”

Watch more of the process and the team’s efforts here:

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.