Donor Spotlight

Nancy Bell & Pat Kessler

“Never were there such devoted sisters…”

Sisters, Nancy Bell and Pat Kessler grew up in Geneva. They volunteer weekly at the museum and are G.E.M.s – Giving Every Month. Nancy is a former board member and helps in the archives. Pat assists with the inventory of the collection.

Why do you support the Geneva History Museum?

NANCY: I have always been interested in history, especially local history.  Knowing the story of where I live or visit allows me to connect to a place in a meaningful way. We lived for several years in a small Massachusetts town. Here I realized you don’t have to grow up in a community to relate to its history. Getting involved is key to understanding and preserving the story. Having roots is a bonus, not a necessity.

Returning to Geneva in the 1980’s I was eager to reconnect with my family history through what is now the GHM. I had two terms on the Board, spanning from Wheeler Park to Third Street. My job at the Geneva Library allowed me to collaborate on youth programs with the Museum and as a retiree I volunteer in the archives.

GHM is a vibrant institution. Geneva’s story stays updated with rotating exhibits. A permanent gallery offers a glimpse into the past through audio-visual as well as historic objects. The Story booth allows all to record their memories and become part of history. I am proud to be a part of the Geneva History Museum. As a volunteer and Herrington Circle member, I am investing in preserving Geneva’s story.

PAT: Geneva History Museum is important to me because preserving history helps us remember who and how we have such a beautiful place to live. I love that we have the pieces of history that remind us of how hard some worked, or how creative some were, or how generously some gave…. And now that the museum is even more technology oriented, it opens it up to anyone who has a story to tell. (like my seven year old granddaughter!) It amazes me to see the items not only saved, but then donated to the museum to authenticate a family’s story! Geneva has such a fascinating history and when the museum highlights those bits with its displays and programs, you realize how much would have been lost if not for the hard work and dedication of today’s staff and volunteers, but also all those people who saw the need and value way back when. 

What is one of your favorite Geneva stories?

NANCY: My favorite Geneva story is about our North First Street neighborhood. The 1950s and early 60s was an ideal time to be a kid. We considered our “hood” to be the area between Peyton and Ford Streets, N. First and N. Second. We claimed both sides of the streets. The anchor was made up of three main families, with a combined total of eighteen kids. We Hoelschers had seven, Epperlys seven and Haroldsons four.The majority were baby boomers. Several other families moved in and out over the years but we three remained the longest. Luckily most of the kids lived on N. First, leaving the rest of the block pretty much kid free.

North First was our realm, “The Pit” as we called Wheeler Park, was our first frontier. Just two blocks away, we could get there in minutes. A converted gravel quarry, Wheeler was still evolving into the beautiful park it is today. The perimeter remained untamed, featuring jagged edges and steep slopes on the South and West. “Our” end, the dead end at N. 2nd Street, was the most dangerous. Precarious ridges between abandoned excavated pits were worn smooth from hundreds of local kids tramping over the narrow paths on foot or bikes. Riding bicycles up and down the craters was a death-defying act. We’d all watch a brave soul with admiration as they navigated around the rock, debris-filled craters. Those too timid to ride showed their courage by grabbing hold of one of the many vines that dangled down from high branches. We’d give the Tarzan yell as we pushed ourselves off the “cliffs” and swung out over the jagged rocks, broken glass, and rusty old tin cans beneath us. Never knowing if the vine would hold. I can’t believe there weren’t casualties. At least all the “First Streeters” survived.

Today, there is no sign of the craters and vines. Flattened or filled in, tamed for less heroic generations.

PAT: I think my favorite story of Geneva for me is growing up living close to downtown Geneva, Wheeler Park and the Fox River. I didn’t appreciate it as a young person but looking back, we could go anywhere we wanted on foot or by bike. Lucky for our mom too, because we even went grocery shopping at National Tea just 3 blocks away. We’ d bring the cart home returning it when the big kids came home from school. We’d walk to the dime stores for “stuff”, the drugstores as needed and even shoe shopping at Entile’s or Gibb’s. The library of course was a regular stop as our mom was an avid reader. As the youngest of 7, I was dragged along to all these places.  And in the afternoons we explored the neighborhood. But on each block around us, either a relative or a good friend of our parents’ lived so we were under a watchful eye most of the time. In the evenings during the summer, neighbor kids of all ages gathered to play Hide ‘N Seek, Gray Ghost and even Ring and Run, which was hardly anonymous! It was a fun time to be a kid, enough independence to have fun but enough supervision to feel safe in our own back yard—even if that back yard was as big as the downtown or a Park!

Share a fun experience you have had with GHM.

NANCY: It was my day to open and close the museum. I hated the touchpad lock system. It was too mushy. I could never tell if a connection was made. I had the two elderly (probably my age now) Sanders sisters waiting to begin their shift standing behind me. I pressed the code and the door unlocked. I had three minutes to disable the alarm located in the back office. I ran to the back and pressed the code. I didn’t think the last number registered, so I pressed it again. We proceeded to turn on lights throughout the building. Within several minutes I heard police sirens. Then I heard a voice through a bullhorn, “This is the Police! Come out with your hands up!” The sisters stared at me wide-eyed. I told them not to worry, I’d talk to the police. I walked out the front and they repeated, “Put your hands up!” I explained we were the only ones in the building and they insisted the two sisters come out, with hands up. When we were outside, two officers ran into the building one stayed with us. Once the two checked to make sure no one else was hiding they let us back into the museum. Apparently, the “armed robbery in progress” code was activated by pressing the last number in the code twice! The officers explained they had to get us clear of the building. They couldn’t know if someone had a gun on us, instructing us to tell them it was okay.

I don’t remember if the sisters ever volunteered with me again.

PAT: A favorite experience at the museum in Collections, is seeing the handmade items. It’s incredible to see the tiny stiches that have held a garment/item together through a person’s life and it still survives to be an example! The hours of time and skill just to put it together and then sometimes, it’s decorated creatively with fabric, embroidery, buttons, rickrack, etc.  And the fabric they may have dyed themselves or salvaged from other items to repurpose into clothing or household items like rugs or towels. And what if they didn’t like sewing and handiwork? They had to do it anyway! What a different world it was and not that long ago!