The Life of a Key West Oldest House Docent

By Andy Herdan, Docent Coordinator

 

Docents and Cultural Foundations

One of the mainstays of any Foundation is its volunteers. This is especially true in the case of cultural and historical organizations such as ours, the Old Island Restoration Foundation. I would like to take this opportunity to explain the role of our own Docent Volunteers who collectively support day-to-day activities at the Key West Oldest House, 365 days a year, 6 days a week, 8 hours a day. Key West is particularly challenged in finding Docent Volunteers, due to the seasonal fluctuations in our island population during the absence of snow birds and other part-time residents. That being said, I would like to take this opportunity to explain “A Day in the Life of” a Key West Oldest House Docent, in the hope of firing-up some additional “hearts and minds” of local residents. Today we have gathered an amazingly talented team of Docents who support the OIRF Foundation throughout the year, but these resources are constantly being stretched to the limit, and need to have their ranks swelled!

 

Day in the Life of an Oldest House docent

 Volunteers at The Oldest House are typically asked to work shifts of no more than 3 hours at a stretch, either from 10:00am until 1:00pm, or from 1:00pm until 4:00pm. As a preferred method of training, new docents are paired with our “resident experts” for a few weeks, and are also provided with historical background information. We don’t use strictly documented scripts, hoping that docents will add their personal “flavor” to the tours given to visitors. Since there is no entrance fee for The Oldest House, visitors are given an option to wander around the house and grounds on their own, or take a conducted tour with one of our docents.  There is no concern with heat during the summer months since the Oldest House is beautifully air-conditioned, and seats are plentifully available for rests between tours. Unlike many historic sites, we provide tours “on demand” and not on fixed schedules; this gives our visitors plenty of freedom to roam on their own, or simply join-up with other groups who may already be accompanied by a docent. Knowing the value of our docent population, we provide recognition in as many ways as possible. It can be as simple as donating custom designed shirts and name tags when working at The Oldest House, or giving gift cards to be used at local restaurants after working a specified number of hours per month, to holding recognition dinners and invitations to special OIRF celebration events.

 

Telling Visitors our Story

There are basically three elements that a docent needs to be addressing when taking visitors on tours:

  1. The history of the house itself, mentioning its construction, its style, and its overall layout including the outside structures such as Cook House, Outhouse, and Captain’s Office. Also pointing out the highlights of the beautifully laid-out gardens. It’s important to mention that the house was actually moved to its present location in the late 1830’s. Focus on the fact that the contents of the house are largely belonging to the Watlington Family, or of the same period.
  2. The history of the people who lived in the house, with primary focus on the Watlington family. Without getting into too much detail of the genealogy, people are very interested to know about the nine Watlington daughters. Always point out the 1885 photo of the 7 daughters who lived to adulthood, mentioning the two children who died as infants, from the Yellow
  3. Talk as much as possible about the background history relating to the City of Key West, its development as the largest city and largest harbor in Florida during the late 18oo’s, and the amazing growth of revenue stemming from the salvaging of wrecks.

 

In Summary

The success of our docent population depends to such a high degree in being able to “read” and “wow” our visitors, and slant ones discussions towards whatever visitors have clearly shown a specific interest. Keep your talk light and personal, adding humor wherever appropriate. Ghost stories never hurt!! Docents are the very backbone of the Old Island Restoration Foundation, and their ultimate goal should be to convince visitors to take such an interest in our history that they not only want to generously donate contributions to support the Oldest House, but also to become lifetime supporters of The Old Island Restoration Foundation. So… If you are interested in becoming a docent at the Oldest House, just send me a note via our volunteer page.