Pam Gasner retires from Historical Society

Sun, 12/12/2021 - 7:00am

An eclectic museum cannot be replicated, it just kind of evolves, one donated piece of history at a time until voilà, you have created a coveted treasure whose flavor and character cannot be replicated.
That is the Historical Society, with the old double-ender moored on its front lawn in the center of town, a monument to the sea-going work ethic that remains ingrained in Block Island’s year-round citizens, no matter their calling today.

And while the amazing treasures and stories that lie within are the work of a legion of volunteers, and the result of hundreds of small fundraisers over the years, it is clearly the life’s work of Pam Littlefield Gasner, who since 1985, has at times duct-taped the place together to create this polished gem of a living story on the island of Block Island.
And what a storyteller and story she has painted over the nearly 40 years she has poured into the museum, her eyes proudly reflecting a can-do, warm spirit that few can replicate. Not only is the museum a treasure, so too is she.
After decades of work begun in 1985, she has decided to step down as the Historical Society executive director to devote her life to other challenges that time has not allowed her to tackle. A veritable faucet of facts, I learned more in a two-hour jaunt with her on a cold winter’s day than I ever could have imagined, those hours interrupted only so she could coerce the heating system back to operating. All with a smile of course, and the banter of an engaging story teller.
Over those decades the building has had its roof raised, its floors magnificently repurposed, additions built, 23 of the 52 windows removed and put back meeting strict architectural requirements, handicap accessible entries and baths installed, a commercial kitchen installed for 40-person events (hint: For rent!), new zoned air conditioning and heating systems installed to help preserve artifacts, all the while tapping an amazing base of Block Island skilled artisans to accurately replicate history. The talent, often donated over five building phases, roll off her tongue seamlessly and are too many to list: Dan McLaughlin, Greg Schoonmaker, Devean Gwiazdzinski, Johnny Littlefield, Steve Wilk, Gayanne Hall and Pat Cobb, Joe Sprague. The legion of names of people she wants to thank is a chapter book of vignettes in itself. Each one, each person, clearly important to the overall aggregated success of the Historical Society, but too many for one article.
And speaking of sustainability, Gasner in her role of executive director spearheaded or oversaw almost all of the grant writing that has secured the funds to pay for the majority of the modernization, one grant, one project at a time. Remarkable, including securing one from the Annenberg Foundation on the very day she retired.
Yet her favorite role without doubt is one she sees as “curator.” Lamenting that today’s society doesn’t like to read, she would like to find a way to distill the information in an engaging manner in visual snippets that hold today’s limited attention spans. Until then, the story behind each collectible brings a glint to her eyes as she can recall how it was procured, often donated by families digging through 100-plus-year-old basements and attics and discovering generations of hand-me-downs they didn’t know they had or what they were.
Within its walls one can for example, learn about and see all the great hotels that dotted the island. But so much more, you can feel like you are ‘in the time’ with the
very place-settings used for grand weddings, the intricate elegant dresses worn to dinner. One learns that Nicholas Ball, who made his fortune in the California Gold Rush built the magnificent Ocean View Hotel (burned in 1966 in a wind-fed fire) and President Ulysses Grant held a special session of the U.S. Supreme Court on-island so its members would not have to interrupt their vacations by returning to Washington. Can you imagine the circus today of Secret Service agents, FBI, Lincoln Town cars, helicopters, medical staff, food tasters, and network news staff if that were re-enacted for a week or two? To paraphrase Chief Brady of “Jaws” infamy, “You’d need a bigger island.”
Within its walls one also learns that the earliest known year-round sustainable villages in all of New England were just north of Andy’s Way thousands of years ago, and they have the artifacts to prove it. The Great Salt Pond, itself a product of rising seas, in turn created a habitat of sustenance for the rugged Native American islanders of that time to nurture, protect and grow. An entire area is devoted to their remarkable history, the original island name “Manisses,” which translates to “Island of the Little God,” which sounds much better than Block Island, a name given by a vagabond privateer, Adrian Block, who’s rumored to have never even set foot on the island, yet named it on his way home to Amsterdam, because the Dutch government said he could do as he pleased as long as he brought back pelts
and furs.
Gasner is hoping the society can raise enough money to digitize all of its records, a time-consuming and expensive task that will make updating the museum’s rooms, each capturing a different time, into visually engaging stories that will appeal to today’s mindset. She’ll remain involved, but from a wee bit of a distance. After all, it’s been her life’s work. But now it’s time to decompress a bit from the stress of responsibilities that the job entails, and re-engage outdoors with the island she loves.