Growing Elkhorn museum honors Walworth County veterans
ELKHORN--Bob Webster gets emotional when he explains how he feels walking in the Veterans Museum of Elkhorn.
“I'm very comfortable when I'm here,” he said. “I have a warm feeling of gratitude for every one of the veterans whose memorabilia is on display.”
Some are still living, but many are deceased.
Webster believes the items are more than collectibles.
“Each tells a story,” he said, “a story of sacrifice.”
Webster, a 65-year member of the American Legion, was key in getting the fledgling museum off the ground. Most days, American Legion members are available to answer questions.
As he strolls through the two rooms, he points to photos, uniforms, medals, guns and a variety of items donated by veterans and their families.
They range from shrapnel removed from Raymond Hubbard, a Walworth County serviceman wounded in Iraq on July 4, 2006, to the flight suit of two-star Air Force General Grant Mulder.
Mulder is Walworth County's highest ranking military officer. Now retired, Mulder flew C-130 transport planes.
“We need to remember who the veterans are and what they did,” Mulder said, explaining why he made the donations.
Among the racks and display cases are an Iraq survival map, enemy propaganda dropped for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and World War II paratrooper gear.
Collections provide insight into both the nation's history and lives of Walworth County veterans.
“The museum brings home the point that these are local people,” Walworth County Administrator David Bretl said.
“Some veterans museums are well done, but they always have a sense of detachment,” Bretl added, explaining that items on display belonged to “someone else, someone you did not know.”
At the Elkhorn museum, local visitors are likely to recognize local names.
The Walworth County Historical Society owns the building that houses the museum and items donated by vets and their families.
A few years ago, the historical society approached the county about buying a former funeral home for exhibits and meeting space. The county gave the historical society a no-interest loan to help buy the building, Bretl said.
Bretl learned of Webster's desire for a veteran's museum during rallies to support the troops in Elkhorn.
Webster, his wife, Lavonne, and a small group faithfully honored troops and their families weekly for a decade by reading their names and the names of their families aloud.
The rallies ended in November.
“He (Webster) felt lots of veteran items were being sold at garage sales or being thrown out,” Bretl said. “He felt people did not understand the value of these things.”
Bretl introduced Webster to Doris Reinke, whom he calls “the heart and soul of the historical society.” Both have a passion for saving history.
Bretl has visited the veteran's museum and was surprised by the quality of exhibits.
“It's not just the run-of-the-mill kinds of things,” he said.
William Sigmund, a Korean veteran and commander of the American Legion in Elkhorn, donated several items. Among them are World War II model airplanes he built, a photo of himself wearing fatigues in Korea behind the 38th parallel and insulated Army boots from the Korean War.
“They don't teach these things in schools,” Sigmund said. “What we put in the museum will be there forever.”
To make the museum kid friendly, Webster and his wife donated money to buy a World War II-era jeep.
“It's something for the kids to crawl all over,” Webster said.
The jeep is in storage much of the time until space is available for its display.
Webster knows many more items telling the stories of local veterans exist.
“I know more are out there,” he said. “Walworth County has about 8,000 vets. Each one has something to add to the museum. We always welcome more pieces.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email [email protected].