GRANITE FALLS, Minn. (WCCO) — Every day we lose more and more veterans from the Greatest Generation.
They are the men and women who played a major role in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. And what started as a past-time to honor those veterans, has turned into a museum that’s become a world-wide attraction in a small Minnesota town.
This week in Finding Minnesota, WCCO’s John Lauritsen takes us to Granite Falls to a place where history comes alive.
Yellow Medicine County is known for its pristine prairies and fertile farmland. But it’s quickly becoming a destination for something greater.
“Right now our goal is to connect the Greatest Generation with the latest generation,” Ron Fagen of the World War II Fighters Museum said.
This is the dream of Ron and Diane Fagen. What you’re seeing is unlike anything else you’ll find in the Midwest. And it all started with one airplane.
“It was a P-51 Mustang and we purchased it in November of ’94,” Fagen said.
They bought another World War II fighter a few years later, then another and another. And because word travels fast in a small town, they got plenty of visitors.
“Somewhere along the line somebody said, ‘Why don’t you start a museum? People are always coming here to look at your stuff.’ So that’s kind of how that started,” Fagen said.
Since then, the Fagen’s have bought and restored World War II planes from around the world, nearly enough for their own squadron. During the recession, they created work for their employees by having them build a tornado-proof hangar.
And they officially opened their doors to the public in 2012.
“What do people say when they go through here? This is totally unexpected. They say, ‘I had no idea.’ That’s probably the main thing we hear,” Diane Fagen said.
“Both these airframes were recovered in Russia and restored in Granite Falls,” Ron Fagen said.
What makes the Fagen’s museum even more unique is that these planes can still fly. When they put on air shows, Ron and Diane’s son Evan is the chief pilot.
“There aren’t as many P-40’s. The ones you see behind me, the P-38, there are only eight of them flying right now,” Evan Fagen said.
If these planes could talk, the stories they’d tell. But it’s not just the fighters and bombers that have become an attraction. The latest addition to the museum is as somber as it is historical.
“This is the largest Holocaust exhibit of scale in the Upper Midwest. Here in Granite Falls in Yellow Medicine County,” Ron Fagen said.
Not wanting to leave out any elements of the war, the Fagen’s found a box car in Georgenthal, Germany, and had it shipped here. It’s an exhibit now, but 70 years ago, it served a much different purpose.
“By the end of the war a significant portion of Europes’ Jews had been murdered,” Ron Fagen said.
Steve Hunegs is with the Jewish Community Relations Council. He’s travelled to the museum to visit the exhibit several times.
“Read the story board, look at the pictures, people are in contemplation. The role of the exhibit is to make people think,” Hunegs said.
And that’s really all Ron and Diane can ask for. To keep this important chapter of history alive for generations to come.
“They’ll be here a thousand years from now. And hopefully people will come and look at this a thousand years from now,” Ron said. “As we lose World War II vets, we realized we need to start talking to the younger people- so they do not forget this time.”
Ron said they bought their first plane 23 years ago as a way to honor his dad Ray, who fought in World War II. They’ve had visitors come from as far away as Europe to see the museum.
There is no charge to visit, just a suggested $10 donation.