Giving life to the stories of local vets
For the past seven years, Jon Lindstrand and volunteers have spent and entire day before Veteran's Day setting up his massive collection of wartime items for public display at the Willmar City Auditorium.
After the holiday, they take it down again.
Last year, a question dawned on them: why don't we find a place to set this up permanently?
From that came the Central Minnesota Veterans Historical Council, a group of area veterans and other community members who hope to create a military history museum and veterans center in the area featuring Lindstrand's collection.
The council envisions a center that serves as a regional hub for military veterans and visitors alike. Along with a display of Lindstrand's collection of old military uniforms, weapons and other memorabilia, the group wants a one-stop information desk for veterans, a conference room in which veteran's groups could meet and a military reference library.
"The group wants more than a museum," said Lindstrand.
"This would be a strong regional opportunity."
The council is currently shopping around for a suitable location to house the center. At the top of their list is the old airport terminal in Willmar. The terminal's size, old ties to the military and central location would make it an ideal spot, he said.
The building, however, is currently under a purchase agreement between the city of Willmar and Bergh's Fabricating, which plans to demolish the building for expansion.
But council members are watching the status of the terminal closely. It is currently tied up in mitigation between the city and the Federal Aviation Administration, which won't release it for sale until the State Historic Preservation Office rules on its historic significance.
Even so, said Willmar planning and development services director Bruce Peterson, the building is not currently up for grabs and likely won't be in the foreseeable future. Even if the Historic Preservation Office decided the building could not be demolished, he said, Bergh's Fabricating would still have first dibs on purchasing it for other uses.
"At this point, it's not an available building," he said.
Other buildings around the city could also be a possibility, said council member and Vietnam veteran Ron Mackedanz. Any building that was within the group's price range and big enough to house Lindstrand's collection would work, he said.
"We're looking for something that fits with what we want to do," he said.
In the completed center, a conference center would provide a place for veterans' groups to meet and a reference desk would have information on hand for services available in the area to veterans, said Mackedanz.
For visitors, the museum would be open on certain holidays and special weekends throughout the year, but it could also open specifically for school field trips or special tours, he said.
In an area where no museum of its kind yet exists, the display would be a great educational tool for people in the area about the sacrifices war veterans have made, he said.
Mackedanz, who himself was injured twice while serving in Vietnam and was awarded two Purple Hearts, said that in his own experience, it's the children who benefit most from hearing stories like his.
"The kids don't ask questions right away once you talk to them," he said. "But after awhile, they start to, and the time goes too fast."
Jon Lindstrand was a child himself when he started his military collection. He was 5 years old when one of his neighbors, a World War II veteran, gave him a military helmet liner and some leggings.
Over time, Lindstrand amassed more and more military items, from war medals to sleeping cots, to winter coats.
"I collected everything that wasn't nailed down and some things that were," he said.
While Lindstrand's collection of material items grew, he slowly began collecting the intangibles that gave them meaning -- the stories of the veterans who carried them. First he jotted them down in shorthand. When he found that he couldn't write fast enough to keep up, he switched to keeping audio and video records.
Those stories, said Lindstrand, will be an integral part of any museum that is built with his collection.
"The stories are just as important -- more important actually -- than the items themselves," he said.
Lindstrand said that collections like his are important because they provide unfiltered, firsthand accounts from veterans themselves, free of Hollywood sensationalism or political rhetoric. Since war veterans often don't wish to talk about their experiences with those close to them, displays like his can give family members some perspective on what they went through, he said.
"A lot of people will wander into the exhibit, see an old picture and say, 'I didn't know he served.' A lot of vets tend to be very quiet about their experiences," he said.