Volunteers Rally Around Fort at No. 4

Charlestown — The Fort at No. 4 living history museum is preparing to open for its fifth season since closing in 2009 due to financial hardships. Its finances still aren’t that healthy, but it’s running on a new business model: relying on volunteers.

The museum, a reconstruction of the early 18th century fort that once was the northernmost settlement of the English colonies and which played a critical role in the French and Indian War, ran into financial trouble in 2008 and closed for the 2009 season. It reopened in 2010 and has continued to operate from April through October.

On Saturday, about a dozen volunteers armed with Windex and brooms prepped the facility for its first school tour, scheduled for April 25.

Prior to The Fort’s closing, the nonprofit paid a staff of about 15 people, its current executive director, Wendy Baker said. Now, Baker is the only paid staff member, and she relies on a rotating group of about 40 volunteers.

Doug and Jan Brisebois drove an hour and a half from Ashby, Mass., to dust and wipe away cobwebs that have collected during the last six months. The couple visited The Fort for the first time last summer, on a day when there were very few volunteers, and they took a self-guided tour. They came back for a re-enactment later in the year, learned how to fire a musket and gained a deep appreciation for the place.

“I was dusting in there like this is my house,” Jan Brisebois said.

The Fort at No. 4 has school tours on Thursdays and Fridays from May through June and again after Labor Day. During school tours, Baker said, she needs about seven volunteers to demonstrate butter-making, trade and barter, and Colonial games, among other activities. Certain volunteers, such as a blacksmith, an herbalist, and a spinner and weaver, specialize in specific skills. But those activities are available only when those volunteers have free time they can commit to the facility.

“It would be nice to have someone here demonstrating spinning and weaving every day, but that doesn’t happen,” Baker said.

On days with a healthy number of volunteers, Baker can even fire her musket. (To fire some of the larger artillery pieces requires at least four people.)

Often there are no volunteers on duty, but visitors are welcome to take a self-guided tour.

Ray Auger, of Springfield, Vt., works at the Student Conservation Association in Charlestown, about a 10-minute drive from The Fort. He has been volunteering there for about 20 years. Auger’s employer allows him to spend time volunteering each year, so Auger will schedule himself to work on days when school tours are planned. Because of Auger’s flexible schedule, Baker often will call him if another volunteer has to cancel at the last minute. When he’s volunteering, Auger dresses in period clothing and usually leads 18th century games.

Bill McKane, who usually fills in as a carpenter at The Fort, was among the volunteers helping clean up on Saturday. McKane, of Charlestown, has been volunteering for about 10 years, and said he usually takes two days off of work a year so he can volunteer when a school is a visiting. He said he enjoys the children, and often teaches them how to use a shaving horse, in which they take a square stick and make it round so it can be used as a table leg.

“What you learn here isn’t taught in the schools,” McKane said.

McKane’s parents volunteered at The Fort, as well as his daughter. His 5-year-old granddaughter even dressed up in period clothing last summer and taught visitors about dream catchers. When The Fort closed for 2009, McKane said, the people who were really committed to the facility were worried that it would be torn down.

The Fort earns money through admissions, school tours, donations and the few grants it receives, but there is still structural work that needs to be done to the wooden buildings that is being put off until the nonprofit has more money. Much of the roof needs to be replaced, and the roof on the southern part of the building is covered in a white roofing underlayment until the nonprofit can afford the work, which Baker estimates will cost about $60,000.

But for now, Baker is focused on increasing her corps of volunteers. A small group of people from France who specialize in French and Indian War re-enactments have offered to come to The Fort the first week of July to help lead tours and to dress in period attire.

School tours will begin April 25 and continue on Thursdays and Fridays until the end of the school year. The Fort will be open to the general public starting Mother’s Day weekend and will be open Wednesday through Sunday throughout May and June. The Fort will be open seven days a week once schools are out for the summer. After Labor Day weekend, The Fort will return to its Wednesday to Sunday hours until it closes for the season in October.

Editor’s note: For more information about The Fort at No. 4, visit www.fortat4.org. Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.