VILONIA — The Vilonia Museum of Veterans and Military History became a casualty when the deadly tornado tore through Vilonia.
Volunteers salvaged what they could, carrying uniforms, mannequins and even a machine gun in the dark.
Linda Hicks, 61, of Conway, the museum’s founder, and her husband, Paul, 67, had to climb over a fence and a large tree to get to the building on College Street.
“We got a lot of stuff out. A lot of things were in pieces,” Linda said.
“Anything paper we lost, letters,” she said. “We lost a lot of money, a lot of uniforms were badly, badly damaged, and we do not know if they’ll be salvageable or not. A lot of mannequins were severely damaged. We bought them all. Mannequins are about 150 bucks apiece.”
The museum, which opened in November 2011, had uniforms, guns, photographs, letters, medals and more, all donated by veterans of various wars or their families.
Linda said the April 27 tornado destroyed her son’s house in Mayflower, but her son and his family were safe at her home.
“There was nothing we could do on that end, really,” she said. “We knew we had to try to get to the museum.”
She said Debbie Martin, a museum board member and Vilonia firefighter, made her way in an all-terrain vehicle to assess the damage.
Linda said Martin called her at about midnight, crying as she described the scene at the museum. It was about 1 a.m. when the Hickses got there, Linda said, and they worked until 4 a.m.
An officer with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, who lives in Morrilton, was on the scene, Linda said. She said that in all the confusion, she didn’t get his name.
Paul climbed through a window, Linda said, and he and the officer handed items out the window to her.
“They started handing me guns, bayonets, anything they could grab, because we were trying to beat the clock. Another rain storm was headed our way,” she said. “I was stacking them under the carport of the museum annex next door.”
Vilonia Police Chief Brad McNew helped carry out some of the guns, Linda said.
She said Martin and her daughter Eva, also a member of the museum brigade, helped during the three-hour period in the wee hours of April 28.
Items were shoved into Linda’s car and in the back of the Arkansas Game and Fish officer’s truck to haul to a different location.
“They literally carried the machine gun out of there with their hands and up the road where we had to park,” Linda said. “It got soaked by the rain in the back of the truck while transporting. Everything that was in here got wet.
“We couldn’t get back in the next morning, early,” Linda said, because she had a Conway address and was turned away. “We finally got in about noon Monday. Then we had a brigade.”
Linda said with the help of volunteers and veterans, including an insulin-dependent 82-year-old World War II veteran, they loaded the rest of the memorabilia. A total of 22 loads were hauled in pickups and on trailers Monday and Tuesday to store in another facility temporarily.
Lucy Bone and her daughter Brittany Bone of Vilonia “really worked,” Linda said.
“Afterward, we unloaded, dried and tried to protect what we got to the best of our ability,” she said.
Linda said museum officials need a large storage container for the items.
Conflicts covered in the museum, created in a 100-plus-year-old house, included Vietnam, Iraq, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, Korea, World Wars I and II, and the Civil and Revolutionary wars.
“The door was still standing, but to the left of the door, you could drive a pickup truck in it. It knocked all the windows out and half the roof off. To look at it on the inside, it wasn’t any worse than when we took it over after it was hit by the tornado the first time [in 2011], except for that big gaping hole.”
She said the building was scheduled to be bulldozed at 1 p.m. Thursday.
“We don’t have a plan right this minute, but when the dust settles, we’ll meet and figure out what we can do, and if the community wants us back, they’ll support us, and we’ll be back. Don’t count us out,” she said.
A ghost that supposedly lived at the museum — what will happen to him?
“We’re hoping someone took him home with them,” she said, laughing.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.