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Niagara Q&A: Bill Neidlinger, Newfane Historical Society

NEWFANE – Bill Neidlinger took the reins of the Newfane Historical Society earlier this year with a very appropriate set of qualifications.

Born and raised in Newfane, Neidlinger was the son of Nancy Taylor, who died earlier this year at 88 and had once served as the Newfane town clerk for more than 25 years. So, he knows his local history.

And Neidlinger taught industrial arts in the Lewiston-Porter School District, and later, for the Board of Cooperative Educational Service programs at Newfane and the Niagara Wheatfield School District, retiring after 34 years. So, you could say he’s the handy sort, who has the time, interest and expertise to tackle the many projects the museum site, called the Country Village, provides at 2685 West Creek Road.

But don’t let that word “retired” fool you – Neidlinger may be as busy these days as when he was teaching shop. He has served as president of the Newfane Methodist Church Council for the past decade; he babysits his toddler granddaughter three days a week; and, up until his mother’s passing prevented him from participating this year, he had been involved for 15 years with the award-winning Circuit Stompers at Newfane High School. It’s akin to an engineering Olympics for students who excel in technology.

But as talented and generous with his time as he is, Neidlinger is always quick to share credit with others.

These days, Neidlinger is turning his attention to one of the historical society’s biggest fundraisers of the year – the annual Apple Blossom Festival, to be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. next Sunday, rain or shine, at the Country Village. The free event features plenty of good food, a flea market, crafts, live performances and visits to a blacksmith shop, Civil War encampment, one-room schoolhouse, a barbershop, post office and a newly fixed-up log cabin, which had been closed for many months for repairs.

The event also will include demonstrations on many historic pieces of equipment – from printing presses to a loom made in the 1920s and used by the Lockport Felt Co. in Newfane – brought back to life by Neidlinger and friends sharing his interest in preserving local history.

Neidlinger recently took time to talk about some of the projects underway on the society grounds, the importance of preserving local history, and his family, which includes his wife, Sue Neidlinger, a local business owner and Town Board member, and their four children and four grandchildren.

What will be new and different at this year’s Apple Blossom Festival?

We’ll be reopening the log cabin, which has been closed for the past two or three festivals. We had a real rough winter in 2014-15 and pipes broke and there was water and ice everywhere. We’ve replaced the floor and put in a handicapped bathroom. We were able to salvage quite a bit and we’ve been bringing things up out of the basement, so it’s sort of a revolving display. We’ve installed lights now outside on this and another building that will go on whenever the temperature drops to a certain point, so that we can see the lights and get into the buildings if there’s trouble.

What was your first restoration project at the site?

The 1926 printing press was my first project. Steve Goodman, who was a shop teacher, too, and Ken Hannah and I worked on it. I tell everyone that everything I learned in college is in a museum now.

Malcolm “Mac” McClew donated the press and it sat there for 30 years. I used to wonder, what will I do when I retire? What will I do with the rest of my life? I tell his family now that Mac helped me figure it out. I had gone to school with his son, so it’s interesting to see this all come together. I had a lot of fun working on that press.

We’ve also added a small hand press people can operate, as well as a wood block printing machine, dog tag machine and stencil machine for “make and take” items at our festivals. Kids seem to especially like this the best.

What was your next project?

Sam Clogston, Pat Fralick and I worked on the 100-year-old loom from the Lockport Felt Mill. Both of them had worked at the mill. That mill is essentially why Newfane is here – Newfane was a mill town and they made papermaking felt. It seems everyone worked there or had a relative who worked there. I remember the sound of that shuttle flying back and forth when I would walk past the mill as a kid and now I get to hear it again!

Sam and I are still working on the 1927 Aeromotor water pumping windmill. We have an Amish fellow making sheet metal blades for it and we believe we have all of the parts for it now. We’ll probably have it done this summer and we’ll be looking at getting it back on top of the (30-foot) tower. That will be tricky. We’ll need a person or a company with a lift.

Do you have your eye on any other projects for the society?

Bill Lanighan works for a plumbing supply company in Lockport and he restored an old fire hydrant for us, so we’re looking to get a water pumping display going. Another fellow, Dave Wehn, is into old gas engines and we have a huge oil pump we want to start work on. A farmer, Gary Fitch, donated an apple peeler and we want to get that set up.

Why do you think it’s important to preserve our local history?

We have to know where we came from to know where we’re going. It helps us better understand why Newfane, Olcott, Burt and Wright’s Corners are here and why the buildings and houses are where they are. We know that Newfane was a felt mill town. A lot of the workers were recruited, you might say, from Scotland, because they knew how to operate the mills.

And, there’s the educational value of history, the science and technology of it. We like to pique children’s interest a little as to how things work.

Do you ever have to turn down donations of articles for the museums?

Sometimes we have to say “no,” if we already have one or two. We have two small looms to make rag rugs, for example, and I already gave another away. We get doubles and triples of things.

As we lose our old-timers, we lose our stories and not everyone knows what things are or where they came from. We could really use volunteers to do research on our artifacts for us.

Speaking of volunteers, I imagine you could always use them for a variety of tasks, is that right?

We are always looking for volunteers to help. We probably have about 30 active volunteers and some of them just help on festival days. Our Van Horn Mansion is open for tours and we always need help with those, too. To volunteer, you could call Janet Capen at 778-8880, or me at 697-2688.

You and your wife, Sue, really spend a lot of your time volunteering for your community, don’t you?

Sue is about to get the “Extra Miler” Award from the Western New York Methodist Church Conference, after retiring from running the Sunday School at the Newfane Methodist Church for more than 25 years. I’m so glad she’s getting this award.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email