HP Historical Society is new blast from the past with a vision to move forward

Ghislaine Darden is a woman with a vision that looks forward to looking back. She wants to see a future for the Highland Park Historical Society.

Some obstacles need to be faced and overcome. For starters, the organization lacks a dedicated meeting space. It needs to attract funding.  The historical artifacts and documents already belonging to the organization lack a display location.  And finally its previous incarnation died several years ago, and the reincarnation has to make its presence and its value known in order to survive.

But a dedicated coterie of residents sees the need for an active historical society. They share her vision for saving the borough’s past while it’s still accessible, and they’re forging ahead. The group already has met once a few weeks ago and plans to meet again, at 1 p.m. Feb. 8 (email highlandparkhistory@gmail.com  if you are interested in participating).

About 10 people attended that first meeting, at the private home of Jeanne Kolva, former borough historian and active member of the previous historical society. From that initial meeting came volunteers starting to fill the roster of officers, including an archivist and another officer dedicated to writing grants. All told, the society has a little more than 30 people on its mailing list.

“We have a lot of talented people that have shown up and come out of the woodwork,” said Ms. Darden. “I think we’re going to be able to move forward.”

Beyond locating a designated meeting space, the historical society already has named three goals as priorities. One is to record an oral history of Highland Park, a process that involves speaking with longtime residents and prompting them to recall events, people and places from the borough’s past.

This effort would have benefited from a Park Partners grant, which the society had hoped to win in December, but did not. Had it received the grant, the historical society had planned to purchase equipment to record those histories and to upgrade previous histories to current media formats.

The grant also would have helped the historical society to create digital copies of its old records, to share on a web site for greater public access. So the effort is seeking private donations and grant possibilities

“All the collection for the most part is in Jean’s house,” explained Ms. Darden, who credits Ms. Kolva with maintaining the legacy of the historical society during its lengthy hiatus. “It definitely has been held together by Jean Kolva. She’s really the one who kept things together all these years.”

A second goal is to create a “living time line,” an interactive event with historical re-enactors who portray people from the past. Unlike the time line at the Highland Park Senior/Youth Center last June during the borough’s Back to the Future promotion, the next planned time line would include elements specifically from the history of Highland Park, in keeping with the 110th anniversary of the borough’s founding.

Still, as important as such outreach events would be to the mission of any historical society, one fundamental task comes before the others.

“The biggest challenge is getting space to have a meeting,” said Ms. Darden. “It’s got to be a public place so that we can have a public event.”

Public meeting spaces in Highland Park are limited, making competition stiff and long-term standing reservations a formidable challenge. Highland Park has its share of historical buildings , the most prominent being the Waldron House on Harrison Avenue, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But none of them is preserved as a public space the way the Guest House or the Van Wickle House are.

“We don’t have any preserved historical space,” said Ms. Darden. “The town has not been very interested to save any historical houses. Any nice historical houses that we’ve had, the developers have been allowed to tear them down.”

The challenges may seem daunting, but Ms. Darden is confident that the newly reinvigorated historical society can meet them head-on and overcome them.

And after that, well, the rest will be history.

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