The Shore Line Trolley Museum seeks to bolster its strengths with an open house

EAST HAVEN – Resident Mike Hildreth said he had just been looking for something to occupy him during his retirement when he saw an ad in the newspaper for wagon operators at a local wagon museum.

Now, in addition to being an operator and tourist guide, Hildreth restores vintage streetcars, repairs track and overhead wire, and maintains the grounds of the Shore Line Trolley Museum, spending two hours on a recent weekday blowing leaves with a backpack leaf blower.

Lydia Dobosz, another museum volunteer, said she’s always had a passion for rail – whether it’s trains, trams or cable cars. She, too, responded to the museum’s call for service when she saw an announcement for tram operators in January.

Dobosz also manages the museum’s gift shop and serves as the group’s volunteer coordinator.

On a recent Saturday, Dobosz said, she spent most of the day working at the museum, managing the gift shop and selling tickets in the morning, and driving a cart to a private Halloween event in the evening. She said she also managed to clean the bathrooms and take out the trash before leaving around midnight.

Hildreth and Dobosz are part of a core group of volunteers who have been an indispensable part of the Shore Line Trolley Museum, a non-profit organization nestled in a scenic East Haven neighborhood at the end of River Street.

Operated by the Branford Electric Railway Association, the Shore Line Trolley Museum is the oldest continuously operating commuter trolley line in the United States, stretching from the salt marshes of East Haven to Short Beach in Branford. To bring this history to life, the museum relies heavily on volunteers who are bound by their romantic attitudes towards the past.

Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the museum will host its first volunteer open house as it hopes to increase its numbers ahead of the holiday season.

Volunteerism has declined slightly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, John Proto, the museum’s executive director, said this week.

“We have a volunteer pool that just can’t do it anymore,” Proto said. “There are trades specific to this type of museum…in which young people simply do not want to get involved.”

While many nonprofits have seen a drop in volunteerism in the age of COVID, the Cart Museum still has about 120 volunteers who are quite active in maintenance, including a husband and wife who have been involved for the 50s, Proto said.

But the organization is always looking for new members, especially since the museum has many facets that require special attention.

“We have all types of work that people can do,” Hildreth said.

For those who are outgoing, being a cart operator and enriching people’s minds with creative stories might be the way to go. Introverts might be more suited to behind-the-scenes work, such as landscaping, restoring carts, or automotive work.

Hildreth said he knew very little about carts when he joined the museum. But the organization adapts to everyone’s comfort and level of commitment, he added.

“I started as an operator, today I work on cars,” said Hildreth. “What motivates me here as a volunteer is seeing the smiles on people’s faces.”

The museum gives its volunteers the freedom to specialize in certain trades, providing valuable experience – especially for young people looking to leverage these skills for future employment at other companies.

With the holidays fast approaching, the museum wants to attract volunteers through its open day who can contribute to its upcoming “Visit Santa Claus” event. a popular event in the community. A lack of volunteers at a recent “Pumpkin Patch” event ensured that certain activities were not offered, a situation they would like to avoid during the Christmas period.

“You have to attract (visitors), but you can’t do that if you don’t have help,” Dobosz said.

The museum welcomes all volunteers ages 14 and up, with no cart experience necessary. “It can take one or two hours, it doesn’t have to be a six-hour shift,” Dobosz added.

Proto, the executive director, said he volunteered at the museum for 20 years before becoming a paid staff member.

“It’s such a unique place,” he said. “I enjoyed being in a historical performance. You are an actor and you re-enact a very important part of history.”

Other volunteers said they were also drawn to the museum for its ability to spark the imagination.

Tom Laurenson, a retired teacher and tram operator, said he told stories to help visitors understand the historical significance of the museum, which displays and operates a diverse collection of trams spanning decades.

While visiting a group of older visitors, Laurenson said, a man asked to see a car from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where the man’s grandfather worked as a cart operator. The man soon discovered that the museum’s Johnstown trolley was the same one his grandfather drove.

The visitor gripped the cart handles, bursting into tears after realizing his grandfather’s hands had once gripped the same surface, Laurenson said.

“We always try to connect and use the imagination,” said Laurenson, who is also a museum administrator. “It’s about connecting with people because that’s what’s worth it to them.”

In 2019, Laurenson and Hildreth worked as operators for one of the museum’s Ladies Night events, which Dobosz attended with a group of friends before becoming a volunteer. Seeing the two men having fun on the cart was one of the reasons she said she decided to get involved.

Now Dobosz offers the same joy to those who visit the museum in search of a good time or a new adventure. She added that she also enjoys interacting with guests who travel from all over the world to see the museum.

These volunteers said they were proud to represent an organization that has served the community for more than 70 years, providing “immersive and educational experiences about the history of transportation,” the museum said in a press release for the open house. of Saturday.

Their satisfaction, according to the volunteers, comes from subtle forms of recognition, such as an admiring look from one of their guests, or an unsolicited hug from a young child who has just jumped out of a cart.

“Our primary goal is to serve the public, without that we cannot survive,” Laurenson said. “This is an opportunity for us to show the public what transport used to be in this area and continues to be in so many other areas…to open their eyes and say, yes (trolleys) are gone Connecticut, but they didn’t make it disappear everywhere.”

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About Carlos V. Mitchell

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