Welcome back to our Focus on Friends series! Our first installment in the series for 2020 highlights an incredible group, The Harpers Ferry Park Association.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Catherine Baldau, the Association’s Executive Director. Cathy and her family relocated to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 2001. She had spent quite a bit of time as a visitor to the area, feeling a connection not just to the scenic beauty of the mountains and rivers but to the history that lives in the old brick walls of the historic structures that line the cobbled streets. She joined the association in 2008, using her skills in publications and memberships to help the park prepare for the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid. In 2016, Cathy took over as the Executive Director.

Catherine Baldau / Courtesy Michael DeChant - Pew Charitable Trusts
Catherine Baldau

The Harpers Ferry Park Association (HFPA) is one of over 70 cooperating associations serving the National Park Service. And while we have featured a number of Friends Groups in our blog series, HFPA is our inaugural cooperating association. What exactly is a cooperating association you might ask? We asked Cathy this same question.

“While a Friends Group provides philanthropic support, a cooperating association provides high-quality, NPS-approved publications, maps, videos, theme-related merchandise, and educational programs to help visitors understand the natural and cultural significance of our national parks,” she says. “Revenue from the sales of these items—along with our membership dues, guide program, Living History workshops, grants, and small philanthropic outreach—allows us to fulfill our mission.” In fact, Cathy suggests an easy word to describe a cooperating association—partner.

So through an agreement with the NPS, HFPA is the official 501(C) 3, non-profit partner of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. A Cooperating Agreement with the park allows them to operate a retail store and provide aid to their public programs. The revenue they bring in helps to “enhance the visitor experience at the park by supporting the park’s interpretive and educational programs and providing aid to conservation and preservation projects.” HFPA is also one of a small group of independent cooperating associations. Unlike a larger cooperating association (such as Eastern National), HFPA does not operate at multiple parks. They support one park—Harpers Ferry.

The Harpers Ferry Park Association (formerly Historical Association) has a long and rich history. It was established in 1971 by the NPS at Harpers Ferry for the purpose of distributing national park films and other educational material. When the park administration changed and became part of the National Capital Region (NCR), the Association became primarily focused on Harpers Ferry’s history.

Harpers Ferry BookshopToday, HFPA continues to support park events and programs which narrate key moments in the town’s—and the country’s—history. Bookshop sales, combined with donations, grants, and membership fees, have helped finance author fests, artists-in-residence, academic symposiums, and commemorative and annual events. They’ve even helped acquire items for the park’s museum collection, including the John Brown Family Bible. And if that’s not enough, HFPA has published nine books in the past eleven years—many themed to their commemorative events.

When I asked Cathy about a recent success story or highlight of her time with HFPA, she said she’s incredibly proud of their certified guide program.

“The diverse and layered history of Harpers Ferry is hard to grasp during a 40-minute ranger program. And though our rangers are amazing interpreters, there are those visitors that seek a much more in-depth, personal, and profound experience,” Cathy says.

“The park came to HFPA several years ago and asked if it would manage a program similar to the private tours at Gettysburg and Antietam. It took a while for the interpretive agreement to make its way through the NPS channels, but we finally initiated the program in 2013. Our guides are screened, tested, and certified by the park service, and each develops their own programs. Private tours can be tailored specifically to the visitor’s interest. We’ve given tours to couples, families, schools, government agencies, foreign embassies, descendants of key players in Harpers Ferry’s history, and 800 Boy Scouts from the Netherlands. And we’ve given tours to people traveling alone, who know nothing about Harpers Ferry or know a great deal but realize there is always something new to learn. We get tremendous satisfaction knowing we provided a unique and moving experience to our visitors.”

As with all parks and partner organizations, there are challenges. Harpers Ferry is an area of incredible natural beauty and the new millennium has seen a rise in hikers, rafters, and nature lovers. So HFPA must work their magic to get them intrigued by the important and compelling history of the area as well. “It’s one thing to read history, or look at a picture,” Cathy says. “It’s another thing to walk it.”

For those looking to get involved in an existing partner organization, Cathy recommends that you “be passionate. When you are connected to a place and its stories and want to share that connection and stewardship with others, it makes all of the work so much easier and fulfilling.”

As for HFPA, they are actively working to grow their membership as the organization approaches its 50th anniversary. Harpers Ferry is a special place for so many visitors, and becoming a member is the perfect way to support the park and preserve the important stories it tells. To learn more about HFPA, sign up to receive their e-news, or donate, visit www.harpersferryhistory.org .