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Fascinating local history gets more time at Niagara Falls Public Library

From Tesla to tourism, from the Underground Railroad to the Manhattan Project, not to mention daredevils, the Local History department of the Niagara Falls Public Library has information on it all.

And soon the public will be able to see it for more hours each week.

Starting Oct. 2, the library's Local History department, which in recent years had opened its wealth of local documents, maps, yearbooks, clippings, books and artifacts to the public for just nine hours a week, will have its hours expanded to 20 per week.

The department, now open from 5 to 8 p.m. Mondays and 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, will be open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays.

"This was a priority; it was very clear from Day 1 that this had to happen," said Executive Library Director Sarah Potwin, who started her job in early July.

She said the additional hours were added at no extra cost to taxpayers, who provide the bulk of the library's funding.

"We did hire one person over the summer because there was a hole elsewhere, but that was an independent thing," she said. "This project, being able to be open 20 hours, is based on staff working together, shifting a few responsibilities, shifting a few work shifts here and there to make this work. And let me say that I'm very pleased that my staff is on board with this.

"We talked about it, I heard their concerns, they heard mine, we talked it out, we fleshed out what we needed to do and how how we were going to do it, and it was a collective process," she said. "It wasn't me saying, 'You are going to do this,' it was all of us saying, 'We are going to do this.'"

The expanded hours will be staffed by Local History Librarian Courtney Geerhart, who was hired by the library in February 2015 and took over in Local History a year later.

"She is the right person for the job, she is knowledgeable, personable and kind," said Potwin. "People come to her with their research questions, and she has the personality of wanting to help. She knows where things are; she knows what we have. And having grown up in the area, she has first-hand knowledge of many of the things that are here."

Geerhart will be assisted by clerk Helga Schultz, who has decades of experience in helping patrons.

Niagara Falls Public Library Executive Director Sarah Potwin, center, worked with her staff to increase hours for the Local History department, which is operated by Librarian Courtney Geerhart, left, and clerk Helga Schultz, right. The three stand with an impressive exhiibit Schultz assembled of notable Niagara County women, ranging from the Seven Sutherland Sisters to Joyce Carol Oates. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Despite the improvement, Potwin is braced for criticism. "I know there will be naysayers who say, 'Well, it's only 20 hours,' but I counteract with, 'It's up from nine,'" she said. "Granted it's only one evening a week, but we have to start somewhere, and at the moment that's what we have. Would it be great to be open 40 hours a week, and multiple nights a week? Yes, I'd love that too, but we have to start somewhere."

"This library is such a wonderful gift," said Sandra Rutkowski of the Town of Niagara, who stopped in on a Thursday with her husband, Bill, to work on a quintessential local project -- a five-volume book on the women whose portraits were painted by longtime Niagara Falls artist Polly King.

As she looked through yearbooks, seeking photos of the women Polly King painted, Rutkowski said, "We have been here so  many times, and this place is great." Schultz, she said, "has helped me for 21 years."

Through the years, the staff of the Local History Department has seen patrons' interests change.

"We started out with a lot of genealogists coming in here, especially in summertime, people were on the road and they were coming here," said Schultz. "Nowadays, we are getting more specialized requests."

Even the elevator that patrons take to the third-floor Local History department has a tale of its own. Like many of his fellow daredevils, Karel Soucek, who went over the Horseshoe Falls on July 2, 1984, researched the history of stunting at the falls before his plunge. Once the temperamental elevator stopped between floors, trapping him for some time. He was said to be shaken when he was eventually freed.

Soucek died on Jan. 19, 1985,  when he was dropped in a barrel 180 feet from the ceiling of the Houston Astrodome into a tank of water below. He suffered fatal injuries when his barrel hit the side of the tank.

Recently, daredevil Steve Trotter, who lives in Florida, stopped into the Local History department with a few friends during a visit to the area. Trotter went over the Horseshoe on Aug. 18, 1985, and again in a two-person barrel with Lori Martin on June 18, 1995.

"He is a very nice guy," said Geerhart. "He came in with a few other guys to look at some of his old photos."

Visitors researching daredevils in the Niagara Falls Public Library's Local History department are often fascinated by the story of Annie Edson Taylor, who went over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel in 1901, when she was in her 60s.

Annie Edson Taylor, who took the plunge on Oct. 24, 1901, is a consistent subject of interest, Geerhart said. "Annie was the first one to go over in a barrel and also a woman, which is pretty incredible," she said. "But some people also go back to Blondin, the original daredevil."

Jean Francois Gravelet, known as the Great Blondin, walked tightropes across the gorge 23 times during the summers of 1859 and 1860, eventually crossing blindfolded, in a burlap sack, with his feet in bushel baskets, and carrying an iron stove, on which he cooked an omelet halfway across. Three times he astonished crowds by carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back.

The area's importance on the Underground Railroad, which included an active and successful station at the popular Cataract House hotel, drew Harriet Tubman, who escorted fleeing enslaved people, and Frederick Douglass, who visited many times. The Love Canal contamination that was discovered late 1970s drew international attention. The powerful Haudenosaunee lived in the area; the French and Indian War and the War of 1812 were fought on this land.

"Industrial history and heritage is big," said Geerhart.  "We get a lot of interest about that, especially when certain anniversaries come around. There is interest in Tesla and his role -- he is kind of an underappreciated person in history, although not around here. People are always interested in what we can show them about him."

"A lot of people are interested in the Manhattan Project, but we don't have much about it because it was so hush-hush," said Schultz. Visitors whose parents or grandparents worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb peruse newspapers from that time.

People organizing historical tours also stop in to do research. "They want to know all about Main Street, or Buffalo Avenue, or Old Falls Street, and we provide them with pictures too," said Schultz.

School groups are welcome. "They are always fun," said Geerhart. "They are always fascinated by everything, so the challenge is corralling them. They love our stereopticon viewer, if they could look at that all day they would be happy." The viewer, made into the mid-19th century, uses two lenses and two photos to create a nearly three-dimensional image. Many photos of Niagara Falls scenery and daredevils were produced as souvenirs.

Some fragile or valuable artifacts and books are kept in a locked storage area. Some ceremonial silver firefighters' trumpets and vintage fire chiefs' helmets are preserved in cases.

Local history librarian Courtney Geerhart said seeing Abraham Lincoln's signature in the Cataract House guest register gives her chills. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

But the gem of the department's collection is a Cataract House ledger signed, in a fluid, sloping hand, "A. Lincoln & family, Springfield, Ill." The Lincolns stayed in room 158 on July 24, 1857, before he was elected president on Nov. 6, 1860.

"I am a big Abraham Lincoln fan, so to see this just gives me chills," said Geerhart.

Geerhart and Schultz are skilled at finding old documents and artifacts, but they also work with cutting-edge innovations. Geerhart recently set up a digital dual-camera book scanner to photograph fragile or valuable books, which are cradled in a padded v-shaped frame to prevent stress on the binding.

"This is important, because we can get most of our collection digitized," said Potwin. "People don't have to be here to see what we have and our materials can be shared across many platforms. It reduces the wear and tear on the items, too."

Some visitors still stop in to research their own past or their ancestors. "High school yearbooks are always popular," aid Geerhart, as are the college yearbooks in the collection.

"We had a couple of women come in over the summer who were interested in finding some relatives who went to DeVeaux School, and we have the DeVeaux School records," said Geerhart. The visitors were able to see photos and newsletters from their relatives' era.

New local businesses have also used the resources of the Local History Department. Before the Courtyard Marriott opened in the fomrer Moore Business Forms building on Buffalo Avenue, represntatives came in to research the building's original incarnation as the Niagara Chocolate Factory. Photos of those bygone businesses are used in the Marriott.

"A number of our images are in their facility, so when you get off the elevator, there are these large murals of historic Niagara Falls, and they came from this collection," said Potwin.

"They spent a lot of time here researching those images," said Geerhart.

"I think we can expect an upswing in interest in Hotel Niagara, because it was just bought," said Schultz. Geerhart had already had a phone conversation with the architect, whom she said is "very interested in the historical information about Hotel Niagara."

The Power City Eatery on Third Street also used local historical images to give visitors from all over the world a sense of place. In a public-private partnership with the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, the restaurant is hosting "The Art of Power," an exhibit of images from the early days of power generation, said Ally Spongr, who is now director and curator of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center.

"They wanted some decor that matched their theme at Power City, so we said, 'We can help with that,'" said Spongr. "We took selected images to curate the storyline exhibit about introducing power, so it goes from the Schoellkopf Hydraulic Canal and just touches on the Adams Power plant. It's another good example of being able to utilize local resources here and to be able to get it out into the public with a partnership."

Whether helping local businesses select authentic and important images or opening the doors more hours a week so visitors can do their own research, public access is key to a library's work, said Potwin.

"I think that the staff and our board recognize the importance of what we have here and how fortunate we are to have this collection," she said. "But most of all, we want people using the library, we want them using this collection.

"As librarians, having all these wonderful things here is great, but if it's not accessible for our community, then there is no point in having it, no point in being here. The true tenet of librarianship is being able to share the information you have, and that's the goal of what we're trying to do."


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