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Sykesville's Gate House Museum of History has always highlighted the community past, but these days visitors entering the small museum can almost feel a sense of renewal and vitality as well.

The atmosphere is almost as if someone came along and — at least figuratively — cleared away the dust, clutter and cobwebs.

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Visitors are greeted by a new display called "Making Tracks: A Chronological History of Sykesville," which includes pictures and spiffy graphics and takes up an entire wall. There are posters and notices announcing the museum's array of new programs and activities.

And nearly every room of the old, two-story frame house on Cooper Drive is chock-a-block with photos, posters, pennants, glassware, antique tools and furniture. Some of the items were only recently unearthed from the long-neglected attic.

"There was ... all kinds of stuff up there," said Mark Fraser, the museum's new curator, who took the helm of the museum early this year.

"The Smithsonian is the nation's attic, so we have kind of played on that theme from a local perspective, because we had an attic full of stuff that, quite frankly, we didn't know much about," Fraser said. "So it just seemed like finding out what we had up there and putting the interesting stuff out where people can see and touch it was a good place to start."

Cleaning out the attic was just the start. Fraser, a Finksburg resident, has rallied the museum's stalwart core of veteran volunteers and recruited new ones.

With their help, he not only reclaimed the attic but also imparted a new sense of accessibility to the museum's stash of boxes, shelves, folders and file cabinets full of family records, journals, photos letters, high school yearbooks, legal documents and newspaper clippings.

"When I came here we had a handful of dedicated volunteers, but since then we've probably tripled or quadrupled our volunteer crew," Fraser said. "I went to the local high schools and recruited students who were willing to fulfill their community service hours here. So I now have junior volunteers, high school volunteers and adult volunteers, and it's all working out very nicely."

Fraser and his crew have also launched a monthly museum newsletter called "ArtiFACTs" and created pamphlets and fliers to publicize the museum and its expanded calendar of programs and events.

These include an upcoming class called Genealogy 101, talks on the history of the HMS Titanic and the War in Afghanistan, and weekend programs for kids, such as "Bugs," "Reptile Wonders," "Sir Knight" and "A Confederate Soldier's Story."

"We started the summer with a program that depicted a Civil War military hospital," Fraser said, noting that the museum tapped the interest of nearby schools.

"The middle school social science and history teachers just across the road at Sykesville Middle School organized the event, and we piggy-backed off their program and highlighted a new exhibit we have called the Civil War Memory Wall, which has information on area residents who served in either the Union or Confederate army.

"I bet there were 130 or 140 kids here," Fraser said about the military hospital event. "The program was presented by a man from Eldersburg who volunteers at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, in Frederick. The poor guy was only scheduled to be here for three hours; he ended up being here for eight-and-a-half hours.

"He brought medical tools and mannequins and all kinds of neat stuff — and of course, they did things like mock amputations. A Confederate re-enactor also came by and demonstrated firing his musket. The middle school kids were riveted."

Fraser is a retired Air Force Colonel with a PhD in industrial psychology from Princeton University ("I don't want people to think I'm some kind of elitist," he fretted). Though he's never run a museum before, he brings to his new position the wealth of experience and management skills he's accumulated over the years as an Air Force fighter pilot, hospital administrator and college professor.

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"I've always had a love of history, and I've always like being with people," said the Michigan native. "I'm not a curator, but I am a quick learner, and I know how to run businesses and plan and put on programs. And I surround myself with people who know how to run museums."

Vision of the past, and future

Fraser's dynamism has not gone unnoticed.

"Mark is a huge asset for our town, and I'm thrilled to be working with him," said Ivy Wells, Sykesville's Main Street Manager. "It's wonderful to have someone who has such a forward vision for the town, but also wants to bring its history to the forefront."

Fraser's part-time job as a crop duster pilot while in high school years paved the way for a four-year stint in the Air Force, where he flew everything from F-4D Phantoms to C-130 cargo planes. For 26 more years he served in the Air Force Reserve while pursuing a career in hospital management.

Currently, he also teaches business and economics part-time at Carroll Community College and in Towson University's graduate program in business administration.

Not surprisingly, the vision and ambition Fraser brings to his new job extends beyond the museum's four walls. Working with the Sykesville Business Association and Wells, he is in the process of decorating the display windows of vacant storefronts on Sykesville's Main Street with historic pictures, antiques and similar items gleaned from the attic.

As far as Fraser is concerned, redecorating the empty Main Street storefronts is also just a start.

He sees all sorts of possibilities when he rides around Sykesville — especially at South Branch Park, an open space just across the Patapsco River from Main Street, which the town leases from Howard County.

The park includes the old 6,000-square-foot apple butter factory building, which is currently unused.

""This is just me talking, but I would like to see that building, which was actually a canning factory and is still in really good shape, be turned into something like the Torpedo Factory, in Alexandria, Va. We could rent stalls out to artists and have a little museum display," he said.

"We could also hold events down there, and have classes and exhibits and even a river walk. It could be a destination that would bring a lot of people to the town."

He's also working with Sykesville's Town Council to create a museum foundation, which he says is a crucial step in obtaining additional funding and expanding the museum's programs.

"I went looking for donations from some of our local companies," he recalled. "They basically told me they couldn't give the museum money directly, but they could give money to a foundation.

"Setting up a foundation is basically a legal and accounting process," he said. "We've been working with the town's attorneys and the Town Council on how to structure the board and similar details like that. It will be a way to ensure the museum's survivability down the road."

Stepping into history

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The Sykesville Gate House Museum of History, 7283 Cooper Drive, Sykesville, is open Thursdays and Fridays, 1 to 5 p.m. and Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m. There is no admission charge, though donations are welcome. More information, a complete listing up upcoming programs and the ArtiFACTS newsletter are available at sykesville.net/gatehouse. Phone number: 410-549-5150.

On Sunday, July 29, the museum will host "Sir Knight," 2 to 3 p.m., with a reenactor displaying his shield, lance and armor, and discussing his life as a crusader. Free; no registration required.

On Sunday, Aug. 26, from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. the museum will present a free program called "Bugs," where children and adults will have a chance to "reach out and touch some live insects and find out what makes a bug a bug."

Other upcoming programs include a September presentation with an army soldier talking about his time in Afghanistan; and in October the museum will host a presentation on the sinking of the Titanic.

Later in the fall the museum will present a basic genealogy class called Genealogy 101. "We will have a genealogical expert coming in, but since not everybody's computer literate, we're going to keep the class as basic and simple as we can," Mark Fraser said.

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