2016-02-26 / Front Page

Museum gears up for docent training

Site seeks volunteer tour guides for coming season
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

John Mercurio, left, head of the education department at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, and volunteer dispatcher/instructor Bill Mallory pose aboard Connecticut Company303, one of more than 250 examples of early mass transit in the U.S. housed at the museum’s 360-acre campus at 195 Log Cabin Road. (Duke Harrington photo) John Mercurio, left, head of the education department at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, and volunteer dispatcher/instructor Bill Mallory pose aboard Connecticut Company303, one of more than 250 examples of early mass transit in the U.S. housed at the museum’s 360-acre campus at 195 Log Cabin Road. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — The Seashore Trolley Museum wants everyone to know you can get there from here, especially if “there” means primed with information about the early history of mass transportation in the U.S., and ready to share that story with others.

The museum, located at 195 Log Cabin Road, is gearing up to offer its third round of docent training, starting March 31. However, this year, the eight-week class will be conducted for the first time at the museum’s 360-acre campus, where it houses 250 examples of early American mass transit, including electric trolley cars and buses.

It’s the largest collection of its kind anywhere in the world and, so, it’s not surprising that the site greets more than 25,000 visitors each season. Executive Director Sally Bates says that’s why the docents are so vital to the museum’s operation.

“Because so many of the visitors arrive on tour buses, with only about an hour and a half to see everything, it’s especially important that they get a guided experience so they can really get a good taste of the museum within the allotted time period,” she said. “We don’t want anybody to leave here without having had the opportunity to have the core experience.”

That experience, which includes the opportunity to ride the same trolleys that once circulated throughout most American cities, large and small, can transport visitors to an earlier era, when most people did not have cars or even horses in urban areas, and the ability to move freely and easily beyond one’s immediate surroundings was a new experience in the human condition.

“Most of the people who leave here say they never had a clue before coming just how much of an impact the electric street cars had on society,” said John Mercurio, head of the education department at the Seashore Trolley Museum, who will lead the docent training.

Prospective docents need not know any of that history themselves. All that’s required is a willingness to learn, and to share that knowledge with others.

“That’s the purpose of the training,” Mercurio said. “Classes will include the history of the street car industry, and of the cars themselves, and so forth.”

“You don’t have to be an expert to be a docent here,” said volunteer dispatcher/instructor Bill Mallory. “All you really need is a desire to work with people, to be a people person, as it were. I’ve been volunteering here off and on for 14 years and I’m certainly no expert. But the docent can help to fill in the stories. And every vehicle here has a unique story related to the people who rode it every day.”

Mallory and Mercurio both note that the museum’s collection of vehicles, from horse-drawn carts to open street cars, to rapid transit cars and buses, are all simply “mechanical things.” The real secret to what makes the Seashore Trolley Museum so special, they say, is the connection it offers between visitors and the riders, operators and owners of those vehicles, all now lost to history but for the palpable connection to them someone can feel when riding one of the same cars they rode on, sitting in the same seats, and feeling the same rumble of steel wheels on rail, when rattling along the museum’s 1.5-mile line.

“At the end of the day, to go home and realize that you’ve interacted with a lot of people and given them a perspective on American life that they never had, of how very different those times were and yet still the same, that’s part of the enjoyment that we get out of it as volunteers,” Mercurio said.

“It’s humbling to think of the people who operated and rode these cars when it was all still new, when they could remember a time when people walked, when very few people could afford a horse and carriage in the city, and, so, they walked everywhere. If they wanted to get anywhere,” Mercurio said. “The stories are all there. It’s about the people.”

“Street cars on rails really opened up people’s lives. It made their lives larger. And, to me, that was a very moving story, no pun intended, when I first visited here, long before I ever became involved with the museum’s operation myself,” Bates said.

Anyone interested in becoming a docent for the 2016 season can register at the website trolleymuseum.org. There is a $55 fee to cover course materials and meals.

Classes will run every Thursday from March 31 to May 19, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Individual classes will include discussion on the rewards of being a docent and the basics of relating to museum visitors; how public transportation shaped society; an overview of the museum’s history from 1939 to the present and its collection; details on where to find answers to visitor questions; how to guide visitors through the exhibit room; understanding the demonstration railway; and shadowing with an instructor.

Bates says she’s hopeful that as many as 10 new docents might emerge from the program, to help augment the more than 100 active volunteers who run the museum seven days per week from Memorial Day through Columbus Day.

“I think it’s safe to say that however many people register, we have opportunities for them to share what they learn from the training,” Bates said. “Some folks may decide they like the information but they don’t necessarily want to be a tour guide, and that’s fine. There are lots of other volunteer opportunities.”

The connection to the past also often creates a bond among museum volunteers that keeps them coming back,” Bates said. Helping to lead this year’s docent training, for example, is Donna Griglock, who graduated from the first docent class two years ago, when it was held at Biddeford Adult Education.

“I think we’re really hoping to get more people like her, more folks who live right around here, locally,” Mallory said.

That’s because the Seashore Trolley Museum is, in some ways, a victim of its own success. Although unknown to many locals, people who do visit tend to fall in love with the place and come back year after year, joining as members and volunteering their time, as Mercurio has since 1995.

“And so, what happens is, we get people who drive 90 minutes or more, or even over from New Hampshire, to volunteer here for a day,” he said.

“It’s hard to depend on people like that every day – not that we expect to depend on anyone every day, we’ll work out any kind of a schedule – so it would be nice to have more local people who may have an interest in history, or people, becoming involved,” Mallory said.

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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