A decade ago, a group of individuals saw a need to create an organization that would utilize a volunteer workforce to save historic places. We spoke with HistoriCorps founders, Doug Stephens and Terri Leistman of the U.S. Forest Service and Jonas Landes and Ann Pritzlaff, both at the time with Colorado Preservation, Inc., to capture their recollections of what went into the creation of HistoriCorps a decade ago.

Doug Stephens: “A group of us in the late ‘90s developed a business model inside the Forest Service that could be that place where the preservation advocates could go. We started the Enterprise Program, which included ways to improve government, a place where ideas could be incubated and tested out. The idea was that we needed a bridge between volunteers and the advocates that wanted to preserve places of special significance to them.

“Somewhere around 2007 or so, we decided that this was working, but it would work a lot better in the private sector because of too many government restrictions.”

“Part of what was driving my zeal for [a volunteer] preservation corps was a congressional directive to the USDA Forest Service to cut their facilities budget,” Terri Leistman recollected. Remote buildings within the forests were the first to be targeted. “I was folding my laundry and listening to something on TV, and I had just heard the day before about Story Corps. I called my colleague, Doug Stephens (now the National Heritage Program Manager and Federal Preservation Officer) and told him we needed a corps! Let’s make a corps! I already had the name: it should be HistoriCorps!”

It would take a lot of buy-in from many sides. Federal agencies, preservation advocates, and volunteer organizations had to come together to make this dream a reality. The intrepid founders decided that HistoriCorps would be a program of the nonprofit organization Colorado Preservation Inc. until it could get its footing. “Ann [Pritzlaff] was instrumental in finding the funding to get it launched,” Doug said.

Ann reminisces. “I was serving on the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. There was a push nationwide to assess how many volunteer programs focused on historic properties (there were none). We needed to find creative ways to enable new programs and opportunities to get volunteers on historic properties. I went to DC several times and met with the Secretary of Agriculture and found some really strong federal partners. Congressman John Salazar was a key player. I asked all of our representatives for a million dollars to start this program.” 

John championed the ask, “and we were able to get $400,000.” Fortuitously, the majority of this and subsequent funding came through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, federal legislation passed in the wake of the global financial meltdown.  

Doug remembers, “The seed money was used to purchase tools, trailers, and trucks, and fund the first projects” which were launched in October 2009 under the supervision of Jonas Landes, “HistoriCorps’ first employee.”

And the rest, as they say, is history, but before we let them go, we asked Jonas, Doug, Terri and Ann for their thoughts on HistorCorps since its founding:

Jonas: “It is truly hard to believe that ten years have passed since the formation of HistoriCorps! There were many times, especially early on, in which it might have been easier to fold than to carry on. But, at each hurdle and each setback, there were always a few folks that shared their belief in HistoriCorps’ vision for engaging volunteers to save historic buildings. Sometimes it was by continuing to volunteer inspite of a challenging project; sometimes by donating tools or a truck; sometimes by referring HistoriCorps to another historic building [owner] in need. These commitments have always (and continue) to come at critical moments. It is at these moments that I am in awe to have played a part in the founding of HistoriCorps.

“From day one it has been my privilege to participate in the growth of HistoriCorps from a concept to a Workforce for Saving Places that, on any given day, is engaging over sixty volunteers on no less than seven projects throughout the nation. Although the places we’ve been and the number of hours you’ve donated to HistoriCorps are both impressive, what keeps me at my job are the stories, triumphs, and experiences that are created daily. From learning how to use a new tool, to overcoming a fear of heights, to sharing stories around a campfire, these are the experiences that bring the statistics to life. Thank you for letting me continue to look for your next big adventure. I will work harder to avoid scheduling projects over snowstorms, hurricanes, floods, and fire. But no guarantees!”

Doug: “I’m so impressed at the leadership and dedication that everyone in the organization has, and what they’ve done with it, in terms of staying true to The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and doing high quality work, to building a business that also understands the needs and motivations of volunteers — that they’re there for a lot of different reasons. HC recognizes that there is a community to build, at the project level and beyond the project level. Volunteers appreciate a sense of belonging, and HistoriCorps has done that very well.”

Terri: “I’m so grateful for the number of people that have responded to the idea of keeping history and tradition alive by fixing up these old buildings. I couldn’t be prouder of the role I’ve played in being able to save some of these [historic resources]. We’re not saving them all, but we’ve put a nice dent in it, and HistoriCorps has been instrumental in it all. HistoriCorps sows the seed that restoration is a good thing!”

and Ann: “I think it’s incredibly awesome that there was a way to figure out how to complete more projects at federal properties, and to provide opportunities to expand the network of people involved by including volunteers, which helps them learn preservation trades, so it is a win-win. Those that don’t have the means to complete projects now can do so while building a preservation constituency.”