The Roundup: A Conversation With Dan Starks, Founder of the National Museum of Military Vehicles

This week Wendy Corr talks to Dan Starks, the founder of the $100 million National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois. The museum houses the world's largest private collection of over 500 fully restored military vehicles.

Wendy Corr

February 17, 202429 min read

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The Roundup: A Conversation with Dan Starks

Wendy Corr

Well, hey there, folks, welcome to The Roundup! We’re a Cowboy State Daily podcast. I'm your host, Wendy Corr, and we feature perspectives, voices from people who are interesting in Wyoming.

That's what our editor is always saying, ‘Who are we going to talk to that’s interesting?’ Well, let me tell you, folks, this is going to be an interesting conversation. 

Today we're talking with Dan Starks, who is the founder of the $100 million National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois. The museum houses the world's largest private collection of over 500 fully restored military vehicles.

It's a relatively new museum, and I'm so tickled, Dan, to have you on today and to talk about this, and to talk about you and your story as well, and how you found Wyoming and why you decided to make this your home, and to focus on this really, I think, obviously a very popular topic. 

Tell us about you, Dan, where did you come from?

Dan Starks

Well, I spent 32 years in the medical device business based in Minneapolis/St. Paul in Minnesota. So that was my big job. I've retired from that beginning in 2017, and now I'm spending most of my time on the museum. 

Wendy Corr

Tell me, why the museum? Where did you come up with the idea for the museum. 

Dan Starks

It built over time. And it brought together a lot of different aspects of my life experience. When I was younger, when I was just a little kid, I used to play toy soldiers. I used to play toy guns. I always liked reading about American history, American military history, in particular - the Civil War, the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War. And so it's always been a passion of mine for reasons I couldn't explain. 

And then when I came out of college and came out of law school, I went into business, and while others went into military service, that got me away from my passion for American military history. But as I came to the end of my cardiovascular medical device career, it gave me an opportunity to come back to my roots, and my lifelong interest in American military history. 

I started out with just one derelict World War Two Sherman tank, it was literally a 30 ton paperweight. I had no idea a civilian could own a tank. I got an opportunity to buy this rusted out gutted, nonfunctioning tank for $50,000 in 2010. And I had a fantasy of finding somebody who could restore this tank so that my wife and I could drive it in the Dubois Fourth of July parade. So that's how I got into all of this - I wanted one tank, I wanted to drive it and I wanted to be in the parade. 

Four years later, 2014, I hadn't made any progress getting this tank restored. I was impatient, so I bought a second tank that already was restored and, and drove it in the Dubois Fourth of July parade that year. 

I joke with people that I was brand new to tanks, and I didn't realize that that very first tank I bought, which now is restored and drivable, I didn't realize that that was a female tank. And I didn't realize that the second tank I bought was a male tank. And in my naivete, I parked them next to each other on my ranch, and they multiplied into what today is a 500 military vehicle collection, the largest private collection in the world.

 But it all started with just me wanting to get one tank restored to help celebrate American independence.

Wendy Corr

You have 500 vehicles - boy, those tanks did multiply, didn't they? (laughing)

Dan Starks

Yeah, they did. And what happened was, I had a point where I probably had 30 military vehicles or so on my ranch, and word of mouth spread, people would ask if they could come see my collection. And I would always say yes, if I could, but that expanded, so that I was hosting as many as three private visits a day, day after day after day, on my ranch. 

And while I enjoyed sharing what I had, and while I found that the stories surrounding these vehicles really resonated with visitors, I couldn't scale it, and it wasn't sustainable for me to devote that much of my time every day to private visits. So my wife and I decided, well, let's get this off our private property. Let's make it a public event, and let's make it available to people that don't have my private cell phone number. And that led to, okay, I guess that'll be a museum. So in 2016, we decided to transform from just having a private collection on our ranch to having a public museum that we could share with anyone interested.

Wendy Corr

And do you have partners in this or was this just you and your family that said this is what we're going to do? 

Dan Starks

Yeah, just my family and me. So we funded the museum with $100 million of our own family money. And then I've been driving this the way that I started. I started just me working on it, I took graph paper and a number two pencil and measuring tape and measured the dimensions on my vehicles, and created a scale on my graph paper and started laying out, ‘How many vehicles could I put where, and in what order, and to tell what stories?’

And I did that up from about the middle of 2016 until 2018, when I thought, ‘Well, this is about as far as I can take on myself.’ And I went to Randy Richardson in Cheyenne, Richardson Construction, and I called Randy, ‘Here's what I want to do, Randy.’ Randy both is a design firm and a construction firm, and I told Randy, ‘Can you help me make this real,’ and Randy did.

So he took my graph paper drawings and turned them into architectural drawings. And we broke ground on the museum in May of 2018. And along the way, I hired another person to work with me, a historian to help me develop the stories. And along the way, I hired a museum exhibit design firm, and over time, a little bit of a team built up to help create what's here for everybody to enjoy today.

Wendy Corr

That was what I was going to ask - you had to have some people who have the knowledge in these things, and not just the passion that you have for these military vehicles. What a great team, because the museum itself is so professional, and so well put out there. 

I've not been fortunate to actually come to the museum, but you've got a YouTube channel and a Facebook page, and you have pictures and videos of the things that you're doing there, and of these exhibits. Tell us a little bit about how you got started doing the social media thing, and really reaching more people that way.

Dan Starks

Well, it's been the same kind of exploration as just doing the museum itself. I mean, I had no prior experience with a museum, you know, just groping in the dark, figuring out step at a time how to do it. And it's the same thing with the social media. I kind of call myself a Luddite - as I told you on the design side, I used graph paper and a number two pencil. So I don't use any social media and I don't even really understand it. But a little bit at a time, it's a matter of getting good teammates, who can add additional expertise and additional experience, that's a big part of it. Another part of it is just not being afraid to figure something out starting from scratch.

And so on the YouTube channel, it became clear to us that there's a lot of interest out around the world, on military vehicles. And the vehicles themselves are not the purpose of the museum, but if you carved out the vehicles themselves, there's a whole community out there that just eats up any information they can get about these military vehicles, particularly World War II vehicles. And so you know, it's kind of an extender. Last year, we had 40,000 people come to visit the museum, but we posted our first significant Sherman tank video just a month ago or so. And I forget what the count is exactly, but we have something like 161,000 views of it. 

So the idea that we could really leverage the experience we've created here, and reach out and touch so many other people that may never get a chance to come to the museum, or that may come to be inspired to come see more completely what it is that we have here, because they've seen a video - all of that was a no brainer. So you know, we're not very good at social media yet, but we're getting better, every new step of the way. 

Wendy Corr

Well, I think that your social media presence is fantastic, because it's not just ‘Look at see see the exhibit that we have here.’ You're telling stories, you're really telling the history. You've got a Korean War series going on right now on your social media - tell us about how you choose what parts of the museum you highlight. 

Dan Starks

Sure - well, the starting point would be the mission of the museum. And when visitors come and I'm able to be the person who gives them a tour, I always start out telling people, ‘You know, we're the National Museum of Military Vehicles, but we're not about our vehicles.’ And I tell them a little bit tongue in cheek, but more serious than not. We're running a bait and switch operation here.

We talk about the vehicles, people get lured in thinking, ‘I've never been that close to a tank, that’d be kind of cool. I'll spend a few minutes of my day doing that.’ And again, that's the bait. But the reason we're here, the mission of the museum, is to honor the service and sacrifice of American veterans and their families. That's point one. 

Our mantra related to that is, we make every day here Veterans Day. We make every day here Memorial Day. 

The second major part of our mission is to educate the next generations on the history of American freedom. And there, there's such a vacuum, in today's American educational system. It's shocking to me, and I'm not in that system any longer. And so I have second and third hand information about it. But I've been stunned to have younger Americans in their 20s, they're done with their schooling, come to the museum - sometimes we will have some kind of a relationship where I'm giving them a private tour - I had a group of graduates from the Los Angeles School District in their 20s, a nephew and some of his buddies, and so I was given them a private tour. And I started out saying, ‘So how much did you learn about this in school?’ I didn't want to tell them things they already knew, and I didn't want to talk over their heads. They told me they had not had a single American History course. I'm not talking about American military history. I'm saying they hadn't had a single American History course. And they knew nothing. They never learned anything about World War Two, they didn't know anything about it. 

And that's just an example. And so you know, the cost to the United States and the cost to our society that costs all of us on a citizenship basis - we've got an ever growing number of Americans who don't know anything, I mean, literally anything, or know next to nothing, about what are some of the key ingredients of American freedom? Is American manufacturing connected to American freedom? Or is American manufacturing just an economic discussion?

And it's the former, I mean, just, you know, loud and clear. And if people don't know how critical strong American manufacturing is to military capability, which then means American freedom, we're going to end up, you know, with good and good faith and good hearts, but with inadequate information, we're gonna lose our freedom. I mean, that's a pretty big deal. 

And then also, you know, you get people that, if they haven't learned our history, they're very vulnerable to others coming in with misinformation. And you have no way to evaluate, ‘Well, you seem convincing to me, I guess I'll believe what you said.’ And it's not true.And so, we want to be part of the National Education, part of the national discussion, just to put information into the public conversation so that, regardless of people's politics, they have an opportunity to make better informed decisions than if they're operating in a vacuum. 

So that's why we're here. We're here to educate next generations on the history of American freedom. And we're here to make every single day Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The vehicles are incidental to all of that. 

So when we pick stories, we pick stories that tend to support our mission. And doing a pure vehicle story, that's not really our mission. But it's collateral, and it's synergistic. So we're happy to help catch the attention of people and help satisfy their interest, and then maybe help draw them into additional information that is more germane to the two main themes of our museum mission here.

Wendy Corr

So you're in Dubois, let's talk about your location here real quickly. You're in Dubois, which is kind of off the beaten path for most tourists. But yet, you've got 40,000 visitors that came to see you last year. How do they find you?

Dan Starks

Sometimes just by driving down US Highway 26. And you know, kind of getting a crick in their neck as they jerk around to say, ‘What in the world is that?’ And so that's the starting point. And we'll build from here.

So we got 40,000 visitors last year, serendipitously, we got 40,000 visitors because people drove by, we got 40,000 visitors from word of mouth. We got 40,000 visitors from a little bit of media coverage, as people wanted to share with their audiences, what in the world is going on there in Dubois. And it's just a start. 

But the reason we are here in Dubois is, my wife and I came out here to get away from it all and retire. So I was chairman, president and CEO of a Fortune 500 global medical device company, we had 28,000 employees, 6 billion in annual sales. We did business in 130 countries. And all of that was gratifying, but it also was really wearing. And so as I was coming to the end of my career and getting older, it's like, ‘Man, I'm taking a beating here with the stress, with all of the schedule and stuff.’ And so my wife and I decided, hey, let's just go chill. And we decided, let's find something in the Rocky Mountains.

And we never picked Dubois - what we picked was the Rocky Mountains. And so we were looking for a getaway in any one of the Rocky Mountain states, we wanted to enjoy the nature, the scenery. We wanted the freedom, we wanted the culture, of kind of, Western people, practical, no ‘airs,’ you know, just kind of down home and all that. 

And we just stumbled across, so it was an internet search, we looked in a number of states, but internet search, the old Henthorn homestead just outside Dubois caught my attention. We came to look at it and said, ‘This is what we're looking for.’ And so Dubois came with it. 

Now, that was 2011, we had no intention of doing a museum. When we decided to do the museum in 2016, it had to be where we lived, because this is entirely ours. These are all my vehicles, these are my firearms in our weapons vault. And I wasn't going to send them off, and to me, I wasn’t going to drive to the museum itself, so it had to be where I live. And originally, my comment was, ‘Well, I'm doing this to share it with people who are interested - if nobody's interested, that's okay.’ 

You know, this isn't a business venture. This is just making it available to people. But it actually ends up being a really good location, because of the tourism here in Wyoming and of the international draw, certainly national and international draw of Yellowstone National Park, Teton National Park, millions of acres of National Forest, all the dude ranches, and the hunting and fishing and the snowmobiling. So there's just a lot of people driving right through Dubois. 

And when we first came to town, people knew I had a business background. And so they just thought I might have answers they didn't. They were wrong. I didn't have any answers. But they said, ‘Our big challenge here in Dubois is everybody just drives through, how do we get more people to stop?’ And I said, ‘I don't know any more about it than you do.’ 

But when we decided to do the museum, you know, one of the early additional questions we asked ourselves was, ‘If we put the museum here, will it be welcomed? Or will it be intrusive?’ And because we didn't want to do anything that would be disruptive or intrusive or not welcome to the vast majority of people, it occurred to me then, well, this is the answer to the question people asked us in 2011, so many people driving by.

And I said, ‘I bet if I put six tanks right in our driveway, you know, at the museum's driveway entrance along Highway 26, I bet people will stop that were not otherwise planning to stop.’ And so it ends up really being very good. 

And then I also kind of add to it - my role model is the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, New York. I grew up in upstate New York, Cooperstown is in upstate New York. I still don't know where Cooperstown is. It's in the middle of nowhere. But nobody is deterred from going to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame by way of saying, ‘Cooperstown?’ You know, I mean, they go there. It's a destination.

And the exactly the same thing I think is going to happen here in DuBois. And it's even better than Cooperstown, because of all of the surrounding attractions that can be added to an itinerary for anybody who's really making a destination trip to Dubois to experience everything we have to offer in the museum.

Wendy Corr

So the response from the locals has been very positive, then.

Dan Starks

Yeah. Now you as you might imagine, in a group of people, you get every kind of reaction, including, you know, the reaction that - one reaction that strikes me a little bit, there's always people who just don't want change. But but that's a very temporary kind of bit of feedback, because as soon as the museum is part of the status quo, they don't want to see the museum leave, because they don't like change. So there's a little bit of, ‘Hey, I don't know what this is gonna do.’ 

You always get a fringe element that is just hostile to the military, hostile to the idea of American history and to what our history is, and American freedom and stuff. But the vast majority of people have been extremely appreciative and just glad to have us here, and glad to have this experience for their family and friends and community, and glad to have the economic benefit to the community as well. 

Wendy Corr

You talk about change - you didn't build the museum and then just say, ‘Okay, that's it. Here it is.’ You are constantly changing it. I was just reading about your tank restoration. This sounds fascinating.

Dan Starks

Yeah, it's another thing that just kind of evolved along the way. So you know, I buy this $50,000 paperweight, I don't I know anything about what kind of tank restoration resources are out there. So I started exploring tank restoration resources. There aren't all that many available. And a lot of them are just all tied up, they can't take more work. That was what I found initially. 

So I did eventually find a number of tank restoration resources, shops and things. Some in the United States, one in particular in the Netherlands, in Europe. And so I started out getting my vehicles restored by these other companies. But I've got, you know, two decades of restoration work to do. And that's if I don't expand my collection, and that doesn't count maintenance of already restored vehicles. So I saw that I needed to add to these third party restorations resources with my own internal resources. 

So then I got out a graph paper and a number two pencil and mapped out a footprint and spaces inside a restoration shop. Not really knowing if I was on the right track, because I've never worked in a shop. I'm a liberal arts major and a historian and a medical device guy. I know nothing about shops. But I mapped out a 47,500 square foot restoration shop, I went to Randy Richardson and asked him if he'd build it for me. And he did. And after the shop was up, I started looking for people to work in it. And as it turns out, the design was solid. 

And we now have, I've got eight people from all kinds of backgrounds working full time in the shop, and we've got a world class restoration shop capability. It's not legally part of the museum. The vehicles all legally are my vehicles, they're on loan to the museum. So I couldn't have museum resources, work on my personal stuff. So the shop is actually just mine, outside of the nonprofit entity of the museum. I fund it with after-tax dollars to just work on my personal vehicles that I then lend to the museum. So that's kind of some of the complexity there. 

But again, the people that are working in the shop, I mean, we've got world class talent - our shop supervisor is retired from the Marine Corps, as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 after 24 years in the Marine Corps, and throughout his entire marine career, he worked on military vehicles. So I mean, he just knows all about it. We've got other really good talent out of Lander, out of Riverton, out of DuBois. And you know, people say it’s the best job they ever had. That's just all a win-win. It's a lot of fun. 

Wendy Corr

And so obviously, you're bringing jobs to Dubois - and full time, well paying jobs to DuBois. Again, that's a big deal.

Dan Starks

I saw a report that between the businesses that my wife started - she founded and created from scratch and built Nana's Bowling Alley, a bowling alley and bakery with a diner and an arcade, nd she also has an old time photo business that she created from scratch - and we have a cattle ranch, a working cattle ranch, we raise Black Angus and we're also raising American bison on separate land as part of that total operation. And you add all that stuff together, I'm told we're the largest employer in Dubois. We employ well over 60 people all together. 

Wendy Corr

Yeah, I can see where you'd be the largest employer - which of course, you know, you came to Dubois to retire. 

Dan Starks

Well, it was okay for a while. The fond memory is, once we established the beginnings of a small cow calf operation, including growing our own hay, I got such a thrill out of sitting in a tractor going two miles an hour, all day long, back and forth and back and forth, and having nothing else going on -  just looking at you know, sand cranes landing and doing their mating dances, and looking at wildlife coming out and eating my hay, and I had my dog in the cab with me and a thermos of coffee, and I’m relaxed. You know, it was perfect. It's like, I can't think of a better lifestyle, than just relaxing and chilling. But then, you know, things just evolved. I mean, I didn't plan on the museum, it just kind of happened. 

Wendy Corr

Inspiration hit. So there are so many different ways that you have told the military story. Where do you find your ideas for more exhibits? And how many more exhibits are you planning? What's the future of museum?

Dan Starks

Well, the museum today, we have very comprehensive coverage. And I mean, of course, it's selected and curated. It's not everything. But we do a good job of telling the story of the American experience in World War Two, the American experience in the Korean War, and the American experience in the Vietnam War. We do a decent amount of basic storytelling about the American experience in World War One, but not at the level of the other three wars. We touch on the American liberation of Grenada, the American liberation of Panama. But we would like to keep going, we would like to be able to talk about more recent chapters in the history of American freedom - to talk about the two Gulf Wars, to talk about the Cold War, to talk about the global war on terror. But we're completely out of space here. 

So this main building is 140,000 square feet, we have a secondary building, 20,000 square feet with conference facility, catering, kitchen, exhibit preparation, a few exhibits in there. But in order to continue our storytelling into additional genres of story, we need another large building. And so, we have room here on this campus to create another building the same size as this current main building, the limiting factor initially was, well, there's not enough labor in town to staff that kind of expansion of the museum.

The locals, the old timers, tell us that that's been a decades-long challenge here in Dubois, is not enough labor. And the reason for not enough labor, is not enough housing. And so people graduate from high school, they want to stay but they can't unless they want to keep living with their parents, they don't want to keep living with their parents, they can't get jobs, so they go elsewhere. And so housing is that underlying challenge. 

And so we've decided, the next thing we decided to do here was to do our part of tackling that housing challenge. So we've bought some new homes in our golf course subdivision, a couple of four bedroom homes and a three bedroom home. And we just finished and opened a 24-unit apartment building here, right in town, with people moving in effective December 1. The idea was, it's not employee housing, it's housing for the community, with the idea that it all works out in the end, we just need more total housing. And so, we needed to do that first. 

And then the next thing is, there really do need to be more hotel rooms here, more motel rooms here. And you know, we've been hoping somebody would build a motel to help expand tourist accommodations, because if you visit the museum at our current size, and you really want to get the full experience, it is a two day visit. When you buy one of our tickets, veterans are free, but when you buy one of our tickets, it's good for two days, because that's how long it takes. So what sense does it make to double the amount of experience people can take in, if they can't stay here overnight. 

So it's a whole bunch of things that have to happen to really expand the museum. And I tell people if my money holds out, and if my health holds out, I aspire to knock these things off one at a time and be able to expand the museum. If I run out of money or if my health falters, and I don't have the energy anymore, we'll leverage what we already have in place.

Wendy Corr

So you just mentioned talking about your future - how many hours a day do you spend at the museum? Are you there all day every day? Or do you get away every once in a while?

Dan Starks

Most of my work involving the museum is not at the museum. Most of my work is in my office, I have a home office, most of my work is in my office. I've got a lot more resource material there in my office, so I get more done there. But I'm at the museum every week. I give tours every Saturday with the exception of when out of town or something like that. And then I will often give tours, sometimes I'm giving as many as four tours in a week, sometimes I'm only given tours on Saturday and no other tours. So I have to be here for the tours, I have to be here for certain meetings, I make a point to be here to wander around and to, you know, mingle with people and see what's going on. 

But the content development and program development work that I do, and that's what I primarily spend my time on, I do that off site, rather than do it sitting here inside the museum. 

Wendy Corr

But because of your background, because of your obvious passion for the topic, that probably consumes a lot of your time, but it's time well spent.

Dan Starks

Yeah, I don't have enough time in the day. I mean, so I serve on some boards of directors. I'm a member of the Abbott Laboratories board of directors, Abbott purchased my medical device company, St. Jude Medical, and in 2017, Abbott invited me to join their board. So I keep my fingers in the medical device business that way. 

I'm also a member of the Army Historical Foundation board of directors that supports the National Museum of the Army. And I've just been invited to join the board of trustees of the Army War College as well. So my experience with museums and my experience with American military history is kind of opening doors for me to have some additional new experiences.

And between that and just other stuff going on, I don't have enough time in the day. I have to triage and figure out, what am I going to be able to get to, and what am I going to have to just let slide. I'm always feeling bad about people leaving phone calls or sending an email, and it's like, I just can't get to that. It's not arrogance, and it's not to disrespect anybody. It's just, I can't do that. So that's my retirement.

Wendy Corr

Lucky you. But obviously, it's something that you chose because it is a passion. It's another chapter in your life, what you're sharing with all of us here in Wyoming and the visitors that come through. What are the hours of the museum? Are you open year round? 

Dan Starks

Yeah, we’re open year-round, we're open seven days a week during the tourist season, which is, you know, more or less, Memorial Day weekend until October 1. The rest of the year, we're open five days a week. We close on Mondays and Tuesdays, but otherwise, we're open every day from 9:30 until 5:00. 

Wendy Corr

And your website, that's probably the best place that people can find out more about the museum? 

Dan Starks

Yeah, our web site designer is our Director of Communications, Craig Blumenshine. He’s well known here with his PBS Chronicles, and other PBS experience before he came to help us full time as our director of communication. So Craig created a wonderful website and, you know, a good plan-your-visit and lots of good information to help people plan in advance what they might do when they come here.

Wendy Corr

Well, Dan, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thank you for letting us in on the background and the reasons why this amazing museum has come to this particular corner,a nd that spot in Wyoming. You've been a gift to Dubois and a gift to people in the entire state. Thank you for what you've brought to us.

Dan Starks

It's my pleasure, Wendy, thank you for having me on your program. 

Wendy Corr

Thank you for joining us. And folks, if you want to know more about the National Museum of Military Vehicles, please go to their website. It's an easy Google search. You can go to their Facebook page, go to their YouTube site as well. There's all sorts of great resources there to find out more about the museum and all the research and our very, very important American history. 

Dan, thank you for being with us today. And thank you folks for tuning in to our podcast, The Roundup. I've been your host Wendy Corr. Tune in next week when we talk to another amazing Wyoming personality about the news and the issues and the views and the experiences that are important to you. Have a great week.

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Wendy Corr

Features Reporter