The Dalles finally has a museum dedicated exclusively to the military. With thousands of veterans living in Wasco County, a museum to honor locals who have served in the armed forces has long been on a community “wish list,” and is now a reality.
Earlier this month, the Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum opened at 203 E. Second Street, right next to American Legion Post 19.
The museum is a collaboration between the legion and the Mid-Columbia Veterans Memorial Committee, and was spearheaded by local residents Lisa Commander and Jean Maxwell.
Although the facility is not completed and the collection is still in transition, its doors are now open to give the public a taste of what is to come.
“Right now, it’s just a sample to get people in the door,” explained Commander, museum director. “We’ll work out the kinks and start working on the donations we’ve gotten.”
The museum will have a formal grand opening for Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
The facility is truly a community endeavor. A long list of supporters contributed goods or services to make the museum a reality, starting with the legion’s donation of space for exhibits.
Others who contributed to the project included: Oliver’s Floor Covering, which donated new flooring; The Dalles/Wasco County Library, which provided bookshelves; J.C. Penney’s provision of several mannequins, now dressed in military uniforms; Stratton Insurance with several file cabinets; and Northern Wasco County Public Utility District for $15,000 to pay for renovations such as sheet rock, lighting, painting (gold and blue for a military look), new air conditioning, and construction of a conference room.
“We just finished the space about three weeks ago,” Commander said. “We’re really happy with how it turned out.”
Wasco County Commissioner Rod Runyon, who serves on the museum’s advisory board, praised Commander for being the driving force behind the project.
“We have someone very professional and very organized, and someone having a lot of vision,” Runyon said.
“I think it’s tremendous. This is just a start. We’ll keep doing more and more.”
Runyon also singled out the efforts of Jean Maxwell, who serves as volunteer coordinator for the Wasco County Veterans’ Service Office, for her key role in helping to get the museum opened.
“She has been a sparkplug,” Runyon said.
Commander explained that she has a personal connection to the military, and that helped fuel her passion to work on the museum.
Her father’s uncle, Eugene Commander, survived the Bataan Death March in World War II, and her uncle, Tony Commander, served in the Army in Vietnam as a helicopter door gunner and crew chief.
Tony, who lived in The Dalles, passed away on Aug. 20, 2016.
“At least a dozen people on both sides of my immediate family served in the military,” Commander said. “It seems inevitable that someone in the family would work in a veterans’ museum, given the family history!”
The total space of the museum is 12-feet by 70-feet, but only about half of that area is currently available for displays.
“Our space is limited,” Commander said, adding that the relatively small space will force the museum to be creative in how it displays artifacts and other materials.
“We’ll use the space top to bottom, side to side,” she said.
“It’s all coming together, but it looks good,” added Runyon.
According to Commander, the museum will focus on military history from the Spanish-American War (1898) to the present, and once the museum formally opens, exhibits will be changed every six to eight weeks, “to keep people coming through the doors, and keep support in the community.”
There will not be a charge to those visiting the museum, but Commander said a $2 per person donation will be suggested.
Anyone wishing to donate items for possible display at the museum can bring them to the museum during the hours it is open, which is currently Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The museum has little storage space, so not every item will be accepted for display.
“We want to keep the collection manageable,” Commander said.
The official mission statement of the Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum is “to represent veterans from Wasco, Sherman, Klickitat, Skamania, and Hood River counties; honor military veterans, past and present, from all branches of the Armed Forces; inspire and educate visitors about the region’s military heritage; and educate students in grades K-12 about the region’s military heritage through the stories of its veterans.”
Runyon said the new museum will concentrate primarily on veterans from The Dalles and Wasco County, but organizers believed it was important to also include veterans from surrounding counties.
“We realize people live on both sides of the river. They live there and work here, so we don’t want to shut anybody out,” he explained.
Commander said she envisions the museum being used for many different purposes related to veterans.
“It’s not only a museum, but a community space; we’ll use it for a variety of events,” Commander said. “We can have receptions here, book signings for local veterans, and have the schools bring kids down here. We could have guest lectures and movie nights.”