The National Military Vehicle Museum will have its long-awaited grand opening on May 28 just outside of Dubois. Dan Starks is the Museum’s founder and president. He joined Bob Beck of Wyoming Public Radio in describing the museum and why it’s worthwhile.
Dan Stark: This is a private company that was funded by my family with two main goals. The first goal is to honor the service and sacrifice of American veterans and their families. The second goal is to educate future generations about the history of American freedom.
Bob Beck: Where did you get the idea to do that?
DS: It has evolved over time. My starting point was to acquire an abandoned WWII Sherman tank with the idea that I wanted to find someone to restore it so I could drive it in the local 4th of July parade. From this seed, it became clear to me that the history surrounding these vehicles really resonated with a wide range of Americans. And as my collection started to grow, and word of mouth spread, and more and more people asked to come see the collection, it became clear that enough people were interested in that we should put this collection in a public place, be called a museum and organize our stories and make them accessible to anyone who cares.
BB: Did you have to explain to people very early on that you were acquiring these objects for a museum and that you did not plan to take Dubois back?
DS: Ha, ha, no. It’s a good point, though. Most of these vehicles have no real weapons. Those with live weapons are highly regulated and required ATF stamps under ATF regulations. But every vehicle made available to the public in the museum has been demilitarized, and the essential components of what would otherwise be real firearms are stored in vaults.
BB: Have they all been used in military actions?
DS: Many of them were used in military actions. We do not know the precise history of many of these vehicles. Some of them may have been in the United States, they may have been used for training. There are a few of these vehicles for which we know the history of their battles. We have an M18 Hellcat tank destroyer, for example, which we have documented fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. We have a DVD of the real commander of this tank destroyer. But it is the exception rather than the rule to know the exact history of vehicles. The military has not tracked the history of its vehicles in a way that would allow us to easily know their exact history.
BB: So you bought 500 fully restored military vehicles. Was it difficult to acquire them? And how do we acquire all these things?
DS: It was a challenge to acquire. And I never imagined that my efforts would lead to this kind of collection. I have acquired my vehicles all over the world. Probably half of the vehicles I acquired were in the United States when I acquired them, but the other half, about 250 of them, were in various locations overseas, ranging from Australia to South America via most of Europe and Canada. Some of these vehicles, I was coming across some of these vehicles that I was finding at auctions, because the museums were closing. For example, the Normandy Tank Museum closed due to financial difficulties and liquidated its collection. I was able to acquire a number of vehicles during this liquidation auction. But now I’m well known enough in the world of military vehicles that when people want to get rid of interesting artifacts, they very often contact me and ask if I’m interested before putting their collectibles up for sale.
BB: You also have weapons and all sorts of things, don’t you?
DS: Yes. I have a collection of historically significant firearms. The most important firearm is a musket which was first fired at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. It is amazing that it has not already been lost in history or in a museum. It remained in the family of New Hampshire militiaman John Simpson, who carried this weapon into battle at Bunker Hill and returned home with his weapon at the end of the Revolutionary War. It remained in his family until 2019, when the family decided to make it available in a public auction and I was lucky enough to be able to acquire it during this auction.
BB: You mentioned that it really is a museum about freedom. What is the story you are trying to tell?
DS: Key attributes of what it takes to create and now what it takes to maintain our freedom. For example, the role of manufacturing in preserving American freedom. When we think of American manufacturing, people think of the economic impact on American manufacturing jobs, for example. But I don’t hear a discussion about the importance of maintaining proper American manufacturing, refreshing military vehicles and military weapons in the case of the kind of warfare we had in WWII. Little is known today that one of the main reasons we were able to overcome so many disadvantages after being ill-prepared for World War II was the size and strength of our manufacturing economy. World War II really illustrated this clearly. And today, that lesson tends to get lost in public conversation. We therefore bring this lesson back to the fore.
Another key dynamic is the value of appreciating our veterans. George Washington said young people’s willingness to serve in future wars, however justified, will be directly proportional to how they perceive the country has valued and treated its veterans. This brings us to the example of Americans who served in the Vietnam War. They never received the level of appreciation and homage they deserved. They were often fired, and sometimes even abused, as they returned to the United States after their service in Vietnam. And regardless of the politics of the Vietnam War, it is so essential to value, respect, care for, and appreciate Americans who served in the Vietnam War, regardless of its politics. And so we talk about that at length in the museum and talk about the importance of having Americans ready to step in and continue to serve in the United States military. And if we want Americans to be ready to do it, we should take better care of those who have already done it.
BB: Well, let’s talk about the grand opening for a bit. It’s going to be May 28 at 10 a.m. Are you going to have a number of large speakers?
DS: Yes, Governor Gordon has graciously agreed to speak. We have a retired three-star general from Washington DC to speak, we have the former VFW National Commander included in our speakers, and we have a full day at the event.
We have a new gallery that we are opening in our main museum building. It’s sort of the cornerstone that prompts us to have the grand opening now. It is the last gallery that builds our first main building. And that will really kick off our start to better communicate across the country what we offer here in the museum.
We are going to make it a fun day as well as an educational day. We offer free chariot rides to our customers during the day. And we are also setting up an outdoor shooting range to give customers the opportunity to shoot some of the guns they see in our gun safe and some of the guns they hear about when they discover the history of American freedom.
BB: The museum is eight miles southeast of Dubois on Highway 26. People can learn more about the event and the museum at museum website.