A new military vehicle museum in Dubois opened to the public in August. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska spoke to owner and founder of the National Museum of Military Vehicles Dan Starks on how he started his private collection with a tank that needed to be restored.
Dan Starks: It took eight years to restore the first tank, and I got impatient with how long the restoration took. So I acquired a fully restored tank, then that gave me the bug to acquire a small number of other vehicles. And so they were being stored just for personal appreciation here on our ranch outside Dubois. And then word of mouth spread, people asked to come see this small collection. And the response to the collection was just so phenomenal and so consistent. People kept telling me, 'Oh you ought to create a museum,' and at first I said, no, I have no interest in creating a museum. But eventually, my wife and I both became aware that what we had was so appealing, and so compelling, that we wanted to share it with anyone who was interested and so we started with this one tank, and then with a small collection of maybe 30 vehicles. And today, we have the largest private collection of military vehicles in the world, over 450 vehicles.
Kamila Kudelska: You mentioned that it was so appealing and attractive for people that were coming in this story of these vehicles. So I just wonder if you can kind of tell me a little bit of why you think that is?
DS: Yeah, it's the way that these vehicles transport people into putting themselves in the shoes of soldiers who actually have fought inside these vehicles. For example, a personal look at a Sherman tank or any tank and it's kind of cool, just as a curiosity. It's a lot bigger than people think. It's impressive. And then you as a person would get more information about what it was like to serve inside one of these vehicles. You just really have a whole different level of appreciation for the service and the sacrifice of people who have served the country in any variety of capacities, in any one of the military branches. And so it's the stories that surround these vehicles and they're just like a starting burner, a springboard to all of this richness.
KK: Interesting. So you mentioned that there are vehicles from all parts of the military, all sections. Is it all American?
DS: It's mostly American. So I decided, okay, I'm not focusing on a particular war. I'm focusing on all wars. Now, it really begins with only one artifact from the Spanish American War, a few artifacts from World War I, a lot of artifacts from World War II, and then Korean War, Vietnam, the Global War on Terror, all that stuff. But I decided I'm gonna focus on the U.S. [and] all wars.
KK: It seems like you have some history in Wyoming and in Dubois, but I just wonder, why did you decide to do the museum there?
DS: Well, so this whole endeavor started as a personal passion project. And so when we decided that we would expand from personal passion to museum, the starting point was we live here, and I'm not going to put the museum somewhere where I can't enjoy it. And then on a more principled basis, when I came here, people knew I had a business background. They would tell me our economic development challenges, how do we get more of the tourists that are driving back and forth on Highway 26 to stop? When the museum idea came up, then it kind of all clicked, 'Okay, here is an answer to the question. How do we get more people to stop? And my view was, well, if I put six tanks right by the side of the road, even if people don't know anything about us, when they drive by, they're going to get a little bit of whiplash, they're going to do a U turn, they're going to stop and then there will be economic benefit to the surrounding community. And then what we aspire to is, there's no reason why we can't be a destination in the same way that the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York is a destination. Who knows where Cooperstown is? I still don't know where Cooperstown is and I grew up in upstate New York. So you don't need to know where Dubois is. If the content is attractive and compelling enough, people will come to it.
KK: And what is your favorite object, vehicle or thing about the museum?
DS: My favorite thing about the museum isn't an object. Now that we're open, and we've had more than 10,000 guests here in this short time that we've been open. My favorite thing is the gratification I get from the reaction of our guests. What I was hoping for but didn't know if it would happen. I was hoping to have people at an emotional level appreciate our military history and appreciate the history of American freedom, appreciate the service and sacrifices of veterans and their families. And that's happened. We get people coming through, you know, with tears, we get people that their conversation gets broken up as they get choked up, we get veterans who are touring through and they'll say, you got to give me a minute, they need to pause. They're really touched. And then we get people who give us the reaction that every school child in Wyoming or every school child in the United States ought to be exposed to the information here in the museum. And that response, that connection, it tells me that we're really onto something and this is more than we originally expected it to be and we're only beginning.