Dixon residents aim to create veterans’ museum

Museum would complement its neighbor, Veterans Memorial Park, and would be latest in a line of honors celebrating veterans for their service.

Veterans Memorial Park commissioners Roger Willey (from left), Keane Hudson, Mike Mills and Al Wikoff are bringing a military museum to Dixon slowly but surely: The museum is seeking donations for building repair, artifact upkeep and other fixes to get it open as soon as possible.

DIXON – A group of local residents committed to honoring Americans’ service and sacrifice have something in common with the men and women who’ve defended our nation.

They aren’t giving up.

They know their task is daunting and the road ahead may be long, but they’re on a mission, aiming to bring a Veterans Memorial Park Museum to Dixon.

But like a soldier’s march to victory, reaching their goal comes one step at a time.

The museum would complement its neighbor, Veterans Memorial Park, and would be the latest in a line of honors in the city that celebrate veterans for their service.

Veterans Memorial Park is an impressive site that greets visitors as they enter Dixon to the west with a collection of military gear, including an M60 battle tank and F-105D Thunderchief fighter-bomber. One of the city’s signature attractions, Veterans Memorial Arch, stands tall and proud over Galena Avenue downtown, with roots dating to World War I.

Those sights worth seeing would be in good company if the museum earns its stripes, and a local group is promoting its plan to see that it does.

The idea of the museum was conceived four years ago, and progress has been slow but steady. Plans have been made, donations – both money and militaria – have come in, and a building has been acquired: the former home of Ron’s Automotive next to Veterans Memorial Park.

The park’s existing visitors center, the two-room Headquarters & Headquarters Co. building, has collected more than enough material to display in its two small rooms: uniforms, mortar rounds, helmets, military honors and much more.

But when Ron’s moved out of its space, Veterans Memorial Park commissioners saw an opportunity to do justice to their growing collection.

Veterans Memorial Park in Dixon.

Turning a former auto repair shop into a museum is no small task, however. It takes money and work. Repairs and remodeling need to be done, and upgrades need to be made to ensure items in the museum are preserved safely.

It also takes time, but just how much is uncertain – it all depends on how long it takes to raise the money, park commissioner Roger Willey said.

“In order to preserve the artifacts right, you have to have humidity controls and have it in a specific range so that fabric doesn’t fall apart,” Willey said. “There’s a handful of specific things to a museum that we have to have, such as having the building insulated well enough.”

The museum and park are operated by a commission through the city of Dixon. Since the park opened in 2001, it’s raised thousands of dollars through donations, raffles, fundraisers and sales of memorial stones, money that’s gone toward park upkeep and maintenance, with an eye toward future growth.

In August 2019, those eyes looked at the former auto shop and saw a museum, so $165,000 of those funds were given to the city to buy the building to use as a museum.

The museum itself is a 501(c)3) nonprofit organization, and monetary donations are tax-deductible. Donations of artifacts keep coming in, but for now they are kept in storage, many of them in boxes waiting for the day when the museum becomes a reality.

Only then will uniforms and coats come out of protective wrappings, military gear get unpacked and photos see the light of day.

In the meantime, however, volunteers are putting together their plans, never losing sight of their objective.

“We’ve got a lot of learning to do,” park commissioner Al Wikoff said. “We’re starting out small, but I can see it getting bigger. We’ve got to have some things in place.

“Even if you’re starting out small, you’ve got to have heat, the right humidity and all kinds of stuff to wrap it all in. We’re making it compatible so that when stuff comes in, it doesn’t get boxed up anymore.”

A few years ago, Wikoff, Dick Herbon and Tom Whelan wrapped up a day’s work at the visitors center and looked out toward the park and its largest artifacts. It reminded them of the many more smaller ones that were piling up inside, and Herbon had a thought, Wikoff recalled.

“Dick Herbon came up with the idea that we needed a museum,” Wikoff said. “Stuff started coming in to the little visitor center, and then we outgrew that. We were talking one day and said we needed to go bigger. We had to do something different.

“They came up with the idea and looked into buildings, and then Ron Dewey decided to sell [his building], and we bought this.”

Although short-term goals are in place for the museum, long-term goals are on the board too: The park commission owns two parcels of property on Lincoln Avenue north of its current building that it hopes to use to add on to the building.

One of the parcels has a vacant house on it that’s slated for demolition in the near future.

Plans for the museum call for displays with accompanying placards that feature information about the pieces as well as a scan code for smartphone users who want to learn more. The codes not only help point people to more information, but they appeal to younger visitors, too.

“What we envision is a scan code where you can scan it with your phone and it can give you all of the information for each display,” park commissioner Mike Mills said. “That’s what we’ve seen in other museums, so we’re learning from these places.”

Willey also hopes the scan codes will get people to learn more about the military.

“We have catalogs of information with whatever people donate,” Willey said. “One of our projects is to get it all digitized and put on a website, where people who scan something can go see all of the relevant information about it.”

One challenge to opening a veterans museum in the 2020s is the dwindling number of World War II survivors who can tell their stories in person.

Museums that opened as recently as 20 years ago were able to collect stories and artifacts while there were more WWII veterans around. According the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, only about 167,00 of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII were alive in 2022, a number that will only grow smaller.

More often than not, donations of material and the stories that come with them are done by the veterans’ family.

“[Other museums] had people who could talk to you and tell you about the artifacts and stuff like that,” Wikoff said. “We won’t be able to do that because those World War II guys aren’t here anymore.”

Even for those veterans who still are living, getting them to share their stories sometimes can be difficult. Some, especially those who saw action, prefer not to talk about their time in the service.

For those who do, however, the museum offers them a place to do it. Sometimes family members never get to know about their relatives’ service memories and wind up donating artifacts without knowing the stories behind them.

The museum’s volunteers can help bring at least some important information out of what’s been donated, such as what certain items were used for, what markings may mean and sometimes how something wound up in a soldier’s possession.

“A lot of stuff we get is from someone whose fathers have passed,” park commissioner Keane Hudson said. “A lot of vets didn’t talk about it. If they have pictures, we’ll take pictures and some literature information, but with a lot of them, you won’t get it.

“Hopefully, with what all we’ll have, maybe people will realize that we are interested in all that kind of stuff – not just the artifact itself but where did it come from. If their dad was in the Battle of the Bulge, that’s important.”

Although there’s no shortage of ambition and ideas for the museum, it’s going to take money to ensure a victory.

Donations can be mailed to Veterans Memorial Park Museum, P.O. Box 591, Dixon, IL, 61021, with checks made out to “Veterans Memorial Park Museum.” They also can be dropped off at donation boxes at the park or at dixonveteranspark.org with PayPal or Venmo.

As the park was being created in 2001, the local veterans involved in it put out a call to arms to their fellow veterans in the area to help make the park a reality, and they did. Wikoff saw it all unfold then, and he can see the same idea happening with the museum now.

“The Sauk Valley has veterans all over the place,” Wikoff said. “When we were building the Veterans Memorial Park, we called upon veterans to come and help us. It didn’t make any difference what you needed, there was a veteran who did it.”

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Cody Cutter

Cody Cutter

These days, Cody Cutter primarily writes for Sauk Valley Media's "Living" magazines and specialty publications in northern Illinois, including the monthly "Lake Lifestyle" magazine for Lake Carroll. He also covers sports and news on occasion; he has covered high school sports in northern Illinois for more than 20 years in online and print formats.