LINCOLN — The gift horse may have jumped the gun, but it has already delivered a cart full of pledges to the financially struggling Pioneer Village.
Before the museum in Minden, Neb., has had a chance to launch a planned fundraising campaign in 2014, more than $250,000 has been pledged.
An anonymous donor last week offered to match $1 million in unrestricted gifts to help one of the state's former top tourist attractions repair aging buildings and reverse declining attendance, Marshall Nelson, the museum's general manager, said Monday.
About $126,000 in donations have come in since The World-Herald published a story earlier this month about the museum's plight, Nelson said. Those gifts came from local individuals who also have asked to remain anonymous.
The donations qualify for the match, so they equal $252,000.
“This is great news for us,” Nelson said. “I think to have people step up, without really a formal campaign being off the ground yet, just speaks volumes.”
The nonprofit foundation that operates the museum will appoint a committee to oversee the campaign and designate the attraction's most pressing needs.
Neither Nelson nor Larry Wilcox, a Minden banker who serves on the foundation board, offered hints about the identity of the $1 million donor. A message left with Harold G. Warp of Chicago, the foundation president and son of the museum's founder, was not returned Monday.
The museum opened in 1953 as a shrine to American industrialism, ingenuity and progress. It displays more than 50,000 artifacts in 28 buildings in Minden, a community of 2,900 about 200 miles southwest of Omaha.
Pioneer Village has drawn more than 6 million visitors, easily making it one of the state's most successful and popular attractions.
But in recent years, annual attendance has declined from peaks of 150,000 to less than 40,000. Tax filings by the foundation show that Pioneer Village lost $60,000 or more in 2011 and 2012.
The attraction dodged a bullet recently when the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled it could continue to run its adjoining motel and RV park as nonprofit entities that support the museum.
The State Department of Revenue had ruled they were not entitled to the museum's tax exemptions.
Had the museum lost the Supreme Court case, it likely would have been forced to close, Warp has said.
Donors who had been thinking about making a gift felt more confident that the museum would survive after the Supreme Court ruling, Wilcox said. In essence, the ruling kick-started the fundraising effort.
Among the things the money could be spent on are building maintenance, restoring broken equipment, marketing to boost attendance and capital improvements, Wilcox said. He stressed that the effort is just getting underway and that the foundation board hasn't even set a fundraising goal yet.
Community leaders recognize the importance of Pioneer Village to Minden, so they are encouraged by the early gifts, Mayor Roger Jones said. But they also remain strongly interested in seeing an updated or new motel for their community.
“It's about more than a little paint and a little cleanup,” Jones said.