On her drive to the first board meeting of The Etiwanda Historical Society after the lockdown, Veronica Dawson had three words on her mind: summer, spook, nights.
Considering the organization had to cancel 15 fundraising events throughout the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, there was a lot of catching up to do.
“Annually we rely on membership, donations, fundraising events and private event rentals to build our reserves,” said Dawson, who is event coordinator for the society. “The monthly bills don’t stop just because the world does. My fellow board members were definitely starting to worry about how long we could keep affording ourselves with no new money on the horizon.”
As an avid Halloween and horror fan herself, Dawson knew there was a mutually beneficial opportunity there.
“My family and I support Halloween and horror festivities all year round,” she said.
Dawson runs a podcast, Frolicking Chronicles, with her twin, where they cover historic sites while highlighting paranormal travel and cocktails.
She said she knew there was an opportunity to invite Halloween/horror-loving people to discover the historic homes that are part of The Etiwanda Historical Society.
“Who else better than the Halloween and horror community to support historic preservation?” she said. “Victorian houses are the perfect backdrop for any spooky event. The society in return gets much needed exposure and a direct line to help us continue our good work.”
And that is how Summer Spook Nights was born, the first of which took place July 24. It was the society’s first event post-COVID lockdown. The second took place Aug. 21 and the third will happen Sept. 25.
“It was epic,” she said of the grand opening. “Online reservations sold out. Another 250 non-RSVP’d guests showed up at our entry gate. We had unbelievable support from our Etiwanda neighbors and local community.”
But those aren’t the only spooky-themed events the society has in store. Sleepy Hollow is a small production blending concepts from Tim Burton’s film with the original Disney film.
“Our Chaffey Garcia House would come to life,” said Dawson. “With support from Los Angeles actors, local historians and The Alta Loma Riding Club, it became a local favorite very quickly. This event sold out all three consecutive years prior to October 2020.”
She said she looks forward to the opportunity to do more, including a scare zone with live actors at the Chaffey Isle House.
“Being a family of five myself, I knew our community needed family-friendly, date-night and overall fall-inspired events that people could attend,” she said. “Sleepy Hollow truly gave a glimpse of gothic paranormal literature to younger generations who did not have prior knowledge of it. Giving the society a chance to do what it does best, to teach Etiwanda’s rich history by being the venue and then branching out teaching more in-depth moments of the prominent eras.”
She looks forward to more partnerships with the horror and Halloween community.
“I will tell you what I said to my fellow board members, ‘You think these are not your people, but they are your people!’” she said. “Where else will you find people of all age demographics and backgrounds who genuinely enjoy old homes and would want to preserve them? It’s value for value. A way to help each other. For us, we give these amazingly talented makers, finders, artisans a place to promote and sell their work. For them, it’s a way to give back.”
She said museums were suffering long before the pandemic hit from low membership retention, low attendance and lack of committed docents.
“For historic living museums, the main challenge is giving guests a reason to come back again,” she said. “I mean, once you’ve seen everything, why else would you want to come back? This is why it is vital for historic properties to be clever and maximize on potential opportunities for special events and exhibits.”
Summer Spook Nights is raising funds to finish their Chaffey Isle House Australian Gardens and replace the wraparound porch, which is in need of safety repairs and overall replacement so that the society can open it to the public again.
She said she would very much like to see more partnerships like this between horror events producers and historical societies.
“I would like to see the producers of these events to actively become members of the museum’s organization where they host their events,” she said. “Most have some sort of historical society they are affiliated with or friends of type of organization. It is incredibly important to these nonprofits to have continued life breathed into them. Not just for a night or a weekend.
“On the flip side, older generations — the members — of museums need to be open to the idea of the younger ones. Or else these museums won’t survive. Long gone are the days of people retiring and becoming docents. No one really volunteers anymore. It’s sad. People are having to work longer into their golden ages. People are busy just trying to keep up with their family obligations and kids’ activities. When we have a chance, we must build relationships with the young ones so the past decades of work can have a future. Historical societies need to be open to and seek out how other historical museums are navigating forward and creating new interest.”
The Gory Details
The Etiwanda Historical Society
Museum is open 2nd Saturdays, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
7150 Etiwanda Ave., Rancho Cucamonga
$5 per person donation requested
Next Summer Spook Nights: Sept. 25, 2021