Know Your Neighbor: Cassie Ward, Public Historian/Executive Director, New Castle Historical Society

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Cassie Ward
Cassie Ward

The first year after college, Cassie Ward was working as a waitress in Washington, D. C. when a chance conversation with someone she had known from school helped to clearly define her career path.

Ward, a history major at Coastal Carolina University, learned that her peer had studied public history, which enabled her to pursue positions in museums, historical sites and historical archives, where most of the jobs are for historians outside of academia.

“When she told me that, I did some research and thought this is really what I want to do,” Ward said.

She enrolled in American University in Washington to earn her masters in history with a concentration in public history. After spending six years with the National Park Service in its National Register of Historic Places Department in the nation’s capital, then two years as director of public programs at the site of a former plantation in rural Virginia, Ward wanted to move closer to family and friends.

A native of Pine Bush, Orange County, Ward, 32, recently returned to the Hudson Valley, starting last month as the new executive director of the New Castle Historical Society. She succeeded previous longtime executive director Betsy Towle.

Like many of her colleagues, making history relevant to people of all ages in the 21st century may be a challenge but one that Ward embraces.

“You’re constantly making connections from today to the past,” Ward explained last week at the Horace Greeley House in Chappaqua. “People, they want some connection to what they’re learning. They just don’t want to memorize information. They want a more interactive experience and one that moves them.

“One of my personal goals as a professional, is that if someone can leave here and if they’re just interested by history, it doesn’t mean they have to be necessarily interested by what they learned that day, but they (can) go home and then they want to talk to their grandparents about their story. So through that you’re kind of creating mini preservationists and historians everywhere. That way our historic places will always be preserved and our historic stories will continue on.”

Part of her job will be to continue on with the historical society’s current successful programs and exhibits with its dedicated roster of volunteers and board trustees, some of whom put in what amounts to full-time hours. Last week the organization, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, held the second installment of its speaker series. There is also the annual fall antiques show, which will be moved this year to Bell Middle School, be held in October and given a new name, Chappaqua Expo.

Ward is also excited about the possibilities of introducing new programs that will attract varied age groups. Chappaqua School District second-graders already visit the Horace Greeley House, but Ward hopes to hold historical story times for young children, lunch-and-learn programs for some of the community’s older members and a history happy hour to entice 20- and 30-somethings to the historical society.

She is looking to work with Horace Greeley High School students to begin an exhibit of the school’s namesake that can continually be added to over time. In addition, Ward wants to tap into the vast museum resources of New York City and periodically present guest speakers.

She also hopes to have the historical society have its place in the community’s cultural conversation.

“Again, not everyone is going to become a public historian but there are elements you can have wherever you are in your life, whatever town you live in,” said Ward, who with her extensive knowledge and interest in historic places has visited sites in 49 states. (Alaska is the only state she hasn’t yet reached.)

Ward’s interest in history, particularly local history, extends back to when she was growing up. She would often accompany her father on weekend antique excursions and learned that the Hudson Valley is home to an enormous amount of major American history but also places of significant local impact.

The area is full of a long list of well-known people. But Ward said she’s probably more interested in the regular folks that helped contribute to what New Castle and the surrounding area is today.

“I love the history and the stories of the common people, the ordinary people,” Ward said. “My interests are less about the presidents and that type of thing because I think that’s where you can make these connections.”






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