They say behind every great man is a great woman. In the Museum’s case, behind every great museum is a great guild.
Present for the growth of the Nature and Science Museum and the expansion of the Virginia Living Museum, the Women’s Guild supported the Museum’s development through volunteerism, fundraising and creative thinking.
Forming the Guild
The Peninsula Nature and Science Center thrived on support from volunteers and local organizations like the Warwick Rotary Club and the Junior League of Hampton Roads. But as the Museum grew after its start in 1966, local women in the community wanted to form an organization dedicated solely to the growth and success of the Museum.
In 1969, a group of community women decided to form a guild, which they named the Guild of the Peninsula Nature and Science Center, which would host events and fundraise for the growing nature center in Newport News.
Together, the women drafted the mission and bylaws of the guild and elected their first leaders.
“The purpose of this organization is to assist in activities of the Nature Museum, working with the director to stimulate and sustain public interest and support,” the bylaws stated.
With their mission laid out and leaders in place, the Guild was ready to serve the Nature Museum.
Guild’s Ghouls: Haunted House FundraiserLed by Guild President Marian Cowling, in October 1969 the Guild sponsored its first fundraising event for the Museum: a haunted house.
A stark contrast to common fundraising events in the area, the Guild’s haunted house was an entertaining and unique way to fundraise and spread the word about the Peninsula Nature and Science Center.
With the help of 72 volunteers, the Guild decked out as witches and hosted a terrifying haunted house for local visitors. Over that Halloween weekend, the house brought in 12,000 visitors, a big success.
With this first haunted house, the Guild donated $4,960 to install air conditioning in the Museum. The unique, ghoulish fundraiser proved to be a great way to raise money and awareness for the Museum, so the Guild decided to continue the haunted house the following year.
“Each year,” R.N. Taylor, project chairman, told the Daily Press, “guild members and volunteers transform a donated, abandoned building into a ‘domain for the diabolical.’”
In an interview with the Times Herald, President Marian Cowling playfully addressed the relationship between the witches’ haunted house and the Museum. “We witches have a soft spot in our cardiac mechanisms for the nature Museum,” she said. “It’s one of the very few places which really appreciates spiders and bats.”
In its second year, the Guild’s haunted house brought in more than 16,000 visitors, contributing funds to finalize the air conditioning, upgrade the Museum’s classroom and workshop, and buy new reference books. Additionally, the Guild gave $4,500 for the educational director’s salary.
In response to the haunted house’s success, Mary Sherwood Holt, president of the Museum’s board of trustees, wrote a letter to the Guild in thanks. “I can only say that I shall do my utmost to see to it that your contributions to the Museum are used in a way that will bring credit to the Museum, and continuing the outstanding educational opportunities to the young people of the Peninsula,”she wrote.
From this initial event, it was clear that Guild would make a lasting impact on the Museum.
“There has never been, nor is there now, the slightest doubt in my mind that the Women’s Guild is the greatest thing that has happened to the Nature Museum,” wrote Holt. “Your enthusiasm and willingness to work for the Museum are pearls beyond pride.”
By 1971, the Guild and its haunted house grew. With nearly 100 members, the organization accommodated more women by rewriting its bylaws, adding new officers and forming new committees to support its fundraising events.
“We will continue to strive to put that gem of a center before the public whenever we can,” Mrs. Vance Field told the Daily Press.
And the Guild did just that with its third haunted house. Themed as a haunted chicken coop, in 1971 the haunted house hosted the ghost of the Great Gaunt Rooster. The Guild used a shuttle bus to bring in the droves of visitors that year, record numbers that helped the Guild donate new equipment for the planetarium.
By 1972, the haunted house fundraiser became a popular choice for several local groups. Due to a growing number of haunted house attractions on the Peninsula, the Guild turned away from that project and looked to other fundraising events. But not before offering its scariest house yet.
1972’s haunted house included six chambers of horror. Visitors had to walk through Satan’s Nursery, the Haunted Forest, Dr. Frankenstein’s Lab, the Room of the Eyes, the Haunted Garden and even the Winding Cave before escaping.
1972’s haunted house required 680 volunteers and tremendous amounts of planning, but in the end it was the culmination of the Guild’s spooking fundraising series.
After the haunted houses, the Guild of the Peninsula Nature and Science Center hosted a number of unique fundraisers to assist the growing Museum.
Guild’s donations supported nearly every aspect of the Museum, from exhibits and the planetarium to employee salaries and general upkeep. The Guild even donated a 1975 Chevrolet van for the educational staff’s daily trips out to the local schools — offering plenty of space for the program animals to ride along.
Following the success of its haunted houses, the Guild continued to host themed events to raise money for the Museum. In 1973, the women sponsored a spring benefit barbeque and the following year they sought the donations of local antiques dealers for their unique flea market fundraiser.
Called the Fantastic Flea Flamboree, in 1974 this local bazaar brought Guild members and local artisans together to raise money for the Museum. With food booths, a plant sale and a white elephant sale, the fundraising flea market was another distinctive event aimed at supporting the Peninsula Nature and Science Center.
In 1977, the Guild embarked on its biggest fundraiser yet. The group hosted its first annual Going Once auction and dinner at the Williamsburg Lodge. Local businesses and Guild members donated enticing auction items that drew large crowds, including gift certificates, a bust of George Washington and a Bermuda cruise.
President Gerald Ford even contributed to the cause. The President donated an engraving of the White House along with his autograph, which sold for $290. In total, the event raised more than $10,000 for the Museum in its first year.
With the Guild’s donations, the Museum was able to greatly expand its aquarium, adding new aquatic species and interactive exhibits. Funds also covered the design of a live animal room for the Museum’s education program.
After the inaugural Going Once auction’s success, in 1978 the Guild brought in more than $14,000 for special exhibits. The success continued to grow with each auction, resulting in more than $26,000 donated to the Museum from 1980’s event. These funds were used for the Museum’s Curiosity Corner, a physical science-themed area for the Museum.
By 1981, the auction items were bigger and bolder than ever. Two cars, weekend trips and even a wind surfer were among the 146 items auctioned at the event.
A regular donor to the auction was August F. Crabtree, artist and creator of The Mariner Museum’s miniature ship collection. For each auction he donated a unique craving which brought in high sales for the event.
As the Museum continued to expand, the Guild adapted to best support its mission. Present at the groundbreaking for the new Virginia Living Museum in 1987, the Guild helped establish the Museum’s reputation as a nature museum dedicated to its home state.
At the Virginia Living Museum’s grand opening, the Guild even donated 1,000 cookies to feed the special guests.
As the Virginia Living Museum became a reality after the expansion, the Guild turned the Going Once auction over to the Junior League, dedicating its time instead to the Museum’s annual Hampton Roads Waterfowl and Wild Life Festival and other events.
“Pearls Beyond Pride”
The dedicated women of the guild organized flea markets, dressed as witches, baked dozens of cookies and even auctioned off President Gerald Ford’s autograph to assist the Museum. And this service didn’t go unnoticed.
In April 1978, the Guild of the Peninsula Nature and Science Center received a certificate of recognition from the local Voluntary Action Center.
The Guild was a staple of the Museum, volunteering its time, resources and energy to sustain a local institution. As Mary Sherwood Holt noted, this group’s commitment and passion were truly “pearls beyond pride.”