Sixteen years after it opened, the James A. Ramage Civil War Museum in Ft. Wright was ordered to be closed by Mayor Dave Hatter.
The museum and its property are owned by the City of Ft. Wright and governed by a board of directors appointed by the mayor.
But for the past several months, there has been open battle between some board members and city leadership about the museum's future. In June, Hatter and other city officials questioned the long-term viability of the attraction.
At the time, city council agreed to give the museum directors, all of whom are volunteers, a year to figure out a path forward.
That abruptly changed last Wednesday when Hatter issued his closure order for the museum. Battery Hooper Park, where the museum is located, is open.
In his order, Hatter cited "infractions in the administration of the James A. Ramage Museum Board" as well as safety risks with the public entering the building, communication breakdowns, and "improper handling of and accounting for cash donations to the museum." Other infractions alleged by the mayor include violation of the parking protocols during the recent Battery Hooper Days, an annual celebration of the site's role in the 1862 Defense of Cincinnati effort when Union forces mounted an effort in Northern Kentucky to keep the would-be invading Confederate Army from reaching the Queen City.
As part of the order, the museum is closed immediately and will temporarily and indefinitely suspend all activities.
Battery Hooper Days was last straw for a city upset with museum's performance
Battery Hooper Days, an annual two-day celebration of the site's historic significance and the museum's effort to preserve one of the last remaining remnants of the Defense of Cincinnati, was hosted the Saturday and Sunday before last.
A scathing report from City Attorney Timothy Theissen after he attended the event preceded the mayor's order to close the museum.
Theissen painted a picture of a poorly attended and even more poorly organized event. He was critical of the handling of parking, noting that cars were parked in the grass at the park, something forbidden by the city.
"No police presence was observed. No one asked for money or donations, either upon arrival, throughout my visit or upon departure," Theissen wrote in a report to the city obtained by The River City News.
Theissen went on in the report to criticize a lack of handouts explaining the event and described the Civil War battlefield surgery reenactment as "amateur" and "unrehearsed", and a musician strumming a guitar playing modern country songs and ballads. "I did not hear while I was there any Civil War-era songs," Theissen complained.
There was also no visible explanation of the battery site, Theissen wrote.
He was also critical of the museum itself, saying that only about 20 to 30 people had registered in the registration book. His tour of the museum was self-directed, he said. There also wasn't a celebration of the formation of the Cincinnati Black Brigade, the first Black military unit formed during the Defense of Cincinnati. Such a celebration was advertised ahead of the event.
"We saw no African-Americans in the staff or audience, nor heard any discussion of it," Theissen wrote.
"There were two booths, one selling Confederate flags, and another booth selling books, mostly about Abraham Lincoln," Theissen wrote. "There were no booths for food or refreshments. There was a portable toilet and hand wash station available."
In bullet points, Theissen mapped out his final four conclusions: parking was in violation of city code, attendance was low with as many volunteers as visitors, the event appeared to be disorganized and amateurish, and access to the lower-level bookstore inside the museum was not handicap-accessible.
Report surprises museum board president
"I'm sad," Bernie O'Bryan, president of the museum board, said of the closure order. "We were not told the truth on certain things and other times we were told half-truths."
"We worked very hard on what the city told us we could do and what we might be able to do and we found out all the time we're putting in hours of time, the city was making plans to shut us down, and especially in the last several months, almost once a month, they would try to shut us down for something and each time it proved frivolous," O'Bryan said.
O'Bryan suspects that the city has plans to sell the property, an idea disputed by City Administrator Jill Bailey who told RCN that the city is planning to work with residents through a survey on what the community wants to see of its parks, including Battery Hooper.
As for Battery Hooper Days, O'Bryan said that the event went very well though attendance was likely impacted by the severe heat and humidity that weekend. He was surprised to learn from RCN that Theissen had prepared a report for the city, though he noticed the city attorney walking around the event.
O'Bryan said that parking in the park area was reserved only for vendors and performers, something that he said was permitted by the city.
For visitors, the parking lot at the South Hills Civic Club, about a ten-minute walk to the park, was available. Theissen's report said that no one was parking at the civic club and that there was no shuttle from that lot to the event. O'Bryan said that no shuttle was provided by TANK due to the bus service's lack of workers.
"If (Theissen) did see some issue of one sort of the other, we felt that surely he would have brought it to our attention so that we could have corrected those things on the spot," O'Bryan said. "Since he did not do so, our assumption was that everything was the way it was supposed to be."
O'Bryan also countered other points from Theissen's report.
"If he walked over to the Battery and nobody explained anything it's because he didn't ask questions," O'Bryan said. He said that volunteers were on site to answer questions. "I saw them all day long answer questions and show people the Battery. I did that myself as well. If he just went there and stood and walked away - we don't run up to somebody and say, ask me a question."
While the musician was playing a variety of music, O'Bryan said, the guitar was historic. And the hospital reenactment, described as amateurish by Theissen, was the result of it being a public event for families, O'Bryan said.
"We're not going to have blood and guts and flies and screams at a family event," the board president said. "We're not trying to show the gore, we're trying to show what instruments were used. We try to do it in a light-hearted way not to repulse people."
"Again, because (Theissen) is not asking questions and not talking to people, he's getting the wrong impression."
The Mid States Living History Association presented the field hospital and "is one of the finest in the country," O'Bryan said. He noted that the same organization put on heritage interpretations at the old Tall Stacks festivals on the Ohio River.
"There is no place in the country to see a better interpretation of a field hospital than what you saw (at Battery Hooper Days)," O'Bryan said. Their appearance was sponsored by St. Elizabeth Healthcare.
As for the lack of Black representation, O'Bryan said that there was a Black man as part of the cannon display. "Anyone who looked at him could tell by the color of his skin that he was not Caucasian," O'Bryan said.
The Confederate flags being sold were among a variety of flags being sold, he said.
As for the handicap-accessibility to the lower-level of the museum, O'Bryan said that they make all inventory available to people with disabilities on the main level, which puts the organization in compliance.
Museum board president and city blame each other
"The Battery Hooper Days was not very successful," City Administrator Jill Bailey said. "It is their signature event. The attendance was very low and they did not operate within the guidelines we had established for them to work within. That's been a consistent theme unfortunately."
Bailey said that the organization has failed to provide the city with information about membership, policies, practices, and meeting minutes.
"(O'Bryan) either can't or won't comply," she said. "We can't just allow you to operate without having the information we need."
Bailey noted that the board membership is made up of non-Ft. Wright residents. "They are very passionate about the museum but at the end of the day, it is a Ft. Wright entity. It's paid for and owned by the taxpayers of the City of Ft. Wright."
But O'Bryan also argued that the city has not communicated well with the museum, only approving this year's Battery Hooper Days event a week before it happened, further impacting attendance, he said.
Both Bailey and O'Bryan disagree on the museum's financial situation.
Bailey said that the museum has annual expenses of roughly $11,000 to $12,000 while bringing in only about $8,000 in revenue. O'Bryan said that the museum board has about $13,000 in the bank, but isn't entirely sure on the number because the city won't show him, he said.
Both acknowledge that the building's air conditioning system is broken. Bailey said that it's an $8,000 to $12,000 expense. O'Bryan said that the city won't let the board fix it.
They also disagree on what is planned for the site with the museum closed, possibly forever.
"Council is very interested in preserving the park and the green space," Bailey said. O'Bryan suspects a future development, like the apartment project going up next to the park on the Covington side of the road. That Covington project replaces a church that had previously had an agreement with Ft. Wright to allow its parking lot to be used by museum and park visitors.
The parking lot was taken as part of that project but the developer paid Ft. Wright roughly $125,000 to be able to build parking of its own somewhere on the site. That money is still in the park fund, Bailey said.
Bailey concedes that the city is unsure of what to do with the museum building, which was the former home of well-known local residents Fern and Sheldon Storer who bequeathed it to the Northern Kentucky University Foundation which, in turn, sold it to the city. The museum was named for an NKU professor.
"Before we could use that building again, we would want an inspection to make sure it is sound," Bailey said.
Both the city and the board president recognize history of the site
"(City council is) very sensitive to the Civil War site," Bailey said. "Battery Hooper was named after that battle. They are very interested in preserving some of that history. It just depends on, what does that look like?"
City council meets on Wednesday where this issue will be further discussed.
O'Bryan hopes that the museum reopens.
"We are all volunteers. We get nothing from this. We are a service organization," he said. "It would be terrible to throw that away.
"Ft. Wright is the smallest city in the state to have something as wonderful as this museum. It would be very short-sighted of them to throw that away. We are not in the business of antagonizing the city. This executive order, (Mayor Hatter) addresses it like we've done something criminal. We're doing the best we can. We're all volunteers. The city has paid staff who could have been on the ground, could have helped us with planning. Where were they? We were there. Where were they?"
-Michael Monks, editor & publisher