By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily
DUBOIS – A facility expected to be among Wyoming’s largest museums once it opens has postponed its grand opening because of the coronavirus.
Dan Starks, who has built the National Museum of Military Vehicles, said he has been forced to postpone the grand opening scheduled for May because of delays in the delivery of some needed supplies caused by the pandemic.
“I had been preparing myself mentally to reschedule the opening,” Starks said. “Exhibit fabrication and installation shut down a few weeks ago. I don’t know when vendors will start back up or when social distancing will be behind us.”
Starks is also one of the largest stockholders in Abbott Labs, which recently announced it had developed a new method of testing for the COVID-19 virus.
He said he reached out to the lab seeking access to the test, but was not successful.
“Every member of Abbott’s leadership team is being inundated. It is a tribute to the ethics of the company that its wonderful capabilities are being made available to the public on a very principled and objective basis,” Starks said. “It is probably a good thing for me to say that I do not have any special access to the testing resources.”
Starks’ National Museum of Military Vehicles is a massive facility located just south of Dubois in Fremont County.
The $100 million self-funded project has been a dream of Starks, who bought his first Wyoming property in 2011. Construction on the new museum started in May of 2017. It is a 140,000 square foot facility, which is designed to hold 150 military vehicles.
But it is much more than a display of vehicles.
Starks, 65, is not a veteran but has such a high degree of respect for those who served that he sees this project as his life’s work. And what a life it has been.
He worked 32 years at a medical equipment company in Minneapolis, serving as CEO before retiring in 2017. The company made $6 billion per year and had 28,000 employees working on life-saving devices, specializing on heart catheters and other devices.
“At one time, we figured our devices were saving a life every three seconds around the world,” he says.
His company was acquired by Abbott Laboratories in 2017. Their web site shows Starks owns over $600 million in stock in the big international company and serves on its board.
Dan and his wife Cynthia’s life’s dream was to settle in Dubois and launch some project to recognize the service of America’s veterans. And boy, is this ever some project.
Despite the gigantic size of the facility, (you can almost put three football fields inside its walls), Starks now worries that it might be too small. The couple owns more than 400 of pristine historic vehicles from World War II and other conflicts, presumed to be the largest and best private collection in the world.Starks thinks he might only get 150 of them inside the walls.
The Starks’ daughter Alynne is the executive director of the facility.Their plan for the museum has gone far beyond just a place to display vehicles. “We want to create displays that show the landing at Normandy, the surrenders in Germany and Japan, the Battle of the Bulge, and other great moments in our country’s military history,” Starks says.
Starks sees the facility having three components:
- First, to honor the service and sacrifice of millions of Americans;
- Second, preserve the history of what happened during these wars, and
- Third, provide an educational experience.
The vast array of vehicles goes beyond the killing machines of tanks, artillery, and flamethrowers. It also includes dozens of the machines that made the wars winnable.
Starks likes to discuss how the “Red Ball Express” helped secure the victories. This was the truck-based supply chain that seemed to provide endless amounts of food, ammo, and war machines as Allied troops marched toward victory.
He wants to show how America was able to convert its massive manufacturing expertise to enable the Allies to fight two different wars in different parts of the world and win both in just three and one-half years. The new museum will show how the American ability to mass-produce cars and trucks was converted to produce tanks, jeeps, airplanes, and other war machines in record amounts that just wore down the enemy.
“Germany built beautiful machines, but they did not understand mass production like Americans did,” Starks said. “It was impossible for them to keep up when it came to replacing and resupplying their troops at key moments in World War II. We want to honor everyone who participated in this great victory. This museum will showcase that effort but showing the machines that were built and how they were utilized.”
Dan and Alynne Starks led a handful of people on a tour of the facility Aug. 1, including Lander radio station owner Joe Kenney, Fremont County Commissioner Mike Jones and retired Lander business leader Tony McRae.
Kenney said he was impressed that Starks wants no grants or government money to help with the project.
“He knows what he wants and he is going to get it,” he said. “Amazing.”
Jones said he was overwhelmed by Starks’ passion.
“His enthusiasm is contagious,” he said. “This is going to be game-changer for tourism in Fremont County and Wyoming.”
McRae said he did not know what to expect.
“I was just blown away by the scale of this project,” he said. “I can’t wait to see it after it opens.”
Alynne, as executive director, said the project will probably employ about 15 people. They have not decided on what admission will cost but one thing is sure: “Veterans will get in free! My dad insists on that,” she said.
Near the middle of the building’s interior is an amazing vault that will hold Starks’ $10 million collection of historic weapons, including a rifle fired at Custer’s Last Stand and a pistol used by General Pershing in World War I. The collection also includes 270 Winchester rifles. The facility will have meeting rooms and members of the Wyoming Legislature are convening there in October.It also has the Chance Phelps Theatre, named for the brave Dubois Marine who died April 9, 2004, in Iraq. The movie “Taking Chance”was about that soldier.
There will also be a large library with one of the world’s largest collections of manuals and other information about military vehicles.
There are over 100 tanks and other impressive war machines parked in row after row in a big field next to the new building. There is even a Russian-built MiG 21 parked in the field that was used in the Viet Nam War against American soldiers. It is flyable. Starks’ other machines are in downtown Dubois, on his ranches and stored in Salt Lake City. Besides the main museum facility, the Starks built a large building just off Main Street in Dubois to hold many of their vehicles and a shop to keep them running.
Eight years ago, their first home in Dubois was an old homestead. Then, they purchased a 250-head cattle ranch and recently they bought a third ranch, which now has 36 bison grazing on it.
“We love Dubois and we love Wyoming. This is our great adventure,” Starks said.