After more than two decades of service, Joe Carr is hanging up his hat as the director of the Jefferson County Historical Society, and donning his boots for adventures in the West. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
After more than two decades of service, Joe Carr is hanging up his hat as the director of the Jefferson County Historical Society, and donning his boots for adventures in the West. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Rocking chairs and four walls aren't in Joe Carr's retirement plans. Saddle horses, petroglyphs and Native American art are.

Carr, who is retiring after 24 1/2 years as director of the Jefferson County Historical Society, said he could see surprise and even shock on the faces of Historical Society docents when, at their final annual get-together, they learned he is a cowboy at heart, is fascinated by the cultures of the West and is an outdoorsman.

He wasn't born to the cowboy life. He was born Feb. 15, 1950, in Lebanon, Ky., and grew up in Louisville, though he rode the neighbor's horses a few times.

Twelve years ago, his family went to a dude ranch in Wyoming for vacation. "I was terrified," he said. "We went back a second time and it was a little better."

His younger sisters - Jan Laster of Charlotte, N.C., and LeeAnne Embry of Louisville - and their families didn't want to return to a dude ranch, but Carr decided to try it again. He got hooked, and has been on horseback in Colorado, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico in addition to Wyoming.

"I love the West and I like to ride ... and I like the wide-open spaces. I never tire of the wide-open spaces."

His vacations were spent riding at dude ranches, where the guests help to herd cattle, checked fences for breaks and do other chores, and go for horseback rides.

When the Historical Society began closing for the winter in 2009-10 to cut costs, Carr headed West. He visited national parks, and in talking to people he learned that the National Park Service uses volunteers and retirees.

He has worked as a volunteer at White Sands and Bandelier national monuments, both in New Mexico.

This winter, he will be at White Sands from mid-January to the end of March, where he will work in the Visitors Center, give tours of the dunes and help develop some of the programs. He will work four days and have three off. He won't get paid, but he will stay in a free house and get free utilities.

He's made a reservation for a two-week historic-gardening seminar at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Virginia in June, and has made reservations for a trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the west coast of Canada in July. He and his sisters and their families go to Sutton's Bay, Mich., every August.

He is already signed up to be a volunteer at Bandelier from September through November, where he will work in the Visitors Center and give two talks a day about the pre-Colombian petroglyph drawings on the cliffs.

He plans to keep his house in downtown Madison as his base. When he is home, he goes to Louisville at least three times a week to visit his mother at the Episcopal Home, and goes to church in Louisville at Westport Road Church of Christ.

He intends to continue going on mission trips to Panama with his church, and spend time at a log cabin he moved to the Green River in Kentucky and restored. Much of his land there is in a tree conservation program, where the Nature Conservancy planted 7,000 seedlings including red oak and walnut trees.

During his travels, if he finds a pair of cowboy boots or a belt buckle he fancies, he'll add them to his collections.

His winter furloughs and summer vacations provided breaks from a job where he spent much of his time planning programs, looking for grants and trying to make ends meet. A sign on his office door reads: "Somebody must ask somebody for some money."

"It costs $10,000 a month to keep this place going every year," Carr said.

The Historical Society receives no public funds; it is supported by donations, admission fees, book sales, part of the Carl J. and Mary M. Hoefling endowment at the Community Foundation, special events - such as the Madison in Bloom garden tour, with the next one scheduled for May 2013 - and grants. Grants the historical society formerly received from national organizations have become harder to get, he said.

"The Community Foundation has been very good to us," Carr said.

Carr came to Madison in 1986 to work for Historic Madison Inc. "I got fired after a year," he said, then got the job at the county historical society.

When Carr began as the director, the Historical Society was located in the carriage house behind the library, full of rot, mold, carpet beetles and bugs, he said. The society had the railroad station, but it was "a wreck," and the society owed $50,000 on it. There were fewer than 100 members of the society, and there was no endowment.

"But we did have a leadership team, and that made all the difference in the world," Carr said.

Now the Jefferson County Historical Society has a 14,000-square-foot museum, the railroad station has been restored, all the debts have been paid - the Yunker family paid off the railroad station debt - there is an endowment, the membership stretches nationwide, there are children's programs, and the papers, textiles and artifacts in the museum collection are in acid-free containers.

"Year by year, step by step, we've built this," Carr said.

The museum's collection grew enormously when the city offered to let the society clean out the basement when city offices moved from the former City Hall on West Street to their current location at Main and West streets. The boxes, which he said were covered with coal dust, contained city records going back to 1811, he said.

"We were able to save all that, and that's really formed the basis of the archives here," Carr said.

Carr's route to Madison was through museums and even the White House.

He became interested in history as a career when he worked for a summer at the Filson Historical Club in Louisville. He graduated from Westport High School and from Centre College in Danville, Ky. He went to graduate school in museum studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in upstate New York.

One of his jobs was as a curator at the White House, a job he had for two years. He never got to do much curator work, he said, due to what he called the politics going on with the White House staff at the time he was hired. His tenure was divided between the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

But the bulk of his career has been in Madison.

The Historical Society members honored Carr and welcomed his successor, John Nyberg, at their annual dinner this month.

"All the work was not about Joe Carr, it was about saving the heritage for the people of the city and county," he told the members.