The sight of tanks rolling down the main street of Dubois would be jarring if we did not know the context: the Independence Day parade. Every July, we have been seeing just a few of the tanks, trucks, and ambulances brought out for the day by a local landowner, Dan Starks, an engineer who is fascinated by the machinery and its history.
Starks has about 250 US military vehicles dating back to World War II, the largest private collection in the country and perhaps the world. When he decided to open most of it to public view in a new museum just down the river, this has understandably provoked some conversation.
What effect will this have on our town? How will this fit with our shared image of Dubois: Remote, quiet, rustic, peaceful?
Will this be the “making” of Dubois, as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West made a boom town of Cody? (And are we comfortable with that?)
Will it be the long-sought “draw” that lures people to stop overnight n Dubois on their way to Yellowstone? Will this all overwhelm us, as the Total Eclipse did last year (but only for a few days)?
Whatever our questions, the National Museum of Military Vehicles is rising rapidly from its foundations–all 144,000 square feet of it (so far), to exhibit 107 vehicles from World War II, with a second building coming later to house about another 80 post-WWII vehicles, as well as two additional exhibits, a library, a theater, and two classrooms. The first building should be completed next May, and some of the exhibits should be more or less in place for a “soft launch” next September. After a winter of finalizing the exhibits and training staff, a grand opening is scheduled for May 2020.
Dan Starks and his wife moved to Dubois from Minneapolis several years ago, finding this to be “a private remote area where we could build a home and have a lot of privacy,” Starks said. “When we first came here, it was for the view, and the privacy, and the freedom.”
Starks said he started his work life harvesting beans and working in warehouses, and eventually turned a bankrupt medical device company into a Fortune 500 firm with $6 billion in annual sales in 130 countries. He has bought up a great deal of property in the area, and reportedly contributed large amounts anonymously for various charitable causes here.
Gradually, Starks began bringing his collection of tanks, trucks, ambulances, and other military vehicles to his property near town. Some visiting friends who saw them urged Starks to share the huge collection with others, and eventually he decided to do so.
This is not a commercial venture; he portrays it more as a tribute to the troops. “Of course, the place we should be doing this to get the most visitors would be a large metropolitan area,” he said last spring. “The main reason it’s here is because we live here … I sure as heck don’t want to have to travel to see it.”
Starks was speaking at a public forum on May 31, co-chaired by Dubois resident and Wyoming state Congressman Tim Salazar, a member of the legislative task force created to study whether the state could or should be involved in the private enterprise.
Starks very pleasantly made it clear that he was grateful but didn’t really need any help. He said that the project had already cost $20 million and would probably cost $50 million in the long run. He added that he had created a large endowment so that “this asset [will] be here when we’re in our graves.”
Earlier that day, Starks had welcomed the public to his property, to view at least part of the collection. Speaking in a rapid-fire monologue, and naming the vehicles by model number, he spoke about them with some passion.
He told how the rivets in the earliest tanks could pop inward under fire, turning them into deadly weapons that doomed their operators. He described the progress in tank technology throughout World War II—the lower profile, the increases in the armor, improvements in welding and casting, engines and transmissions and weaponry, and what this all meant to protecting the troops and to victory.
Starks pointed out a tank that was involved in the Battle of the Bulge, and went on to talk about the history of that battle. Because the US military gave most vehicles to the Allies after the war or abandoned them in Europe, he said, it’s rare to acquire one that can be definitively traced to a particular battle in this way. (He is committed to documentation. He has manuals for all vehicles in the collection, and they will be kept in a library in the museum, along with oral history information.)
I asked about the truck standing next to it, and Starks described why a new delivery/artillery hybrid was needed in the Vietnam, where it was easy to lob a grenade at a supply vehicle. An onlooker spoke up to say that he had actually used a truck like that in ‘Nam.
“You see, that’s what I’m hoping for,” Starks remarked. He wants to tell the stories around the vehicles, and to prompt memories from veterans who see the displays.
“There’s recognition,” he had said. “There’s honor. There’s remembrance. There’s a level of healing we hope to get at in the modest way that we can.”
Later, I approached a woman standing toward the back to ask what she thought. She paused. “I’m offended,” she replied after a moment. “This is so contrary to the character of the country, to freedom. To the wildlife.”
During the public forum that afternoon, she raised her concern that the museum would glorify war in a landscape of quiet and refuge. Starks (who is not himself a veteran) replied quietly and respectfully, saying that he would like to speak more with her about that in private. A politician at the dais remarked that, done well, the stories behind the machinery could bring to life the true costs of war–and might therefore help to deter it.
The new curator of the museum, Doug Cubbison, who comes here directly from 5 years at the Veterans Museum in Casper, has been working quietly in town since last August to begin the massive effort of creating and staffing a huge and unique institution in one of the most remote towns in the country.
Already, they have made some firm decisions about what they will not do, Cubbison told me.
- They will not open a restaurant or lodging as part of the museum complex, to avoid to avoid competing with the businesses in town, and they plan to coordinate with the Chamber of Commerce to direct visitors to services in Dubois. The most refreshment offered in the museum will be beverages such as water and soft drinks.
- They will institute an entry fee for general admission (veterans excepted), to avoid unfair competition with the Dubois Museum and the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center. (Starks committed to this during the May forum.)
- The gift shop will sell only books and other objects related to military vehicles and their history, to avoid competing with other shops in town.
“He’s willing to talk to anyone,” Representative Salazar said at the forum last May. “And he’s willing to listen. Someone opening a private [museum] could easily do otherwise.”
© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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