Historian helping develop new military heritage hall

Local author, Retired, Lt. Col. Alan R. Koenig is spending some considerable time in downtown Hector these days applying his knowledge of military history to help develop a military heritage hall devoted to area veterans since the Civil War. Although it could be said that the project began early this year when Hector Historical Center curator Sharon Stark recruited him, Koenig said it really started in 1968. That is when he built his first model airplane and he has been hooked ever since. The hobby eventually led him to an all-consuming interest in history in general and specifically the history of all U.S. military branches. Koenig, the youngest of four children, grew up on a farm between Buffalo Lake and Hector in eastern Renville County. His two brothers still live on farms in the area. When he isn’t traveling around the world, he lives with one of them. The self-described professional student graduated from Buffalo Lake High School in 1975. He earned an associate degree in history at Willmar Community College (now Ridgewater College). At Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University) Koenig earned four bachelor’s degrees: history with a German minor, an international relations degree with a Scandinavian studies minor, a Russian degree and a social studies teaching degree. Later he got a Master’s Degree in history at MSU. He earned his doctorate in 1995. Even with all of these degrees, Koenig seems most proud, however, of making it to graduation day from Russian school. Koenig not only studied military history, but as part of the Minnesota National Guard and then the US Army Reserve, he has played an active part in making and reporting on recent military history. The same year in which he attended artillery school at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma he was sent to the United States European Command in Stuttgart, Germany to cover the Bosnia operation. After September 11, 2001, Koenig was called to duty with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the military branch responsible for tracking air defense following the terrorist attacks. Koenig served as an historian for two weeks in 2004 in Iraq. There he interviewed and videotaped military personnel for electronic archives. It gave him the opportunity to talk with soldiers of almost every rank from the lowest private to generals about the war. After his theoretical “retirement,” Koenig was called back to active duty in order to research the joint military relief efforts of Hurricane Katrina. Koenig has created at least 17 manuscripts of his work on Katrina and is still supervising the transcription of interviews and research today. In his “spare” time, however, you can find him setting up educational exhibits consisting of military flags, models, resource materials and other artifacts (primarily on long-term loan from his personal collection) at the Hector Historical Center located on Hector’s Main Street. The building itself might be considered an artifact in that it is actually two very old storefronts that were connected by doorways and renovated for use as office space for Communications Systems, Incorporated for the last half of the 20th Century. Corporate Headquarters have since relocated and the space is being donated for use by Historical Center. Half the building is occupied by Stark and her volunteers who are actively engaged in researching the history of the community and providing access to resources for the public to use in its own research of community and family history. Stark said that the facility is not called a museum, but rather a historical center because its purpose is to serve primarily as a resource for people interested in local history. Often a visitor will find a group of two or three long-time residents sitting at a donated antique table or sitting on a church pew rescued from one the first churches in town, drinking coffee and chatting about the good old days. The other half of the building is quickly being filled by the Military Heritage Hall complete with its military history library and displays. Koenig is currently working on developing exhibits with special meaning to local veterans and their families. For example, exhibits on the USS Nautilus, on which Leland Fischer served in 1957; the USS Yorktown (Bernie Pearson), “Black Tuesday over Namsi” (Loren “Jim” Richards) and the 73rd Indiana (August Burgstahler) are in process. There is separate space devoted to each conflict in which area residents were involved beginning with the War of 1812 and culminating with the combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everywhere you look in the Historical Center there are flags hung or draped. A tour of the Historical Center includes numerous American flags used at various times in history as well as the flags of all branches of the military and the flags of countries that have been either our allies or our enemies in past wars. Koenig is very aware of the symbolism and historical significance of flags, emblems and patches as he demonstrates when he answers a question about the photo of his Russian school graduation. “I think on my uniform I still had my Minnesota National Guard patch, the 47th Infantry Division (Viking). The division number was for the number of survivors (men answering roll call) of the 1st Minnesota Regiment after their charge at Gettysburg.” Koenig has special personal interest in some periods of military history. He is the author of Mars Gets New Chariots – The Iron Horse in Combat, 1861-65; a book about the role of railroads in the Civil War. Maybe his interest in railroad trains and/or talent for “decoding” difficult languages is hereditary. “My uncle rode the rails in the Depression,” he once told a reporter. “He saw the country that way. He became a cryptanalyst in the Army and Air Force from 1940-1945. Koenig’s father recognized his early interested in trains and collected the labels from Van Kamp’s baked beans which he saved in order to get Alan a Lionel steam engine locomotive with a few cars and a missile-launching car. Having special interest in that era, Koenig is excited to discover that the line of forts that ran through Minnesota in 1863 after the Dakota War included sites near Hector and Buffalo Lake and that some still exist. Koenig also has a passion for collecting replica World War I aircraft. His early hobby of building model airplanes generated the keen interest which now includes building flight-capable, three-fourth-size models. He is particularly interested in teaching high school students about this time in our history. In fact, school groups are especially welcome to visit the Historical Center and Military Heritage Hall. The center is currently open to the public on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, but can be opened by appointment simply by calling Sharon Stark at 320-848-3015. Stark and Koenig are also looking for volunteers who would like to use their own interest in history to educate and enlighten others. Help is needed with everything from labeling artifacts to scanning old newspaper articles for interesting information. EDITOR’S NOTE: Alan Koenig teaches online history classes for the University of Nebraska, Omaha. His book, Mars Gets New Chariots – The Iron Horse in Combat, 1861-65, is published through iUniverse. A limited number of copies are available at the Hector Historical Center and the Hector Public Library.

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