Susan Berry grew up in Silver City, New Mexico, a place she remembers as “not a lot happening, but loaded with potential.”
She spent 36 years of her adult life making sure that potential was realized. Today, she’s a favorite daughter in a town the nation honors as one of its best Main Streets. But as she looks back, Berry remembers how she got into historic preservation “through the proverbial back door.”
In 1974, she had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art and English from Silver City’s Western New Mexico University, while an artist named Harry Benjamin had just opened the Silver City Museum, in an effort to keep the city’s treasures from leaving town. Berry became his assistant; she didn’t leave until her retirement as museum director in 2010.
It was the historic building Berry and Benjamin couldn’t save that really gave Silver City—population 12,000—the push that began its stellar resurgence.
Just a year after she’d started at the museum, the 1915 Mission-style Santa Fe depot was slated for demolition, so Benjamin and Berry led the charge to save the building. “We were young people, starry-eyed dreamers, and we could see how fabulous it would be if this or that building could be restored to its glory,” she says. “We worked with city government and the National Preservation Office and opened a dialogue with the railroad, but the depot was demolished at the end of 1975. Losing that building really galvanized would-be preservationists in Silver City.”
Around the same time, New Mexico established its state preservation office, which asked Berry to conduct the county-wide inventory of historic districts and sites. All this new attention to saving the past brought many donations to the museum. “The things that made a historian out of me was a large collection of historic photos by a retired biology professor—he’d started in the 1960s to write a history of the Masonic Lodge—and the children of the original settlers of Silver City were still around, and they helped me.”
In 1983, when Benjamin left the museum to devote himself to his artwork, Berry became the museum director. She also co-authored an architectural history of Silver City with renowned author Sharman Apt Russell. By 1985, Silver City was primed to embrace the national Main Street Project to preserve original downtowns.
Being in downtown, the Silver City Museum was in the midst of it all. “Silver City has always had a strong tendency to innovate, and a vibrant mix of people,” Berry says. “It is either 20 years ahead, or 20 years behind, sometimes simultaneously. But our goals are always a moving target: ‘if only we had this or that….’”
She’ll admit her biggest thrill came in 2005, when her museum was accredited by the American Association of Museums. She’d been seeking accreditation since the 1980s—a rigorous, demanding process to gain the highest recognition a museum can achieve. Of the nation’s almost 16,000 museums, only 750 are accredited, and the Silver City Museum is one of only 13 accredited museums in New Mexico. “We’re one of the smaller museums in the nation to achieve accreditation,” she says with pride. “We’re like the little engine that could.”
Berry looks back, confident that those following will keep the momentum going. But she has to smile, thinking of how far it has come: “If you told Harry and me in ’74 that this is where we’d be, we’d have said, ‘Nah!’ It’s been a very exciting journey.”
Jana Bommersbach has been Arizona’s Journalist of the Year and has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She is the author of two nationally-acclaimed true crime books and a member of Women Writing the West.