MILTON—After eight years spearheading the Milton Historical Society, Cori Olson has decided to resign as executive director.
“It was the hardest thing for me to do,” she said.
The Gazette sat down with Olson to discover what it took to lead the society, how it's changed and what's next for her.
Q: What drew you to the Milton Historical Society?
A: Olson has a history working for nonprofits. She was the tourism director for the city of Whitewater for a while, she said.
As a youngster, her grandparents dragged her to various old places to learn about history, and her love grew from there.
“I'm picked on all the time of having an old soul,” Olson said. “I can pick up a box of photos and get lost in it for two hours.”
The executive director position at the society was the perfect mix of tourism and historical content for Olson.
After learning so much through her time at the Milton Historical Society, “this has become my new hometown,” she said.
Q: What's a typical day like? What do you do?
A: “That's a good question. I'd like to know,” Olson joked.
Olson spent the first four years of her job as the Milton House Museum's only employee, which presented its own challenges. Now her time is spent working with volunteers and 10-13 summer staff members.
She also does research, customer service, traces families' genealogy and looks up answers to “crazy questions.” For the past several weeks, she's been changing exhibits in the upstairs portion of the museum. She hopes to be finished before her final day as executive director Oct. 1.
“During the summer months is my time when I can do all this crazy stuff,” she said.
Q: How did the society change under your leadership?
A: Olson helped promote the museum in the off-season. Before, people didn't generally visit during the winter months.
She established better working relationship with the city, too.
“When I first started, we had horrible relationships with the city,” she said. “Right now we have great relationships…”
Certain personalities clashed, leading to feuds, but Olson has rebuilt bridges, she said.
Olson has started rotating exhibits to attract more visitors. She's set up exhibits displaying everything from hats to wedding dresses to military items. One display included laundry lines full of women's underwear throughout the years.
“It was kind of scandalous,” she said.
Q: What are some of the challenges of the job?
A: When the economy tanked around 2008, a lot of general grants dried up, Olson said, though certain organizations are starting to get grant programs back. People assume the museum has government funding because it's a National Historic Landmark, but it doesn't, she said.
“Funding is always a challenge,” she said.
Getting volunteers is another hurdle, especially in the 30- to 50-year-old age bracket.
Olson has young volunteers after starting a Middle School Minions program that encourages students to help out around the museum. Those who stuck with the program are now high school sophomores that staff the house over the summer. Retirees often volunteer, too, she said.
Q: What will you miss the most about working in the Milton Historical Society?
A: Olson will miss the people who drop in to tour, eat lunch or chat, she said.
People from Mexico, South America and the Middle East have toured the museum and shared their own tales of slavery and oppression.
“It's neat to hear those stories,” Olson said. “We've made this an environment that makes people want to stop in and visit.”
Q: Why are you leaving the Milton Historical Society, and what's next for you?
A: It comes down to money. Olson hasn't had health insurance for a long time, and “I'm not getting any younger,” she said.
“The pay is never going to be up to what it should be,” Olson said.
Olson is part of the hiring committee that's accepting applications for a new executive director. She hopes to have one hired before she leaves so she can help train the new employee.
Olson is leaving without a job but said she'd like to work in public relations or human resources outside of the non-profit world.
She isn't gone for good. She'll still volunteer at the museum and other nonprofits.
“I love this place. This is my hard habit to break here,” she said.