GUILFORD, Conn. — Joan Ces and her 7-year-old son came all the way from California to see early American history, but when they reached the oldest stone house in New England, it was closed.
The reason: state budget cuts.
Signs posted on the doors of the Henry Whitfield State Museum said the house that had survived since 1639 was in danger of closing permanently, along with three other state historical sites.
“This was something we wanted to see — real Connecticut, historic Connecticut,” said Ces, of Aliso Viejo, Calif. “You don’t see much that’s this old in California.”
Connecticut isn’t alone. Serious budget shortfalls have historic preservation programs across the country fighting for survival, according to the National Trust, an advocacy group for historic preservation.
Historical societies are trying to absorb the cuts by reducing the number of days that sites are open, cutting tours and even contemplating the closing of some attractions.
And that threatens surrounding communities’ economies, some advocates say.
Historians and preservationists say they understand that tough economic times mean all government-funded agencies will lose money. But they say cutting access to historical sites diminishes opportunities for people to learn about their past.
In Connecticut, those fighting to keep the four state museums open say the sites tell the story of the state’s evolution, from pre-Colonial settlements at the Henry Whitfield house to an 1830s academy for black women run by official state heroine Prudence Crandall.
“What are we telling our kids when we close the state heroine’s house and walk away from it?” said Paul Loether, the acting commissioner of the state Historical Commission.
Gov. John G. Rowland’s spokeswoman, Michele Sullivan, said the historical sites aren’t as high a priority as funding health and safety programs.
“While the museums and the Historical Commission may have value and be important, we have to make some of these decisions in a really tough manner,” she said.
After Minnesota’s governor promised not to raise taxes to fix that state’s deficit, funding for the Minnesota Historical Society was cut by 16 percent, meaning a third of its staff would have to be laid off.
The agency said seven sites would have to close, but private efforts and donations gave the homes, pioneer villages, farms and forts a reprieve. They will stay open this summer, but will likely have higher admission prices, reduced hours or fewer programs, state officials said.
Society spokeswoman Marjorie Nugent said private financial assistance can’t make up for lost state funding.
“This is very much a short-term thing,” Nugent said.
“These are not just educational sites, they are tremendous economic engines for the communities where they are located.” said David Blanchette of the Illinois Historic Preservation Society.
The Illinois preservation agency went from a seven-day-a-week operation to five days a week at more than 50 historic sites; Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield, Ill., is the only site not affected.
That means two fewer days of tourist dollars for restaurants and stores near the sites, Blanchette said.
Staff members have had to deal with angry tourists with outdated guidebooks who found sites closed Mondays and Tuesdays, Blanchette said. The biggest outcry was on Memorial Day, and he said he expects another batch of peevish tourists on Labor Day.
“We hope they realize (reducing hours) allows us to keep sites open we might otherwise have to close,” he said.