Mary Ann Pleva is looking for volunteers who like to meet new people, learn about local history, and share their knowledge.
What does all that add up to?
She is looking for volunteers who would like to become docents at the Essex Historical Society’s Pratt House. Mary Ann, who is the docent coordinator, will talk about the program for potential participants on Sunday, April 23 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Pratt House on West Avenue in Essex.
Pratt House is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons from June to October. Each docent has to put in only a minimum of 12 hours over that period, conducting tours and talking about the museum’s collection of furniture, household objects, and the architecture of the structure itself. And, Mary Ann emphasizes, docents do not have to go it alone. There is a training session to prepare new volunteers and then the opportunity to shadow an already trained docent to get the feeling of what an actual tour is like. Docents get a special discount at the gift shop, the opportunity to attend workshops, and take field trips to other museums.
Mary Ann does double duty as a docent: She also volunteers as a museum guide at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme.
Recently, the number of active docents at Pratt House has dwindled, and that raises the possibility that the Historical Society would have to eliminate its Friday hours.
“We put so much effort into [the docent program] that we’d hate to see that happen,” she says.
Most of the people who come to the Pratt House, according to Mary Ann, are visitors to Essex; often they have also gone to see another attraction like the Essex Steam Train.
For some two hundred years, according to the Essex Historical Society, the Pratt house belonged to the descendants of Lieutenant William Pratt, one of the original settlers in Essex. In l952, Samuel Griswold (a Pratt on his mother’s side) and his wife Rose, deeded the house to the group now called Historic New England. They turned the property over to the Essex Historical Society in 1985.
Mary Ann has been a member of the historical society since she and her husband Fred moved here 15 years ago. She has held several offices with the group including serving as president.
Still, her current work as docent coordinator is not the only way she’s working to make regional history available. Mary Ann does a program called Looking Back on Valley Shore Community Television (channel 19), in which she interviews longtime residents of the area.
So far most of her subjects have come from Essex, but she has also interviewed Rhonda Forristall from Deep River about the legendary 1899 XYZ bank robbery. One of the four would-be robbers was shot dead in the unsuccessful attempt to rob the bank, but he was never identified. His remains lie in a grave in Fountain Hill Cemetery that is marked only with the letters XYZ.
Most recently, Mary Ann interviewed Jackie Wolff, who grew up in Essex, where her parents owned Greenberg’s Republic Department Store.
Before moving to Essex, Mary Ann worked for the local public access television station in Windsor.
“I did everything from creating programs to fundraising,” she recalls.
At that point she knew all the technical aspects of putting a program together, including editing and sound, but that is no longer true.
“Things have changed so much,” she says.
In Windsor, Mary Ann thinks more people watched the public access station.
“I got calls all the time, and people would ask me if I was the one they had seen on television,” she says.
But she recently got a surprise at the Estuary Council of Senior Citizens in Old Saybrook where she exercises.
“Somebody asked me if I would please make another show,” she says, explaining that the person was tired of watching the current reruns of her interviews.
Mary Ann has also joined a writing group at the Estuary Council that meets twice a month.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” she says.
Since she retired as a local real estate agent some eight years ago, she has had more time in her schedule not only for writing but for biking, kayaking, and a new sport she recently has taken up, pickleball, a racket sport described as combining elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. It’s played with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes on a badminton-size court. On a recent afternoon, she confessed that she had nearly asked an interviewer to change an appointment time to get to her pickleball game.
For more than a decade, Mary Ann has also been a member of the Essex Democratic Town Committee, chairing the nominating committee. She says it can be challenging to find candidates to serve on the town’s boards and commissions.
“It is not always easy to find volunteers for the positions,” she says, suggesting it is appropriate for people to let committee members know of their willingness to serve.
As she looks forward to the upcoming recruitment meeting for docents for the historical society, she emphasizes the enjoyment she has found in serving as a guide.
“The people who come are nice; the other docents are nice; if you like history, this is very interesting and it is fun,” she says.
Become a Docent for the Essex Historical Society
Informational Meeting on Sunday, April 23 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Pratt House, 19 West Avenue, Essex. For more information or to reserve a place, call the Essex Historical Society at 860-767-0681, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call Mary Ann Pleva at 860-767-8560.