FRANKENMUTH, Mich. (WOOD) — In a town known for chicken dinners, Christmas decorations and German heritage, an effort to make sure the extraordinary efforts of everyday men and woman who put on a uniform in service to our country are preserved.
“When we lose this history, we lose meaning and purpose behind what liberty costs the American people, or liberty around the world,” said John Ryder, the executive director of the Michigan Heroes Museum in Frankenmuth.
Opened in 1974, the Heroes Museum features more than 850 exhibits highlighting military contributions made by Michiganders.
Some of those heroes are familiar ones, like U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ralph Hauenstein. The Grand Rapids philanthropist and business leader who died in 2016 served as then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s chief of intelligence during World War II.
“All of the intelligence came through him and his department,” Ryder said.
The museum also has many names you may have never heard, like Maj. Eleanor Garen.
Born in Fennville, Garen was captured at Corregidor in the Philippines after she and other Army nurses refused to leave their American wounded behind when Japanese invasion was imminent. She became a prisoner of war. During three long years in Japanese captivity, Garen treated civilians.
When she wasn’t working, she passed time by fashioning knitting needles out of bamboo chop sticks.
“And she made my absolute favorite artifact and that’s these socks here, and it talks about the American spirit,” Ryder said, pointing out the simple knit stockings in the display.
The museum features military profiles from every U.S. conflict. There is also a section honoring astronauts from Michigan.
One thing you may notice walking through the museum is that thee artifacts, the tools of war, if you will, are up high. The focus at eye level is on stories of the people who served.
“Their actions and their thoughts and their daily lives; what they went through and what their feelings were,” Ryder said. “We don’t glorify or edify war. We tell the story of people whose lives were caught up in it. And it’s not political. It’s not were trying to drive an agenda.”
Ryder said the focus on the stories is what sets the Michigan Heroes Museum apart from other military museums.
“As a society, we don’t know about the person that the local park is named after, or the highway. We see that it was a U.S. Navy Seal, but we just drive right past it,” Ryder said. “We want to make sure that people grow to understand and respect what they did for us.”
While the museum has struggled through the pandemic, like so many of the heroes feature inside, it has survived thanks to donors who believe in the mission.
“I think Americans are happy and hungry to learn about the patriotism and the service of these men and woman that we display here,” Ryder said.