In a small Oklahoma town, big things are brewing at Post 147. On Memorial Day Weekend 2015, the Miami, Okla., post will open its museum to the public, coinciding with the beginning of Boys State, which is held in Miami.
"The reason for the museum we noticed there’s a lot of younger people not fully aware of what has taken place in the past," Legionnaire Roy Woods said. "We don't want valuable parts of our history forgotten about. Where we came from is important to where we are now and where we're going."
The collection includes artifacts from the Civil War through current conflicts, including guns, uniforms, ammunition, propaganda and even a chunk of a Scud missile from Desert Storm, Woods said.
To pilot the project, the post invited the local Boys and Girls Club for a tour. Six Legionnaires from different war eras met with about 50 children and fielded questions, Woods said.
"Some of the questions that we would take for granted that the kids came up with were really surprising. They came up with questions like 'What did you eat while you were there?' 'Where did you sleep?'" Woods said.
He described two Korean War vets explaining their uniforms as the military equivalent of long johns because of the cold temperature.
"They got it down to where the kids could relate to it. That's what I thought was so good. There's a reverse effect of this too: It's good therapy for the men," Woods said.
"We've got one item that catches everybody's attention. This is a question that came up with one of the kids. 'How often do you have to take a bath if you're out there in a war?' We've got an item here, a collapsible canvas pail, and on the bottom of it there's a shower head that turns. So you put this 5-gallon pail with water in it in a tree, then you open up the shower head and stand under it."
Even the teenagers in the group dropped their "couldn't care less look" when Woods offered them authentic helmets and hats to try on.
"Once I got the hats on their faces, that changed their look," he said. Out came the smartphones for photos. Then Woods was able to start a conversation about the different hats used for different jobs.
Another bygone piece of equipment that has a modern-day equivalent the teenagers related to were the field telephones, which weigh almost 10 pounds and "look like leather purses," Woods said.
Having objects to match with the stories piqued the visitors' interest.
"It bridged the gap. It got us into their generation but it also got them to come back to our generation a little bit too," Woods said.
Woods said Legionnaire Glenn Pitts, a World War II veteran, has been integral to starting the museum, which the post has been at work on for nearly a year.
"My favorite part was when all those kids came over from the Boys and Girls club and I saw the expression on that 90 year-old's face at how these kids asked him some very good questions, at how they wanted to learn from him.
"We think there's a big generation gap between 12 year olds and 90 year olds. That generation gap was closed. We breached that generation gap that day because they learned he was not just a forget-me-not 90-year-old man and he realized, 'Hey, these kids really do care and are concerned.' He looked like a proud peacock over there," Woods said. "I think I'm a pretty strong person but I seen the look on his face but I didn't stay in there too long because I was afraid I might get emotional. I went in the other room for a while."
There was a bonus for all the veterans, not just Pitts.
"It was so good to see how it all came together right then when those kids showed their appreciation for what we had been doing, when they started learning what we have done in the past with our military experiences and most of all what people are doing today."
Because of the success of this tour, the post hopes to have regular class visits from schoolchildren to the museum beginning in the fall.
Though things are building quickly now, the conversion of a garage into a museum space equipped with a flat-screen television and more than a century's worth of artifacts has been the post's project for nearly a year, Woods said.
The members have made donations from their own collections, as well as searching pages of eBay's military collectibles for items the museum could use, paying from their own pockets.
But it's not just Legionnaires and local kids who are getting involved with the museum. The community has given donations and interest. As local media attention grows, so do the donations and connections.
For example, a woman from more than 100 miles away donated her military nurse's uniform. When she found out there were no mannequins for display, she bought and donated two. She then wrote a check for $300, Woods said, to purchase a matching hat and whatever else the post might need.
"To me the American Legion is more than just going to a post and a bunch of us old people sit around and tell lies at each other," Woods said, laughing. "Today the American Legion is trying to be part of your community. And that's what we're trying to do here in Miami. We're trying to be part of the community."
Only three miles off Historic Route 66, Post 147 is trying to build its post to serve its community educationally and as a tourist attraction, Woods said. Read about the monument they recently installed here: http://www.legiontown.org/museum/1775/mysterious-donation-makes-tourist-...
Initially, the museum will be open 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays and Thursdays, and upon request. Woods said they are still seeking artifact donations.