The National Military Heritage Museum (NMHM) in St. Joseph, Missouri, is proof positive that one person can make a difference especially if he is passionate about it. That’s exactly the roll Franklin Flesher did when he spearheaded the museum more than 20 years ago.
Flesher entered the U. S. Army as an enlisted soldier in 1952. He was commissioned in 1958 and retired with the rank of Lt. Colonel. During his career he was Ranger and airborne qualified, and saw two tours in Vietnam — 28 years of service.
When he retired from the military, Flesher took on the duties of NMHM Executive Director and, along with other volunteers, began piecing together a museum to honor all American military personnel.
Housed in the city’s first Police Station, donated items and relics are showcased in a modest — but easy to understand — format. The building was designed by Harvey Ellis, a renowned architect of the time, and built in 1890. Its Romanesque-style was a trademark of Ellis.
“It is amazing how many objects have been donated,” Flesher says. “I even asked for a piece of the World Trade Center and received it. I thought I would get a little piece, but its more than 10 foot long.”
There are many stories like that of the World Trade Center. Flesher needs an item to complete an exhibit and it arrives in the mail. He knows what he needs, how to set up the displays and the history behind each artifact.
Touring the museum
More than 20,000 items are on display or in storage including vehicles, helicopters, uniforms, medals, equipment, models, dioramas and weapons.
Flesher, or another knowledgeable guide, begins the museum tour in the World War I area. Here, a walk-through exhibit helps illustrate no man’s land. Heavily defended by machine guns, mortars, artillery and riflemen, it was often riddled with barbed wire and land mines as well as corpses and wounded soldiers who were unable to make it back to safety.
“We have two uniforms from WWI,” Flesher says as he points to different objects in the First Lt. Albert Troxel exhibit. In addition to the uniform with original wings, the display includes flying gloves, officer’s cap, red wound stripe and three service stripes.
Also on display is a WWI US Army enlisted uniform with cartridge belt and gas mask in its carrier, wool leggings and brown shoes.
Next Flesher shows visitors a draft harness used in WWI to enable horses to pull artillery, wagons, and other equipment. “This harness was made by the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company of St. Louis, MO.”
Back in the main area of the museum there is a 1/19 scale replica of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, air force uniforms and aircraft models, and uniform examples.
Guests are then ushered to the second floor where more displays are housed.
“The museum complex consists of four buildings located in the immediate vicinity of 701 Messaine Street,” Flesher explains. “We use the other buildings for storage and restoration on jeeps and other vehicles.”
Another point of pride is the St. Joseph News Press Military Research Library which is associated with the Library of Congress and Missouri Western State University. The library has more than 10,000 books, pamphlets, maps and other documents.
Flesher says the museum participates in a lot of school tours from fourth grade to college. “We get all kinds of visitors — military, veterans, schools and the public,” he says. “This kind of diversity helps us pursue collections that will enhance every visitor’s visit.
“Our exhibits are based on artifacts and research. It amazes me every time the mailman arrives with another six or eight boxes,” he says with a chuckle. “We’re so fortunate to receive so many donations.”
For more NMHM information: Located at 701 Messaine Street. Call 816-233-4321 or check the website at nationalmilitaryheritagemuseum.com.
Accommodations: Museum Hill Bed & Breakfast, 1102 Felix Street. Built in 1885, this restored Italianate Mansion offers all the modern amenities you need surrounded in Victorian opulence. Beautifully afforded guests room and a delicious home cooked breakfast make this B&B the perfect place to stay after a day of sightseeing and shopping in St. Joseph. For more information call 816-387-9663 or email [email protected].
Restaurants: JC Wyatt House, 1309 Felix St. Built in 1891, this Victorian beauty has been restored to its former glory and is open for tour and lunch by reservation only. Meals are reasonable and delicious. Check the website www.jcwyatt.net for menu listings and price. For reservations and more information call 816-676-1004.