Carroll County News

New Historical Society director looks to future

Gainor Davis grew up immersed in history.

A family ancestor was a surgeon with the 148th Pennsylvania regiment at Gettysburg, and that ancestor's doctor's kit was an often-explored attic heirloom for Davis as a child. Her parents, amateur historians, as she describes them, would take her to Jamestown and Williamsburg and tell her stories of another ancestor, the Pennsylvania senator who escorted Abraham Lincoln to Gettysburg after the battle, how her mother's family came to America, specifically Annapolis, in 1776.


"At a certain point, everybody is sort of interconnected. I like that about history," Davis said. "People, if they have some idea about their background and have some stability from that, I think they can go anywhere and be successful."

It's a formula that has certainly worked for Davis, who started as the new executive director of the Historical Society of Carroll County on Jan. 20 after a more than two-decade-long career in museums and historical societies, most recently as the president of the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland.


She's a passionate advocate of the view that history is more than just a reflection of the past but a window into future possibilities and that the historical society has an important role to play in what that future will be.

"There are four areas I think historical societies can be relevant today," she said. "One, of course, is to talk about family history. Another is to talk about community history. A third is what I call entrepreneurship, which is sort of a buzzword these days, and talks about business innovation and scientific innovation."

The roots of family, community and innovation provide the foundation on which the future grows, and Davis said historical societies can enable this growth through the fourth way in which they are relevant, the cultural stewardship of collecting and documenting the past.

But not just preserving and archiving — perhaps it's a result of having the surgeon's kit around the house as a child, but Davis believes it's important that history be experienced in as hands-on a fashion as possible.

"One of the things I am very interested in is we do Past Times for Children. And that's very hands-on, very interactive and in most of the places I've been, I have been instrumental in putting in interactive galleries for families," she said. "Families are looking for activities to do together, learning experiences. … I want people to be able to handle things, even if they are reproductions. It's got to be more tactile than history has been in the past."

It was the force of Davis' ideas that really impressed the Historical Society board when it interviewed her in November, according to Chairman Jim Lightner. The group had been in touch with some very impressive candidates to fill the position left by former Executive Director Fred Teeter, who stepped down on Dec. 31 after just a little more than six months in the position, but Davis so impressed the selection committee that members voted unanimously to offer her the job within a week of her interview.

"She will throw out an idea — and every idea it's, 'Well, that's a good idea,' " he said. "She's a real find, and we were very pleased that she was willing to come."

Despite, or perhaps in spite of, her parents' obsession with history, Davis initially sought out a different track, majoring in geology at Smith College until she reached the chemistry requirement. A history degree it would be, she decided.


"I really do think it is the most exciting discipline," she said. "It's everything. It's arts, it's music, it's entrepreneurship."

Rather than jumping directly into a career in antiquities however, Davis found herself working in investment banking in New York City after her graduation. She worked putting together bond issues in the Environmental Finance Department of L.F. Rothschild and Co. for three years before returning to school to earn a master's degree in American history and museum studies from the University of Delaware and then joining The Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware as the membership coordinator.

Davis went on to serve as the director of the Vermont Historical Society, the Longue Vue House & Gardens in Louisiana and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, as well as president of York County Heritage Trust in Pennsylvania and finally the Western Reserve Historical Society. She also picked up a doctorate in American history from Temple University along the way, and Lightner said her educational and experiential pedigree was not lost on the selection committee.

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"We really lucked out in finding someone who had worked at over five historical societies in her career … somebody who is really very active in the communities as well and that really impressed us," Lightener said. "We want to raise the level of awareness of the historical society. We are 75 years old, and we want people to know about us a little bit more."

With a background that includes marketing and outreach, Davis said she tends to see historical society programs in terms of how they can engage with the public rather than simply curating objects for when someone becomes interested enough to stop by. She said she believes the Historical Society of Carroll County has great potential to grow, and even after just a week on the job, she already has some new ideas on how to do just that.

"History is for people; it's not just sitting there and hoping someone comes through your door," she said. "One of the things I have talked about doing is giving school children cameras and going out and saying to them, 'What do you like best about your community?' and letting them take pictures of those things and then doing an exhibit."


Nothing is set in stone on the schedule this early in her tenure, but Davis said her most important task early on will be to reach out to the community to see just what it is that they would like of their historical society

"That for me is a high priority, to go out and meet the public and to survey the community and just see, are we doing what you want? If you don't walk in this door, why don't you walk in it?" she said. "It's going out and … sort of proselytizing that history has some relevance today."

Editor's note: Due to an error in information provided by a source, the 148th Pennsylvania regiment was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story. It has now been updated to reflect the correct information.

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or