A childhood game of hide-and-seek yielded a find that Bob Dicey never expected: a live 75-mm field gun shell from World War I.
Dicey was 10, living in a small village in France while his father, serving in the U.S. Air Force, was stationed there.
More than four decades after the end of World War I, remnants of the conflict could be found in just about any field around that village: shells, helmets, broken pieces of rifles.
“One of the first things I ever found – I was playing hide-and-seek with the French kids – I was hiding in a ditch, all hunkered down, trying to hide, and I looked over to the edge, and there was a 75-mm field-gun shell – live – and it was right there. I was like, ‘Ooh boy!’” Dicey recalled. “I told the kids, and they were like, ‘Eh.’ It wasn’t a big deal because there were so many around.”
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But while those French kids were shrugging their shoulders at the discovery, Dicey was developing a passion that crossed eras and oceans. That fateful game of hide-and-seek led Dicey to seek artifacts from many wars, and his collection ranges from the Civil War to the Vietnam War.
And now, a century after that shell fell into a French field, Dicey is putting his knowledge and interest to work as curator of the Greenville Downtown Airport’s new Military History Museum.
The museum, created by the Military History Center of the Carolinas, will be housed in a circa-1953 building at the Downtown Airport, a building that’s being renovated through the collective efforts of MHCC members and local contractors who are donating their time and services to the project.
The Museum and Library of Confederate History in downtown Greenville covers the Civil War, and the American Legion Cecil B. Buchanan War Museum focuses on wars beginning with the American Revolution, But the Upstate doesn’t have a museum dedicated specifically to 20th-century conflicts, Dicey said.
Dicey became involved with the Military History Center of the Carolinas eight years ago, although the center itself has been around for about 10 years.
“The MHCC has been looking for a building for several years,” but it was Downtown Airport’s public relations director Lara Kaufmann who came up with the idea of turning the dilapidated, 64-year-old metal building into a home for the museum.
And next month, there will be a yard sale to raise money and awareness for the museum. The April 29 event will feature military items that have been donated by individuals and organizations. Some of the donated items will be used in museum exhibits, others will be sold to raise money for the project.
The fund-raising goal is $200,000 for the museum itself, another $200,000 to complete the parking lot that will serve the museum and Runway Park. Eventually, Kaufmann said, the airport hopes to raise $100,000 to add a spur to the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a project that would complete the Greenville Downtown Airport Community Corridor.
The donations for the yard sale have been coming in, and it’s been exciting to see the types of items people are sharing.
“The response has been incredible,” Dicey said. “We’ve had stuff from very valuable Nazi ceremonial daggers to we’ve had a few firearms, all kinds of patches and equipment, two military generators – those things weigh a ton. And recently I had a fellow email me; he has a World War II jeep. We have a lot of members in our outfit who are vehicle-related. We have vehicle people, people like me who collect memorabilia, and people just interested in history.”
The building, a stone’s throw from the Runway Café, had been purchased by the airport several years ago, and there was always a hope that it eventually might become a museum, Kaufmann said.
But time and neglect took a toll on the 6,135-square-foot building.
“When the last tenant moved out of here, the building was in really rough shape,” Kaufmann said. “They really hadn’t kept things up very well, so it might have been a tear-down.”
Club members went to work gutting the place, and Kaufmann set out to find a way to get the restoration started.
Kaufmann began emailing contractors and other companies that work in construction and renovation. In all, she got in touch with around 30 contractors.
“And one contractor stepped up and said, ‘I’d like to help a little if I can, or a lot if I can.’ He went back to his company, they said, ‘We’re on board 100 percent.’”
That company was Triangle Construction, which is how spearheading the renovation project.
“They’ve donated all of their time. Then we did the same thing for plumbers, and Roto Rooter stepped up and said that they would do it,” Kaufmann said.
In all, there are 17 companies working on the renovation project – from an architect to a sign company
“So it’s sort of like a community effort. Maybe everyone can’t donate money, but they can donate what they’re good at. So it’s kind of coming together like that,” she said.
The goal is to have phase one done by the end of March. That phase would include ramps, handicapped-accessible bathrooms, fire exits and other basic elements that would allow the museum to obtain a certificate of occupancy.
Once the building is basically renovated, they can look at finding donors to help outfit it for its eventual purpose.
“It’s interesting because two of the guys out here from Roto Rooter are veterans, and they just said, ‘This is neat,’ because they served in buildings just like this. So they get what we’re trying to do,” Kaufmann said.
In Dicey’s view, the project would never have made it to this point without Kaufmann’s efforts.
“It’s been an amazing process,” Dicey said. “The rapidity of what’s going on is just amazing to me. (Usually) you see these things taking months and years. Lara Kaufmann is the driving force behind this. She’s done a tremendous job. I can’t compliment her enough.”
Ultimately, the museum will showcase American conflicts of the 20th century, from World War I to Vietnam, with possibly a few artifacts from conflicts at either end of the spectrum: the Spanish-American War and Operation Desert Storm.
“One day I’d like to see a good display on the home front, especially the Greenville part of that,” Dicey said. “Greenville had a ton of stuff going on, not just in World War II, but had Camp Sevier that trained the 30th Division in World War I, one of the best divisions in the American Expeditionary Force, trained right here in Greenville. And of course the Greenville Army Air Base, one of the biggest B-25 training facilities in the country during World War II. And then of course, Donaldson. And the economic impact of Camp Sevier to a lesser degree, but Greenville Army Air Base and Donaldson was immense. You had the mills, but you had government money coming for those bases, and it was a lot.”
The timetable for when the museum will be completed will depend on several factors, but Dicey hopes that the bulk of it will be finished in the next year to 18 months.
Eventually, the museum will have an exhibit for each conflict, and possibly a vehicle used in that particular conflict, Dicey said.
And there will be a classroom area as well. The educational component will be largely geared to the fourth- and fifth-grade social studies curriculum, he said.
Education is an important part of the museum, but its mission is also to pay tribute to the men and women who have served in the military.
“The big part of this museum also is to honor the veterans and their sacrifices for the country,” Dicey said. “Freedom isn’t free, and a lot of them gave years out of their lives, and in a lot of cases, gave their lives. And we want to commemorate that.”