Meet the guardian of Schoharie historic site
Story and photos By DEBORAH A. MILES
The Visitor’s CenterIn a weathered mustard-colored house that sits near the banks of the Schoharie Creek, infamous for its power to flood the entire town, stands the Visitor’s Center for the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site.
Inside, one can find neatly arranged displays tracing the history of the Erie Canal and its impact on the growth of New York state, Native American artifacts, and photographs of the archaeological excavations of the foundation of British Fort Hunter, which was first constructed in 1712.
This Visitor’s Center is the hub for the historic site that features 250 acres of picturesque rural landscape and eight buildings, and which welcomes up to 80,000 visitors annually. The center itself is almost a breathing monument to a step back in time.
But it is a PEF member that gives it its breath.
Janice Fontanella, the site’s manager, cheerfully explains the history of the area operated by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP). She has worked there for 31 years, and continues to be inspired by its history, natural beauty that includes biking and hiking paths, areas where people may fish or just enjoy the scenery.
“I hope the enjoyment of the site encourages people to become more active in dealing with environmental issues and understanding the importance of history. The goal is to preserve this for future generations,” Fontanella said.
She has a myriad of responsibilities such as talking to visitors, supervising staff, working with school groups, planning and implementing programs, dealing with the budget and writing grants.
“Parks is really a great agency and I am lucky to work with so many talented people, and a really great staff. I think we make an awesome team.
“The diversity and working with the staff and partner groups has allowed me to expand my creative side and take on new challenges with fresh ideas. The most rewarding part of the job is combined with the most challenging part. We don’t always have the resources to do what we would like to do. When I meet with partner organizations such as the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce, Friends of Schoharie Crossing and the state Canal Corporation, I become inspired on how to better manage things, or speak with someone who has resources I can delve into, or to work on a solution together,” Fontanella said.
Everyone worked together when Hurricane Irene brought epic flooding to Schoharie in August, 2011, when it was man versus river. The parking lot of the Visitor’s Center was washed away. Afterwards, a full year of archaeological excavation unearthed artifacts from the Mohawk Native Americans, which now have a prominent display at the center.
That discovery, which Fontanella spoke about, adds another dimension to the center. But one of the things she most enjoys about her job is arranging adult storytelling.
“That’s my favorite program. It has not gotten old for a second. If anything, I enjoy it more because I now know a lot more about storytelling,” Fontanella said.
“People think of storytelling as something for kids. For adults, it is similar to a theater performance, and we hire storytellers from all over the world. Some have an international reputation. It is entertaining, fun and historic because storytelling has occurred in this region for hundreds of years.
“By listening to the stories, you get insight into emotions, feelings or perceptions from someone who is different from you. It expands your horizons.”
Funding for the storytelling program comes from OPRHP, Friends of Schoharie Crossing, the state Council on the Arts, and many local businesses.
The Visitor’s Center offers much more, such as a juried art show. It is open from May 1 through October 31, and there is no admission fee to check out the Visitor’s Center. For more information go to https://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/27/details.aspx.