By John Lauritsen

CANNON FALLS, Minn. (WCCO) — There’s a place in Goodhue County where you can find military history dating back a century and a half.

In this week’s Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen shows us how a Vietnam veteran built the Cannon Falls Military History Museum all by himself.

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“My cousin Tom was a Marine. My cousin Dan was a Marine. My cousin Billy was in the Air Force,” said Vince Cockriel.

For Vince, military service runs in the family. It began with his grandfather, who lied about his age so he could fight in the Spanish-American War. That same grandfather kept everything from his 30 years in the Army.

“It was a treasure trove to go into his barn,” said Vince. “The door would open of our station wagon, we all would pile out and the first thing I would do is go in there. I’d find something cool and go ‘Grandpa, do you mind if I have this?’ And ‘Yeah, go ahead,’ he’d say.”

So began a life-long passion for collecting. A Marine and Vietnam veteran himself, word got out that Vince was into military memorabilia, also known as “militaria.” It wasn’t long before his basement was chock full of it — and that’s when he got an idea.

“I said ‘I really should get this stuff out for people to see,’” said Vince.

His machine shed then became his museum — a free museum, to be exact. The sign on top of a 1946 car outside of Cannon Falls points you in the right direction. Once inside, you’ll find relics that date back to the Civil War.

(credit: CBS)

“I started out, the first two years were strictly World War II. Those guys were dying at about a thousand a day,” said Vince. “The guys with their canes or whatever would walk along and go, ‘Oh yeah, I spent 30 days in Bastogne in a tent just like that.’ And the kids would walk up to me after and say ‘He’s never talked about that before.’”

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It inspired him to look for more.

“Estate sales, garage sales, flea markets, other collectors that knew that I look for this stuff,” he said.

For Vince, it’s not about glorifying war. It’s about educating. Some of his favorite exhibits are those that include the lesser-known parts of history.

“As far as the women themselves, they were under-represented for years,” said Vince.

There’s a tribute to the American Women’s Cavalry Corps, and to the history of Black soldiers, who weren’t always given the credit they deserved.

When you have something like this, the stories come to you, as museum volunteer John Opheim will attest.

“We had a guy … he was 93 years old, World War II paratrooper who came in and sat down and we spoke for about 45 minutes to an hour, sharing his stories,” said John.

It’s funny just how much you can learn inside a machine shed. For Vince, they are lessons he hopes people never get tired of hearing.

“I hope they get to see it, touch it, smell it, become familiar with it, because it just isn’t taught in schools anymore. Not in this manner,” said Vince.

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Vince’s museum is located about 2.5 miles southwest of Cannon Falls. He’s open on many holiday weekends. Click here for more information on how you can visit.

John Lauritsen