Since 1973, North Platte residents have felt the absence of their demolished 1918 Union Pacific Depot nearly as deeply as their pride in the World War II Canteen it once housed.
Lincoln County Historical Museum leaders hope to soothe the first and stoke the second.
They want to build a new wing fronting the 1976 museum that would include a scale replica of the 1941-46 Canteen room. It would greet North Buffalo Bill Avenue motorists with a false-front replica — also to scale — of the depot’s trainside entrance.
Director/Curator Jim Griffin and Lincoln County Historical Society board members Bill McGahan and Ron Gaedke described their vision Wednesday in advance of the release of “Canteen: As It Happened,” a joint project of The Telegraph and the museum.
Their concept will be developed with help from $12,000 in local and national donations sparked by last June’s Canteen revival for Arkansas National Guard troops.
Reaction to that event, Griffin said, represented the latest of several nationwide spikes in Canteen interest since it served the last of its 6 million service visitors on April 1, 1946.
“It’s the best of what people are, and people want to cling to that,” he said. “We consider this to be more than a fundraising effort for just North Platte. It’s the whole region.”
They referred to the 55,000 wartime donors of time, money and supplies from 125 “Canteen Honor Roll” communities across western and central Nebraska and northeast Colorado.
Museum leaders have approached architects, but they said firm details, timetables and costs won’t be known until they have concept drawings to review.
“We’re going to be inventive with our fundraising efforts,” Griffin said, adding that the museum will seek major grants and individual donations.
Local governments may be asked to open doors to grants, but not to fund the project, McGahan said.
“It won’t be tax dollars,” said the retired North Platte Catholic Schools superintendent. “We’ll do it on our own.”
The Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center and the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau — also major sponsors of “Canteen: As It Happened” — plan to donate portions of their sales of the book to the museum expansion.
The book’s official release party will be at the Spike from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday. The visitors bureau also will sell copies when it debuts a 16-minute documentary on the 2018 Canteen revival at 7 p.m. May 9 at the Neville Center for the Performing Arts, 301 E. Fifth St.
“Anything that we can do to give visitors a more immersive experience into the North Platte Canteen is going to be a positive,” said Muriel Clark, the bureau’s assistant director.
The museum’s Canteen photos (largely reproduced in The Telegraph’s book) and its table model of the depot offer a rough idea of how a new wing might appear.
It would be a single story, though its front would match the original depot’s two-story height. It could roughly equal the current museum’s 10,000 square feet, Griffin said.
The current museum entrance would be enclosed and converted into a lobby for visitors entering from the north. The new wing would include a projection theater, a Canteen exhibit room and the scale Canteen-room replica.
Griffin said the exhibit room would freshen and update the current museum’s 600-square-foot Canteen display. He wants the Canteen room to include interactive displays and impressions of what volunteers and service members experienced.
“You’d walk in (and) you’d hear the soldiers talking and the ladies talking,” he said. “I’d love to have smells, so you could smell baking bread, coffee, cake.”
At Christmas, the Canteen room could be decorated as it was then, he added.
The new Canteen wing would incorporate items salvaged from the depot’s demolition — especially its trainside doors, still in use as the current museum’s front doors.
Two chandeliers in the front room also hung in the 1918 depot, and the museum owns some of the old waiting-room benches, Griffin said.
The museum already owns a reproduction of the classic Canteen sign that hung outside the depot from July 1943 until the Canteen closed. Chad Condon, owner and president of Condon Signs, made the replica and donated it to the museum, Griffin said.
The Canteen had barely opened when North Platte started receiving thank-you letters from service members and their families. They’ve flooded in after nationwide publicity, such as a 1977 TV feature by the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt and national columnist Bob Greene’s 2002 book “Once Upon a Town.”
It happened again after last summer’s Canteen revival, which gained further publicity when Greene — who wrote the foreword for “Canteen: As It Happened” — wrote about it for the Wall Street Journal.
People sent letters and donations after that, Griffin said, as did the bus company that carried the Arkansas Guard troops. Its leaders said their donation represented the money the Guard had paid them to feed the troops — before North Platte made it unnecessary.
Gaedke told about a visit last fall by a civilian contractor and his wife. He was about to leave for Saudi Arabia, and a friend already there had just read Greene’s book.
“He wanted pictures of the museum” for his friend, “even though we were closed,” Gaedke said. After taking them, “he saw our donation box for Christmas, and he just ran over and put (money) in that box. He said, ‘I have to give you something.’”
“I think there’s enough awareness of (the Canteen) that there will be interest nationwide if we get the word out,” McGahan added.