Vilonia military museum rebuilds, grows in tornado’s aftermath
It’s been nine years since a deadly tornado roared through Vilonia, causing extensive damage to the Faulkner County town. Among the buildings heavily damaged was the Museum of Veterans and Military History, located downtown in an old house.
“We were able to get about 70% of our stuff, but that doesn’t mean it was usable,” says Linda Hicks, museum director. “A lot of it had insulation, glass (on it) and was wet.”
Hicks and the museum’s crew of dedicated volunteers, known as “the brigade,” were not initially sure if they could rebuild on their shoestring budget. Thanks to fundraisers, donations, grants and lots of hard work, the museum reopened on 2 acres donated by Charlie Weaver of Vilonia on April 25, 2015, one year after the tornado struck. The new 40- by 60-foot building, located at 53 N. Mount Olive Road, has a metal roof and is made of hybrid blocks designed to withstand winds of 220 mph.
In addition to a new and better building, the museum has doubled its inventory of items, as well as added outdoor exhibits and a chapel. While the museum itself has changed, the mission has not.
“The museum is a tool to reach out to veterans,” Hicks says, adding that the museum provides a source of socialization for many retired veterans. The veteran volunteers lead tours of the museum and “shoot the bull” with each other over cups of coffee in the lounge, better known as the “war room,” Hicks says.
Hicks’ husband, Paul, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Air Force, and Harold Clevinger, a Korean War veteran who served in the Army, are among the volunteers who lead tours of the museum’s exhibits, which range from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The museum’s collection includes items from eight wars, with the most coming from World War II, Hicks says. That is due, in large part, to the collection of Harold Steelman of Little Rock, which the museum received after his death. Other items have been donated “from all over” from collectors and veterans’ families, she adds. Such items include medals, letters, photographs, uniforms, rifles, knives, bayonets, communications equipment, a functioning WWII generator, a tea set from the U.S.S. Missouri, where the Japanese surrendered to Allied Forces in 1945, and much more.
The museum’s volunteers welcome about 4,800 visitors each year, including students from area schools. “We’ve had people from 28 states and four continents,” Hicks says.
In addition to preserving artifacts and offering educational tours, the museum also serves as a network for veterans.
“We serve as a clearinghouse,” she says. “A lot of veterans’ families, when the veteran passes away, they have maybe a wheelchair that is something that another veteran would want. And, so, we can pass that along.”
The Museum of Veterans and Military History is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, including Memorial Day weekend. Tours can also be arranged by appointment. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. For more information call (501) 796-8181 or visit veteransmuseumvilonia.com.