Museum keeps memories alive of Sawyer Air Force Base

Museum was founded by members of local Air Force Association chapter

By Christie Bleck
The Mining Journal (Marquette)

MARQUETTE, Mich. (AP) — The Cold War is over, but the memories linger — and they’re memories that should be kept alive.

That’s one reason for the creation of the K.I. Sawyer Heritage Air Museum in the former Silver Wings Recreation Center at the former U.S. Air Force base.

The facility, though, is more than just a place to share war stories, according to The Mining Journal of Marquette.

The museum was founded by members of local Air Force Association Lake Superior Chapter 238 in 1993 when it was learned Sawyer Air Force Base was going to be shut down.

“They knew they were going to close, and there wouldn’t be anything left, and they wanted to preserve the history,” said Bob Vick of Marquette, president and chief executive officer of the museum.

The museum has moved over the years before being housed in its current site. Money and manpower continue to be challenges, but Vick said former residents love the museum.

“They thank us every day, I guess, for doing what we did, even though it’s difficult,” he said.

Vick, who served in Vietnam, knows military history well. He was stationed at Sawyer from 1977-82 as communications maintenance superintendent, taking care of the control tower and radar. Six months later, he was back at work in civil service for the Air Force.

The Sawyer base officially shut down on Sept. 30, 1995, ending an era that began in 1954 when the U.S. government negotiated with Marquette County for the lease of 5,278 acres to become the new base.

Does Vick agree with the closing?

“Well, in a way, no, but I understand why, because the base was here because of what we called the Cold War, and they had to scatter their bombers and tankers out to keep Russia from destroying everything with one missile,” Vick said.

He said when the former Soviet Union in a sense “capitulated,” the United States won the Cold War.

“Then the Air Force decided, well, it’s time to start doing things differently, and they didn’t need all the bombers anymore,” Vick said.

K.I. Sawyer is peppered with abandoned buildings, a far cry from its bustling heyday when notable events, such as the completion of a 6,000-foot runway in 1957 — the year the Soviet satellite Sputnik was launched — took place. However, the museum with its artifacts and displays gives visitors a sense of what life was like when the base was active.

Plaques and trophies are displayed at the museum, as well as old photographs and newspaper clippings, model airplanes, an F-106 ejection seat, a bomb safety pin used during Operation Desert Storm and other artifacts.

Many of the memories aren’t pleasant. One exhibit shows pieces from a Sawyer B-52H crash in 1977 in which all eight people on board perished.

However, what would an air museum be without actual planes? Located northwest of the museum is the museum’s outside static display where people can walk up to former Sawyer aircraft such as the McDonnell F-101B Voodoo Interceptor and the massive Boeing B-52-D Stratofortress. The Upper Peninsula Memorial Retreat Center also is next to the static display.

The museum not only contains memorabilia but houses a community center. The K.I. Sawyer Silver Wings Community Library, full of military-related books, also is at the facility.

Karen Manninen, a former teacher who lives at Sawyer, works at the library as well as the store.

“It’s very interesting,” Manninen said. “You meet a lot of good people.”

She also greets people at the museum, which involves a lot of interaction.

“You hear a little bit of everything,” Manninen said. “People tell you their life stories.”

Vick said the museum used to be in a gymnasium in a now-abandoned building at Sawyer. When the museum moved to its current location, however, a lot of work needed to be done because the building was left to freeze.

”But like I tell people, when G.I.s want something, they find ways to fix it,” he said.

Local pipefitters helped to make the building usable, Vick said, although he acknowledged it’s still a work in progress.

“None of us are curators, but we know what we like and what looks good, and we try to follow the rules and inventory things and all this kind of stuff,” Vick said.

He said the museum leases the building from the company Telkite Enterprises LLC that invests in Sawyer properties. Telkite wants the museum to buy the building for $359,000, which, Vick acknowledged, isn’t possible now.

In the meantime, donations and $30 annual memberships keep the museum afloat. A Crowdrise campaign to raise funds also is under way at .

Admission to the museum, which is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, is by donation. Vick said he is willing to take people — from a single individual to groups — on a guided tour of the facility.

The Cold War period — when mutual self-destruction was a looming factor — involved people, Vick pointed out, so remembering what they endured is why places such as the museum are important. He said people should not forget those struggles or history is bound to be repeated.

“It’s our history,” Vick said. “It’s what we went through to keep us out of war.”

The museum also evokes memories of a local bygone era experienced by those who led that military life, even if the people running the museum must put in a lot of time and effort to keep it going.

“To have something like this to come back to, and look at and to remember, it’s worth everything,” Vick said.