Several Michigan military museums offer fantastic displays with a variety of themes, but only one documents the unique history of the Fort Custer Training Center in Augusta, Michigan.
The FCTC is federally owned and state-operated as a Michigan Army National Guard training facility. It was built in 1917 for military training during World War I and was named after Civil War cavalry officer Gen. George Armstrong Custer. The facility trained more than 100,000 troops during World War I and has trained many more since then. The Soldiers and their families have incredible stories to tell and some of those stories, along with their accompanying artifacts, have been captured to share with visitors to the Fort Custer museum.
The museum is nestled among training facilities and offices on the FCTC property. There are currently no ‘open hours’ for public tours, in part, because FCTC is an active military training installation, but anyone wanting a tour needs only to register with a guide from the Fort Custer Historical Society and bring identification to show at the security gate when driving in. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by a knowledgeable tour guide who can assist in answering questions depending on the needs of the guest. The museum currently fills the lower floor of a renovated World War II barracks that at one point in history, housed more than 100 Soldiers. Much of the construction is intact, including a large open bay for sleeping cots, and a row of shared showers, sinks and toilets that inherently draw negative comments from visitors regarding the lack of privacy and relatively little protection from the elements – especially in the middle of a Michigan winter. But maintaining the original barracks ‘feel’ is all part of the Fort Custer ambiance. Thankfully, subtle modifications have been made to increase weatherproofing and heating and cooling systems that better preserve the priceless memorabilia inside and add to the comfort of visiting tourists and, with no entry fee required, one can hardly complain.
“Of course we would like to make more improvements,” said retired Army Col. Jim Spackman, a museum volunteer and member of the Fort Custer Historical Society that established the museum in 2002 along with a vintage chapel and movie theatre that is still used today. “We would like to expand significantly and have plans in place to do so,” he continued. “What we lack, is funding.”
Spackman has had to turn donated items away because the historical society doesn’t have the special equipment necessary to preserve vulnerable items nor restore photographs or other paper-based items that will disintegrate over time. “We don’t have the equipment and frankly, we don’t have the skills either,” Spackman said. “The historical society isn’t a group of curator-trained professionals. We’re a bunch of old military guys who care deeply about our history and volunteer our time toward preserving it. We want to make sure that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren and generations beyond them understand their roots, their state, and how the men and women who passed through Camp Custer, now Fort Custer, felt about being here, what they went through in terms of training for battle and how they lived while they were here. If we don’t take action, some kind of action, to save these memories and these items, then they will be lost forever.”
The museum contents include vintage weapons, uniforms, boots, flags, maps, drawings, photographs, letters, and other items that soldiers would have brought with them when training for a war deployment. Cigarettes, old-fashioned candy, eating utensils, pots and pans, sleeping gear and playing cards are all parts of themed vignettes within the museum that create visual appeal, drawing the observer in to be part of the scene. And if requested, a museum guide can narrate a collection making the experience even more life-like.
The second level of the museum (barracks) is used for storage, to prepare new displays, and to plan display rotations so that items change a few times each year. “There are just as many items upstairs as there are in the official museum area,” Spackman said. “Occasionally, a visitor will have knowledge about a certain battle or weapon or other item that sends us to the attic for retrieval. Sometimes reuniting a Veteran with an item from their personal experience ignites an oral history that is absolutely priceless. I’ve learned to have a tape recorder in working order at all times so we can capture those stories before they are lost forever.”
Spackman recognizes the challenges associated with a restricted-entry location like the FCTC. He says operating a museum on an active military base can be difficult, but the light in a Veteran’s eye upon seeing camp memorabilia makes the extra effort worth it. The historical society tries to schedule volunteers so that the museum can open consistently one day each week. By setting a regular day for museum visits, the FCTC gate guards are less suspicious when a carload of civilians pull up to the gate requesting entry – a rare situation that typically ends with entry denial, especially at force protection level bravo. Standard protocol requires all visitors to be registered, logged, show photo identification and oftentimes, escorted while on post, however, on the designated museum visitor day, gate security may be more relaxed and friendly.
The FCTC commander, Lt. Col. Mark Gorzynski, hopes to make the entry process easier to increase the number of visitors to the museum. “I’d like to do some advertising,” he said. “We need to get the word out that this gem of a museum exists, but it’s more difficult than it sounds because regulations dictate access to the property and prohibit commercial advertising among others. I’ve considered ways that we could open a portion of the post up on military holidays but that entails significant barricades and fencing on parts of the property and a whole host of liability, safety and security concerns. I just don’t know if something like that is possible. What I do know is that every person who has seen the museum loves it. Some visitors stay for hours recalling their own service history, whether or not it took place at Fort Custer. Some laugh at certain displays and cry at others – this museum needs to be seen,” Gorzynski said. “When Fort Custer’s 100-year anniversary arrives in 2017, I know the museum will be one of the highlights of the celebration, and I will do all I can to showcase it.”
Individuals interested in touring the museum can call Fort Custer at 269-731-6555 or visit online at www.fortcustermuseum.org.