Profiles in Community: Passion for history leads Houpt-Varner to Rokeby
FERRISBURGH — The new director of Ferrisburgh historic site Rokeby Museum earned degrees in History and Government & Political Affairs at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, and then a PhD at Durham University in the U.K.
Maybe just as importantly Lindsay Houpt-Varner said she has a passion for history first developed as a youngster.
Houpt-Varner, a 34-year-old native of Carlisle, Penn., said her family helped her catch a history bug that teachers further nurtured.
“Whenever we would go on vacations we would go to museums, and we would travel around the Eastern Seaboard and visit different historic sites,” she recalled. “And then when I was in high school I had a series of teachers who encouraged me to pursue that and encouraged me to do National History Day and to take as many history classes as I could.”
As a Millersville undergraduate Houpt-Varner first planned to become an attorney, but had a change of heart. She became a dual major, adding History, and then headed off to the U.K. for a four-year post-graduate career and work as community educator and administrator at an international historic site.
“I realized my passion really lied in history, so I stuck with that through grad school,” she said.
Houpt-Varner has worked as the Community Outreach Director for the Cumberland Historical Society and as the Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul Project Director in her hometown. She has received awards from Preservation Pennsylvania, PA Museums, and the American Association for State and Local History. She has also taught Early American and British History in Pennsylvania colleges.
The Rokeby board issued a statement on why it unanimously chose Houpt-Varner out of a field of 92 applicants:
“Lindsay stood out because of her impressive array of skills, and her successful projects and achievements as the Community Outreach Director for the Cumberland Historical Society. Her academic studies and experience are particularly applicable to Rokeby, and the value she puts on inclusivity as a tenet of public history is very important to us.”
Houpt-Varner replaced Catherine Brooks on Sept. 21. Brooks signed on three years ago for a tenure planned to last just that long, but will stay on through Rokeby’s Oct. 25 seasonal closing date to help with the transition.
Of course, Brooks didn’t know the final eight months of her tenure would mean guiding Rokeby through a pandemic.
But she said the site, which bills itself as “a nationally significant Underground Railroad story tucked inside a quintessential Vermont experience,” has held its own through COVID relief aid, careful budgeting, and what Brooks said was reasonable attendance once the site could open on July 1.
“It’s held steady at about half of last year,” Brooks said. “All considered we feel like that’s pretty good.”
Also encouraging was a successful membership drive.
“We just had a recent membership push, and we got a great response, and membership is one of the ways we get support,” Brooks said.
After Oct. 25 Brooks, a Vergennes resident, can turn her attention elsewhere: “We have an old house, so I’m going to be working on some needed upgrades to that. I also have an idea of developing art curriculum for kids.”
Then Houpt-Warner will be full-time while Rokeby will be open only by appointment, mostly to groups. An anonymous donation will allow that full-time status for a Rokeby director for the first time, for at least the next three years.
Houpt-Varner plans to make good use of the time.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for me to spend the winter getting to know the programming and the fundraising and museum exhibits,” she said.
But Houpt-Varner said her highest priorities early on would be listening.
“The first thing I’m really keen to do is get to know the volunteers, the staff that are there, the board members that are there, and then hear what they would like to see for the future of the site,” Houpt-Varner said. “Every single person I’ve talked to who knows about the site loves it. And they just have these incredible connections. I can’t wait to hear what their thoughts and ideas are.”
Houpt-Varner said a number of things attracted her to Rokeby, including her research focus on Quakerism, on which she wrote her doctoral dissertation. The Robinson family who owned Rokeby for generations were Quakers, and their faith informed their abolitionism.
She also sees moving to Rokeby as a continuation of her work at the Cumberland Historical Society, where she focused on the 19th century, including preservation work and research on a Black church that was founded in the 1870s, and the roles of “voices in our historical narrative.”
“A lot of the aspects of Rokeby and their mission really hit on everything that I’m passionate about in the work that I’m currently doing, and it brought it all together,” Houpt-Varner said.
Houpt-Varner said she and her husband, Chris, are also excited about the move to Vermont. They are planning to restore the Monkton home they are buying and to enjoy running, cycling and gardening.
“We’re really looking forward to being in Vermont,” Houpt-Varner said. “We’re so excited for this. It just seems like a perfect fit for us.”
So, yes, that does mean she views Rokeby as a potential long-range fit.
“I do see this as a long-term position. I am very passionate about the mission of Rokeby,” she said. “I think there are so many fantastic opportunities to meld together conversations on the history of the site, whether it be agriculture or conservation or abolition or women in American history. I think there are some great topics we could talk about there.”
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