Local military museum holds historic treasures

By: Erika Avellino | Arts & Culture Editor | eavellino@mail.smcvt.edu

If you take a trip to North Campus you’re sure to notice the series of planes and tanks that line the entrance of Camp Johnson National Guard Post. What you might not notice is an unassuming building recessed from the road, one that contains fascinating treasures of local and national history. Curiosity drew me into the area, and upon entering the Vermont National Guard Museum and Library I was warmly greeted by the museum’s president, Richard “Dick” Lorenz, a US Airforce Veteran and St. Michael’s class of ‘65 alumni. 

After inquiring about his experience as a student, Lorenz reflected on his time at St. Michael’s when the solely male student population had to participate in the ROTC program freshman and sophomore year. He laughed at the weekly marches that students did on Tuesdays for two hours, “It was a very different time.” Lorenz said. He shared with me a newspaper that captured these drills and commented on the political sentiment during his time in the early years of the Vietnam war. “If you weren’t in college and you were over 18, you were going to be drafted. So it behooved you to stay in school and keep your grades up,” Lorenz said.

As we began the tour, it was apparent the vast amount of knowledge Lorenz had pertaining to the collection. Every piece in the collection contained a story, from a civil war era cannon to a “Genie Rocket”, carried under the wing of an F-102 fighter aircraft during the cold war and used as a defense against the threat of attacks by Soviet bombers coming over the Arctic. One exhibit, however, seemed to blend in with the building, and that is one of the 40 and 8 carts used in World War II with the ability to transport 40 soldiers or 8 horses. Lorenz said the rail car has been housed in a building built specifically for it since its arrival at Camp Johnson. As a result, having been inside most of its life, “it retains its original condition when it arrived by ship over 70 years ago.” said Lorenz. Lining the entry of the cart was a display of trench art created during the first world war, one which was turned into a lamp, and on the other, the words “World’s War” were etched. (shown above)

We proceeded to what he described as his favorite exhibit, a grand mural spanning a whole wall depicting the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864.  Painted by Charles H. Andrus in 1890, it depicts the moment when Phil Sheridan rallies Vermont troops halting the Confederate advance in the region and ensuring the reelection of Abraham Lincoln that same year. Incredibly, sitting right beside the mural in a glass display is a plaster mold of Lincoln’s face, which was donated by the family of one of the Vermont Adjutant Generals. A member of the family indicated they used to play with the mask which is how it became broken on the right side.

Interested in the relationship between St. Michaels and the museum, I contacted Professor Purcell, chair of the history department, to better understand their connection. She describes how 11 years ago she was drawn to the area out of natural curiosity, much like I was, and was showing her son the planes. “Then Dick came out,” she said. “And struck up a conversation.” After communicating her role in St. Michael’s as a history teacher, she soon brought her students in to interact with the World War II memorabilia. “So it was a wonderful experience,” Purcell said. Unfortunately, the pandemic had impacted more recent efforts to connect students to the museum, although some students have had the opportunity to intern in recent years.      

Mural of Battle of Cedar Creek painted by Charles Andres in 1890

Last semester, Braden Dwinnell, ‘22, an education major with a focus on museum studies, had the task of categorizing artifacts donated to the museum. He said one of the most challenging aspects of the project was finding the story behind the artifacts, as many items he received, such as a pair of boots or a pistol had no inscription or identifying markings. 

“I had a great time working there,” Dwinnel said.  “I loved talking with Dick and the others, but Dick had a huge interest in my career and was really glad that I was there to build a career in museums.” As for future internships and visits, Lorenz said he would be very open to hosting more interns from St. Michael’s.

Lorenz noted that the museum’s purpose is to honor people who have served in the military. He explained in doing this, they attempt to deemphasize weaponry and instead focus on the causes and lessons that are learned from military conflicts. Naturally not many people visit, as he described it as kind of a “niche museum.”  Lorenz added that the decreased interest may be due to the public’s changing view of the military. 

“It has a lot to do with that mindset about people just don’t want a military is what it comes down to. They don’t see the purpose of it, and that is mainly what we’re here for, as well as to show the currently serving soldier what his heritage is and where he came from,” Lorenz said. “There are a lot of little hidden gems in here”. 

Those who are able to visit would agree, it is one thing to understand the past, but experiencing it through physical relics adds a new level of appreciation for the individuals that came before. Despite being unfamiliar with military history, I was cetaintly glad that I had stopped in as learning about the past through the unique artifacts contained within the museum proved to be a valuable and personable experience. 

 The Vermont National Guard museum is open Tuesday through Friday 10 am to 3 pm.