TICONDEROGA, N.Y. - Fort Ticonderoga, one of the nation's oldest and most significant historic sites, is so financially strapped that its trustees are considering selling off some of the fort's vast collection of artifacts, including artwork believed to be worth millions.
The move comes after the fort lost the support of billionaire Forrest E. Mars Jr. amid disagreements with Fort Ticonderoga's longtime executive director, Nicholas Westbrook.
Besides being a privately owned tourist attraction operated as a not-for-profit, Fort Ticonderoga is also a state-chartered museum. Museum charters are granted by regents who must approve any sale of artifacts or artwork.
Peter Paine Jr., the new president of the board of trustees for the Fort Ticonderoga Association, sent a memo last month to board members outlining the financial crunch and listing several options to try to erase about $2.5 million in debt. Among them was closing next year and selling "Gelyna, View Near Ticonderoga," painted by Thomas Cole after he visited Ticonderoga in the 1820s. Other Cole works have sold for more than $1 million.
Fort Ticonderoga, a National Historic Landmark, played a key role in North American history from its construction by the French in 1755 through the American Revolution, when it changed hands three times. The bloodiest battle of the French and Indian War was fought there 250 years ago, and Benedict Arnold, along with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, famously captured the fort from the British in 1775 without firing a shot.
Now, shaky finances - not warring nations - threaten one of America's earliest tourist destinations. Annual attendance has declined by 33 percent from 2001 to 2007.
The drop-off in attendance had been countered by millions in financial support given by Forrest Mars, former chief executive of Mars Inc. and heir to the family's candy fortune, and his wife, Deborah, president of the fort's board of trustees.
With museums everywhere scrambling for benefactors of any kind, the fort had a big home-field advantage: Deb Mars was born in Ticonderoga.
But in February, Forrest Mars sent an e-mail to Westbrook, telling him the couple would no longer support the fort.
Forrest Mars' e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, contains a litany of complaints about Westbrook's management skills, including infrequent communication with Deborah Mars about the new education center and "running away from decisions."
"The ride is over," Forrest Mars wrote. "Deb and I are out for good. I wish you and the Fort the best of luck."
Forrest Mars did not respond to Associated Press requests for comment made by e-mail and through Mars Inc. headquarters in McLean, Va. Calls to the Mars ranch in Birney, Mont., went unanswered.
Westbrook didn't elaborate on his relationship with the Marses, who also have a home in Wyoming.
"I think they found that trying to play a close-hand role in Ticonderoga from Wyoming or a house in the south of France or on a yacht in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was very, very difficult," he said.
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Fort Ticonderoga: http://www.fort-ticonderoga.org