Roebling Museum's new director wants to reach out

A display on social life features a Roebling Magazine article on the girls' softball team and pitcher Catherine Dougherty.
A display on social life features a Roebling Magazine article on the girls' softball team and pitcher Catherine Dougherty.
Posted: December 02, 2013

For 15 years, John Seitter's business has been about attracting, entertaining, and educating patrons of historic sites and tourist destinations.

Before that, he tended bar and held other service jobs at the old Sands Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.

In his new post as executive director of the Roebling Museum in Burlington County, he's using two careers' worth of skills - and learning new ones.

"This is the first real museum I've ever run," says Seitter, 56, of Brigantine, who previously ran the Camden County Historical Society and South Jersey Tourism Corp., both in Camden.

Until July, Seitter was a project manager for Pennsylvania's 150th Civil War anniversary observance. On Oct. 6, he took over the compact but impressive museum in the Roebling Village section of Florence Township.

"There are stories we can tell," he says, noting that Roebling was founded by an immigrant and forged steel and fabricated wire for American icons such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the sinuous, stair-descending Slinky toy.

The village and museum are named for the once-mighty family firm whose steel and wire works covered about 200 acres along the Delaware River. The complex closed in 1974 and was declared a Superfund site in 1983; about $70 million in cleanup and remediation work is mostly complete.

As part of the cleanup, the $6 million museum was created from the ruins of the handsome gatehouse through which generations of workers came and went.

Today, museum visitors encounter the magisterial master clock that once kept time for the complex's 70 buildings. Exhibits trace, in photographs and artifacts, the accomplishments of the Roebling family and their company.

"We want to be a destination," says president Karl Darby, a Roebling descendant. "That's why we wanted John involved."

The museum is owned by the township, operated by a private nonprofit on an annual budget of about $200,000, and attracts close to 4,000 visitors a year.

"We need to make it fun for families, so they'll want to come back," Seitter says.

Sitting in the media room with a fresh cup of coffee he doesn't appear to need, the executive director has a smile almost as enormous as his enthusiasm.

He wears suspenders, bright socks, and a patterned tie that defies easy description. And he speaks in a kind of 3D that blends showmanship, scholarship (he holds a master's degree in public history from Rutgers-Camden), and schmooze.

"It's as if a surge of energy has entered," says Patti Orfe of Delanco, one of three part-time staffers. "John has so many ideas."

Seitter wants to network with local schools and hold themed workshops and other hands-on programs to bring the museum alive. He also hopes to see an innovative, now one-of-a-kind, wire-stretching machine restored and moved onto the grounds.

The museum recounts the history of the handsome, if utilitarian, company town the firm built in 1905. It was a genuine community, complete with a semipro football team. And Roebling Village welcomed immigrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

But people can't hear the stories if they can't find the place: Locally, signs directing visitors to the museum are few.

And beyond the museum's seven-acre yard, land where thousands once earned their living stretches vacant toward the horizon.

"It has economic-development possibilities," says board member Don Jones, who has lived all but two of his 84 years in the township. "But it hasn't caught on yet."

Perhaps future museum visitors will learn what happens in that chapter of the Roebling story - and others, yet to be written.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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