WATERFORD — The sign in the window of the Fort LeBoeuf Museum says “Closed for seasonal maintenance.”
In fact, the museum on Waterford’s High Street has been closed for two years, a victim of state budget cuts.
Exhibits detailing the region’s pivotal role in the colonial struggles between two 18th-century European powers have been removed or stored.
The Fort LeBoeuf Historical Society and the French Creek Living History re-enactment group hope to change that. They’re trying to buy the museum from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and reopen it to the public.
“What they’re doing in Erie with the (U.S. Brig) Niagara is great. But the history of this area goes back 60 years before that and needs to be remembered too,” re-enactor Jim Edwards said.
Waterford in the mid- to late 18th century was the site of France’s Fort LeBoeuf, a British blockhouse and an American fort, all built to defend successive claims on the French Creek and Ohio River frontier and its lucrative fur trade. In 1753, George Washington, then a major with the Colonial Virginia militia, carried a message to the French at Fort LeBoeuf — that they were trespassing in British territory.
It took the French and Indian War to settle the claim in favor of the British, and the American Revolution to oust the British in turn.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission is amenable to selling the museum that it built in 1970 to chronicle that history. It proposed the sale in a plan presented to House and Senate state government committees by Department of General Services Secretary Sheri Phillips on May 8.
The sale would generate $200,000 and save taxpayers $30,000 in annual maintenance, security and utilities costs for the museum, according to state estimates.
LeBoeuf Historical Society President Ken Lewis doesn’t expect competition for purchasing the property but does expect a break on the asking price.
“We hope to buy it for $1 or maybe lease it for that until the state gets its ducks in a row to sell it to us,” Lewis said.
The building wouldn’t sell for $200,000 and needs work besides, Lewis said.
Historians have drummed up state legislators’ support for their proposal to lease or buy the property for a nominal fee. The sale would save the state the cost of maintaining the museum and would bring tourists and tourist dollars to Waterford, said state Rep. John Hornaman, of Millcreek Township, in a draft letter of support for the sale.
“It’s common sense,” Hornaman said.
Local historians hope for a similar bargain on two more properties on their shopping list: the Judson House and Washington Park. They’ve started negotiations with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to buy those, too, and presented their case to PHMC Executive Director Jim Vaughan this spring.
“We’d operate them as a museum complex,” Lewis said.
The Judson House is already operated by the Historical Society. The house was built in the early 1800s by Amos Judson, an early Waterford settler, and was given to the PHMC by the Fort LeBoeuf Chapter of the Daughters of American Colonists in 1945.
The state had allocated about $7,000 a year for the house’s upkeep. That funding ended in 2010.
The park south of the Eagle Hotel is also maintained by the Historical Society and features a statue of a George Washington in the British uniform he would have worn on his visit to Fort LeBoeuf.
The state has never provided for park upkeep, Lewis said.
Also included in the museum complex would be the Eagle Hotel, which the Historical Society bought from private owners in 1977. The stone hotel, built in 1826, is next to Washington Park and across High Street from the Judson House and Fort LeBoeuf Museum.
“There’s a lot of history in this little town, most of it right here,” Edwards said, walking museum grounds.
Major funding for the local Historical Society comes from Sugar ‘n Spice, a restaurant that leases space in the Eagle Hotel. Historians applied for additional funding from the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, staked by gambling revenues from Presque Isle Downs Casino, but did not receive it.
Historians plan to apply for more grants and raise additional money to reopen the Fort LeBoeuf Museum, keep the Judson House open and improve both.
“We know what we’d like to do, but it all takes money,” Edwards said.
Tentative plans include building a fortlike entrance to the museum and putting canoes in the nearby branch of French Creek. “The French had 200 or 300 canoes, or bateaus and barques, in the creek, from what George Washington said,” Edwards said.
In the two years that the Fort LeBoeuf Museum has been closed, the Waterford community has been missing a vital link to that past, said Fort LeBoeuf High School history teacher and history department Chairman Sean Humphreys. It was Humphreys who launched the Historical Society initiative to buy the museum and its historically significant neighbors and chairs its acquisitions study committee.
School groups regularly visited the Fort LeBoeuf Museum to learn more about not only local history, but national history, Humphreys said.
“The French claimed territory from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and they knew that with a fort at Presque Isle, they could reach the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. And they knew that 15 miles inland, at Fort LeBoeuf, if they put a canoe in LeBoeuf Creek, they could reach the Gulf of Mexico: from LeBoeuf Creek to French Creek, to the Allegheny River, to the Ohio and to the Mississippi River,” Humphreys said.
“The British knew all of that, too. So this region was extremely important to them, too, and extremely important to us a nation,” he said.
VALERIE MYERS can be reached at 878-1913 or by e-mail. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNmyers.