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Fagen Fighters Museum in Granite Falls listed as a top Minnesota attraction

Submitted Along with being open for self-guided tours, the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum hosts a number of special events. A crowd estimated at over 800 came to the museum July 15, 2016, to hear Lt. Col. Richard Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942, talk about his experience. 1 / 4
Tribune file photo All of the aircraft and equipment exhibited at the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum is operational and regularly "exercised.'' A Curtiss P-40E Warhawk Desert Shark is moved from its hangar to the airport runway for a flight in this Tribune file photo. 2 / 4
Tribune file photo Visitors to the 2015 airshow hosted by the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum were able to check out the interior of a bomber. Visitors to the museum appreciate the opportunity to get up close to the aircraft and equipment on display. 3 / 4
Tribune file photo Ron and Diane Fagen opened the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum in the fall of 2012. The bronze soldiers depict G.I.s storming Utah Beach on D-Day. Ron Fagen's late father, Raymond, was among the soldiers.4 / 4

GRANITE FALLS — One of Minnesota's top three attractions for 2016 is located amidst the rolling farmlands of western Minnesota.

Explore Minnesota recognized the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum south of Granite Falls with an Award of Merit at its 2017 tourism conference recently in St. Paul.

The agency devoted to promoting tourism in the state cited the Fagen Fighters and Spam Museum in Austin with Awards of Merit in the category that saw the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth honored as the Attraction of the Year.

"That's in great company,'' said Diane Fagen, who along with her husband, Ron, founded the museum. "We feel real honored to even be in that group.''

Opened in 2012, the museum features working aircraft and equipment that tells the story — and serves as a tribute — to the "Greatest Generation'' who served and sacrificed their lives for their country in World War II. Two large hangars, one of them a 15,000-square-foot, brick-faced building that is tornado proof, hold everything from fighter aircraft, bombers and training craft to jeeps, tanks and trucks. Exhibits range from a Holocaust boxcar to a depiction of American G.I.'s storming Utah Beach on D-Day; the bronze soldiers are charging on sand taken from the beach itself.

Fagen said they opened the museum with the goal of being authentic and true to America's World War II experience. They were not thinking the museum might become a tourist destination.

But it is being discovered and quickly becoming a destination, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Granite Falls Area Chamber of Commerce director Mary Gillespie. She had submitted the nomination for the award.

The museum has seen a dramatic and steady increase in the number of visitors since its opening. Fagen said more than 10,000 visitors were counted from the end of May through August last year, when the museum made a deliberate attempt to track visitor numbers.

The museum's guest book includes the signatures of visitors from all over the Midwest and other parts of the country, as well as many from overseas. Air France lists the museum as among places for its pilots to visit when on layover in Minnesota, said Fagen.

No matter where they come from, visitors often tell staff they had no idea how much the museum offered and often add: "We will be sure to tell our friends,'' said Fagen.

They do that and more. Many of those who discover the museum return with friends and family in tow, said Fagen.

Many first-time visitors also tell her: "We thought we'd be here for an hour. We're going to find someplace to stay and we will be back tomorrow.''

Fagen said the museum's location at the Granite Falls Municipal Airport in the midst of western Minnesota farm country has worked well for it. People like the opportunity to make day trips to the destination and see a part of the state they might otherwise not have visited. "Seems everybody is looking for someplace to go,'' she said.

Of course it always helps to feel welcome when you get there, and Fagen said she believes that is the other reason the museum has seen such a steady growth in visitors. She credits visitors service representative Ann Hanson and her staff with doing a great job of extending the virtues of "Minnesota Nice" to their guests.

Info box:

Fagen Fighters World War II Museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, at Lenzen-Roe Memorial Airport, 3 miles south of Granite Falls on state Highway 23. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $10 for adults.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335