A Conversation with the Biggest Civil War Roundtable in the Country (conclusion)

“We try to make it as much of a social thing for folks as we can,” Mike Powell says. That includes hanging out with Abraham Lincoln (James Haney) and Santa Claus (Wally Rueckel).

(The final installment of a six-part series)

This week, ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski has been talking with Mike Powell, president of the Brunswick (NC) Civil War Roundtable. With 1,200 members, it’s the largest roundtable in the country. Hopefully their conversations has offered some good ideas for other roundtables. Today, they wrap things up with a run-down of some of the roundtable’s other activities.

Chris Mackowski: So what are some of the other things you guys do?

Mike Powell: We were doing overnight trips, and I was setting those up. The three-day trip to Richmond, that sort of thing. But when I took over the presidency, I just didn’t have time for that. That is a time-consuming job.

I’ve got a guy right now who’s willing to do day trips for us. We’re doing two day trips a year. The next one is in September: a cruise down the Cape Fear River from Wilmington down to for Fisher and back. Chris Fonvielle is going to be the guide. Bentonville is close enough that we can do that in one day. Charleston is close enough, we can do that in one day. 

I’m working on a guy to do overnight trips for us. He was a Gettysburg licensed guide for a long time, so you know he knows the drill. I’m not going to push him, though—I don’t push anybody. If you’re not enjoying it, don’t do it, y’know? But I’m hoping we can get back to some overnight trips. I used to really enjoy them. I mean, I’ve been to all those places a thousand times, but still. . . . Any time I can get on a battlefield, I’m good! (laughs)

CM: Any day on a battlefield is better than a day in the office.

MP: Exactly right—that’s exactly right! (laughs)

CM: And too, you can go to a battlefield a dozen times, but when you go with a new group of people, it’s new eyes to see it through, new discussions to be had, new questions, new conversations.

MP: Sure.

I mean, I grew up in Baltimore, and the first day I got my driver’s license, I drove up to Gettysburg. I know I’ve been there at least two, three hundred times probably, but I still find something new to see. I always find something new to see.

So, yeah, I really enjoy that.

Whatever we do, we try to do it as best as we can possibly do it. We try to get the best guides that we can get for the tours, the best speakers we can get. We’re not going to get three-day-old cookies from some bargain food store that’s ready to throw them out the next day. No—buy the fresh cookies. Buy the good stuff.

We did a lot of things right at the beginning.

Right now, I’ve been doing this—being president—this is my third year. Last year, I started gettin’ other leadership ready. I want people to be able to move into positions easily. So we’re doing a lot of that “This is what I do on this thing. If you’re interested in being president, here are some of the things you’ve gotta do.” So we’re trying to keep a continuity of folks going.

There were seven people that were sort of in the original group that founded it, and only four of us are left. So, we need to get some fresh blood in there.

You know, we just try to run like a business, y’know? And if you present a quality product, they’re gonna come back. They’re gonna come back.

CM: Offer people that first-class experience, they’re happy with it, they want more.

MP: Exactly. Very few folks have I talked to have said, “Well, I came to one, but I didn’t like it.” If we can get ‘em in the door the first time, they’ll be back next month.

Several times, at seven o’clock when I’m supposed to go on, there’ll still be people lined up out there, so of course, we’ll have to hold on for a minute. But—grab a tray of cookies, take it on out to ‘em. Walk up and down the line, give ‘em cookies and coffee and whatever. We just try to make it as pleasurable an experience as we can, and I’m not sure a lot of roundtables do that. I think a lot of roundtables think, “If they come, they come. If they don’t, they don’t, and that’s too bad because the speaker is still going to be here.”

We just try to make it more than the standard roundtable, where you come in, you talk, you leave. We try to make it as much of a social thing for folks as we can. And I think including women is probably the single biggest thing we have going for us.

CM: Tell me about your preservation efforts.

MP: In seven years, we’ve given more than $37,000 toward preservation. I catch heat from some folks for this, but my policy—I’ve always kinda been in charge of this because I’m the one usually out seeing these things—is every June, I will contact every historic site in the state and ask, “What do you have going on? Do you have something going on we can help you with?”

We don’t give money for battlefield ground. That’s a worthy, worthy, worthy cause, but the Civil War Trust is set up for that. These local places around here, they’re getting killed on their budgets. We would rather give them the money to have an immediate, local impact.

And we’ve done some cool things. We’ve got a permanent exhibit up at Fort Fisher for Colonel Lamb. The flag for the U.S.S. Monticello, which was the flagship for the North Atlantic Blockade squadron up at Hatteras—we helped get that done. We got an exhibit over here at the Maritime Museum in for African-American sailors that joined the U.S. Navy. Things like that. Interpretive plaques. At Bentonville, we have three or four of them. We have three or four up at Fort Fisher. Fort Anderson got a replica 32-pounder that we paid a lot of money toward for the carriage. So, that kind of stuff, where you can have a local impact.

Us buying battlefield ground in Kansas or Pennsylvania—most of our members are never going to see it. Never even going to see it. But we hear all the time, “I love the thing down at Fort Fisher.” It’s got a big sign: “Donated by Brunswick Civil War Roundtable.” There you go, baby! (laughter) That’s the only condition I put on it for them: we do want it to say that.

CM: And those can be the projects that are the hardest to raise money for, particularly at these small state or local historic sites, that have a tough time getting money.

MP: Exactly. Like I said, though, I have caught some flak. “Well, we’ve got to save the battlefields!” Yeah, we do have to save the battlefields. But my $1,000 in your $300,000 pool is a drop in the bucket. Our money is not going to make as much of a difference to their pool as it’s going to make around here—because, if we don’t do it here, nobody else is going to do it.

It took me a while to convince the board of this, but they’re on board now.

The Brunswick Civil War Roundtable draws hundreds to each meeting, but the real key to their success is an engaged group of volunteers.

CM: Any final advice for other roundtables?

MP: Be willing to change. Look for new ideas. Try it; if it doesn’t work, scrap it and move on. But you have to be willing to get proactive. You have to want to grow. A lot of them don’t care if they grow or not—or at least that’s my impression from talking with them.

Cultivate your resources. Go through your membership—they’ve all got talents you can use in some fashion. Call ‘em up. If they say no, they say no. “Hey, thanks, man. Have a good day. We’ll still see you next meeting.”

Don’t send emails to get volunteers. Call or face-to-face. Our experience is that two out of ten, if you send an email, will volunteer; eight out of ten if you get ‘em face-to-face or on the phone. It’s just a more personal way, and people are more inclined to respond favorably. I know the roundtable in Baltimore, it was like pulling teeth to get somebody to volunteer to do something—so, that’s a problem.

You know, none of these ideas are Einstein thinking. It’s all logical stuff. You’ve just got to have the volunteers to do it.

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