Southeast Student Reliving History at Oneida Community Mansion

While Rhiannon Martin of Leopold, Missouri, can’t  travel back in time, she’s still living that dream this summer, experiencing the life of a bygone community and helping preserve its cultural heritage.

She is interning at the Oneida Community Mansion in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York. The 93,000-square-foot Mansion House was built by the utopian Oneida Community beginning in the mid-1800s as a religiously centered commune whose 300 members lived as one family.

Martin, a Southeast historic preservation major, said she is thrilled to be interning at the Mansion this summer.

“The Oneida Community Mansion House is such a unique site,” she said. “I honestly don’t think that there is another site like it anywhere.”

Her duties have been expansive, allowing her to grow her historic preservation skills.

“My big project for the summer is developing an architectural tour about the surrounding homes and the Mansion House. I am also developing an architectural program for the children’s summer camp in July and contributing to a factory tour in July,” Martin said. “On top of those projects, I am also learning to give tours of the site and working with Collections with their Rare Book Project, cataloguing over 3,000 books owned by original community members. I really am getting a wide breath of opportunities working here, from working directly with the public to doing more behind the scenes work.”

She says she hopes to learn more about working with education programs at historic sites.

“I love sharing my love of history with people of all ages, especially children,” she said. “Hopefully, this internship helps me gain much more experience in the field that I can use in my career. I hope to learn even more about public programming and become more comfortable in developing programs.”

The Oneida Community had about 300 people, and they referred to their residence as their “Mansion House.” Today, the Mansion House is a National Historic Landmark, offering programs, tours and exhibits. Guided by their leader, John Humphrey Noyes, the religiously -based Perfectionist Community challenged contemporary social views on property ownership, gender roles, child-rearing practices, monogamous marriage and work.

“The community held such beliefs that all things are owned in common, men and women are comparable in standing, all men and women are spouses to one another, and children are planned and raised by the community as a whole,” she said. “The community held some pretty radical ideas for the time, but they were very successful and this was in part due to their industrial ventures.

Martin said, “They were known for their work ethic and industriousness that created one of the most impressive manufacturing companies of the 20th century. They produced animal traps, carpet bags, and what most people know them most for — silverware.”

She says she’s learning the vital role of telling a community’s true heritage, regardless if that narrative is difficult.

“There is a really big movement in the history community of ‘history from the bottom up’ and not glossing over parts of history because it may make people uncomfortable,” she said. “I’m hoping that this internship will help me contribute to that movement of telling the true story of history and telling it right.”

Martin says the site offers self-guided and guided tours, and there is a residential area of the house with guest rooms.

“I have never seen or come across a museum that you can also either live at or stay the night at,” Martin said. “The site is unique in that aspect but I also appreciate how they don’t shy away from topics such as complex marriage or a sort of spiritual eugenics when the community decided to have children. The site does a really good job of not only telling the story of the Oneida Community but also relating it to issues we, as a society, are facing today, such as gender roles.”

She says she also is soaking up the knowledge of others working at and with ties to the site.

“I have met a lot of really awesome people during the internship. The Mansion House has a long list of volunteers and residents that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, some of whom are actually descendants from the original community,” she said.

Because New York is so rich in historic sites, Martin says the internship has offered some wonderful networking opportunities away from the Mansion as well.

“I’ve been able to meet other professionals in the field and learn from their experiences,” she added. “One of my personal favorites has been a tour guide at the Harriet Tubman National Park who has worked there for over 20 years.”

When time has allowed, she also has attended the Peterboro Civil War Weekend and visited the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park and the William H. Seward House Museum.

“My to-do list of sites to visit is very, very long!” she said.

Martin says she will add this experience to her growing knowledge in historic preservation.

“History Preservation is such a diverse field,” she said. “I have a little experience in a lot of areas,” which now includes the Oneida Community Mansion.

She arrived in New York with volunteer experience with Old Town Cape, Missouri Main Street and Missouri Preservation. She has served on the Glenn House board of directors in Cape Girardeau and led a committee to create an interpretive plan for the Glenn House servants’ quarters. She also has attended a workshop in Kentucky on cemetery restoration and participated in a workshop last spring for her “History of American Building Materials and Technology” class in which they cleaned headstones in Old Lorimier Cemetery in Cape Girardeau.

Martin will graduate in August with a Bachelor of Science in historic preservation. She says she plans to attend graduate school after graduating from Southeast and ultimately hopes to work at a historic site as an administrator or education director.