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Stately Oaks seeking new volunteers

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

In an effort to maximize its resources, and to deal with recent staff loses, as of February, Stately Oaks will do away with its tradition of guided tours by docents in period dress.

Instead, visitors will be able to guide themselves through the ante-bellum plantation with headphones and an MP3 player.

In addition, Historical Jonesboro -- the preservation society which operates Stately Oaks -- will host a training session this weekend for volunteers interested in becoming historical interpreters, tour guides, and docents ( "teachers" in period dress).

The training session will take place Saturday, from 10 a.m., to 12 p.m., in the Bethel Schoolhouse, located on the grounds of Stately Oaks. During the session, potential volunteers will learn the history of the house, how to give a tour, and the proper attire for the position they are seeking.

In past years, all tour guides at Stately Oaks were required to wear dress typical of the ante-bellum period. Starting in February, the plantation will utilize historical interpreters and store volunteers in uniform T-shirts to guide volunteers through the property and to relieve existing docents of added responsibilities.

Other volunteers will be able to dress in period dress, if they so choose. Barbara Emert, the president of Historical Jonesboro, believes the relaxation of volunteer dress codes will widen the pool of volunteers from which the plantation can draw.

"If they want to help, we'll have a place for them," said Emert. "No volunteer organization can survive without volunteers."

According to Emert, the new plantation had one, paid, full-time docent on staff until the end of 2007. In the new year, that position was eliminated.

The new MP3 player tour format will not only address staffing shortages, but it will also create a new, interactive tour experience, which wasn't available before, Emert said.

"It's not really an attempt to get by," she said. "It's really the wave of the future. We now don't have to start the tours on the hour. If [visitors] are really interested in a room, they can go back and listen again. They don't have to follow the guide on a set path."

In addition, Emert said the MP3-guided tours would feature interactive games, voices from different commentators, and background sound effects, such as the crackling of the fireplace when visitors enter the living room.

She said that before considering adopting the MP3 format, Stately Oaks consulted the Aiken-Rhett House, an ante-bellum, preservation house in Charleston, S.C., which uses the same system.

Emert said the Aiken-Rhett house and other preservation societies have found the MP3 guided-tours to be an asset.

Ted Key, a retired history teacher and a Stately Oaks volunteer for more than 30 years, serves as one of the voices on the new MP3-guided tour. He said the new system would make his job a whole lot easier.

"Last Saturday, we had 50 people here," said Key. "It was so busy on Saturday that we didn't have time to catch our breath. The MP3 players "will sure save your voice, if you're a tour guide."