BY KATIE MATTESON
Vietnam veterans Steve Klinkhammer, Bill May, Rich Cranley and Tom Friedel are on a mission.
They form the leadership team from Racine Area Veterans Inc. (RAVI) who have begun the transformation of the former VFW Hall at 820 Main St. in Racine into The Legacy Museum and Veterans Center, a place to serve all local veterans, as well as the Racine community, and provide a home for historic artifacts and honor the military contributions of local residents.
Their vision is also that it become a place where individuals and groups can visit the Legacy Museum to learn some local history, as well as make use of the Fox Hole Lounge, Mess Hall and meeting spaces to help sustain the Veterans Center.
New signage went up in mid-January and completion of the first phase of the interior renovation of the 4,300 square foot building is expected by the end of March, when the group will host an open house to show the project’s progress.
The event will unveil the complete rebuilding of the kitchen, renovation of the dining room, installation of new windows throughout the building, re-surfaced parking lot, rehabilitation of the John Batikis Memorial Hall on the second floor (with future plans to install audio-visual equipment) and new flag pole.
The group is proud of its display in the Memorial Room honoring Racine’s three Medal of Honor recipients, John L Jerstad, Harold C. Agerholm and Laurel Salton Clark, along with other exhibits portraying community history, the stories of local veterans and their connection to various events in military history.
The Bruce Smalley Memorial Library has a collection of over 1,100 cataloged books about military topics that are available for checkout by members of the community. The library is open on Wednesdays from noon – 3 p.m.
Organizers are currently working to garner support for the next major phase of the renovation to rehabilitate the exterior of the 1851 building, which was home to several well-known Racine entrepreneurs including Isaac Taylor, Alexander McClurg, Gilbert Knapp, Jerome I. Case and Henry Wallis.
Plans for the exterior project call for the removal and replacement of the doors and stairs of the rear entrance of the building facing Wisconsin Avenue. The Main Street facade will undergo repair or replacement of the four wooden columns which reflect the 1860s Greek Revival look and style of the time, according to May, RAVI’s vice president.
As funds become available, organizers plan to move the bar and restaurant to the back of the building to triple the usable first floor space for the museum and add an elevator to provide better access to the upper floor.
Down the road, they’d also like to develop the outdoor spaces with a patio, service building with a kitchen and bocce ball courts.
Military organizations affiliated with RAVI include American Legion Post 310, American Legion Post 546, American Veterans Post 120, Disabled American Veterans Chapter 9, Korean War Veterans of America Chapter 227, Marine Corps League Agerholm-Gross Detachment 346, Navy Club U.S.A. Ship 60, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1391, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9948, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10301 and Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 767.
May explained that the new organization was formed in 2006 to help “shore up” the local veterans groups so they could take on management of the property owned by the VFW, which the group could no longer sustain due to the lack of resources and aging membership.
After RAVI was organized, two additional properties, 810 and 820 Main St. were donated to the project by supporting veterans clubs and 812 Main St was donated by the late Mrs. Ehrlich.
The leadership conducted a market study for their plans to build the museum on the property and went to work on fundraising for the $4+ million project. Unfortunately their plans were thwarted by the Great Recession in 2008 and during the following years interest for the project waned.
“Those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are more likely to keep in contact with the guys from their unit through an electronic connection,” May said. They told us “we’re not interested in hanging out with guys in funny hats telling war stories over a few beers.”
The vets currently involved in the reinvigorated project have taken the reins with full knowledge that the next generation of veterans seem less interested in the camaraderie offered by membership in traditional veterans groups.
The new RAVI leaders have focused their energy on telling the story of Racine veterans, while reassessing how best to serve the needs of the next generation of veterans.
Klinkhammer, who serves as RAVI chairman of the board, wants the community to know three things: (1) The Legacy Museum and Veterans Center is open to the public and serves as a steward of the community’s military history. (2) Extensive work has been done on the building since RAVI acquired it. (3) The community is invited to get involved in the project by donating artifacts and sharing stories about local veterans and help fund the project with online tax-exempt donations to racineveterans.org or mailing a check to Racine Area Veterans Inc., 820 S. Main St., Racine, WI 53403.
The Legacy Museum and Veterans Center is open every day from noon until club close. For more information, call (262) 635-0120.