Two people are missing. Cedar Lechner-Riehle deftly establishes a connection with the ones who managed to be at the right spot for their 12:40 tour before setting off in search of the outliers.
Back in a flash, Cedar takes a deep breath and begins leading the group up a long path into opulence while setting the stage for their experience. "Glensheen was built between 1905 and 1908 for the family of Chester and Clara Congdon..." it begins.
At Glensheen, UMD students like Cedar are the conduits between modern and mystical, leading more than 70,000 visitors each year through the historic Congdon estate. These tours are the revenue stream that’s allowed Glensheen to continue to thrive while other historic house museums fade into what used to be.
Director Dan Hartman says this success is due, in part, to Glensheen's employees. Not many museums have students leading tours; instead most rely on docents to translate the past. And not many universities have historic house museums to enthrall students.
“I was bitten by that bug,” says Dan, who got his start working as a tour guide and grounds keeper while he was a student at UMD. Glensheen’s appeal, Dan explains, is in the unknown. “There are few places in Minnesota where the history is so rich, and there’s still so much to be discovered. As a student, you’re constantly learning new things.”
Not only are UMD students working as tour guides, they're selling tickets, working in the gift shop, staffing private events, and answering the phones. In all, 3/4 of Glensheen's employees are students. "This is a student operation. Students are vital at Glensheen," says Dan, adding that Glensheen also offers 15 internships each year. Beyond the income, Dan believes that Bulldogs gain a game-changing perspective. "There's such a unique relationship with UMD, and Glensheen is one of the things that students will be passionate about for their entire life."
Dan says that 85% of Glensheen's revenue comes from tours. Empowering students who aren't old enough to buy beer with Glensheen's product is atypical to most micromanaging business models.
That, says Cedar, is what makes Glensheen the complete opposite of most summer jobs. This trust enables students to challenge their comfort zones and take home talents not usually available to people their age. In the trenches of a tourist attraction, public speaking, reading people, and customer service skills are quickly acquired. "You can just tell that there's the one person that the only reason that they came to Glensheen is to touch stuff," says Cedar, explaining the delicacy of the job. "You have to find the balance between being happy and nice and protecting the museum."
Things warm as the tour progresses, thanks to Cedar's enthusiastic love of Glensheen. The next punchline, "This book isn't worth the paper it's printed on," goes over much better. The group's in the library and Cedar is telling them about Chester's inscribed review of what must have been a literary disaster. It's nuggets like this that keep the group engaged. They start to ask Cedar all the questions that pop into their minds and there are answers to everything from why it's called Glensheen ("It's a sheeny glen") to the structure of the mansion, "Is it true that it can withstand an earthquake?" one woman wonders. Now they're talking. "Tours feel like a conversation," says Cedar. "If people have questions that I have answers to, that's awesome. I love seeing people get interested."
The Chemical Engineering major has only been giving tours for a few weeks but already has it down. Beyond the tour outline, Cedar's picked up loads of additional information about all things Glensheen, giving credit to knack for trivia and genuine interest. Cedar says that the guides' curiosity rivals that of the tourists, “There's a whole atmosphere of wanting to learn in this house. The thing that all universities want to do is create life-long learners and that’s what Glensheen does, and that’s really cool to see.”
Story by Lori C. Melton, June 2015
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