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Step Back in Time at the Wright Museum

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - June 25, 2012





It’s always helpful, when planning to move forward, to know where you have been. Those who want to know where our country has been and who fought for the freedoms we enjoy should take a trip to the Wright Museum on Center Street in Wolfeboro.

I’ve visited the Wright Museum many times, but I have not been there in a few years. Anyone who has the chance to tour the museum is in for a treat; you don’t need to love history to enjoy the museum, but you do have to have an interest in our country and the war that changed so much of everyday life for Americans.

The Wright Museum began when David Wright (museum founder) purchased eight acres of land in Wolfeboro in 1992. Wright had the goal of creating a museum to house his wonderful collection of World War II memorabilia. In 1994, the Museum opened to the public and showcased Wright’s collection of WWII vintage vehicles, as well as items that traced American’s achievements on the home front during the war years.

On a rainy weekday in June, my daughter had a day off from her summer job, and wanted to do something different. We both enjoy museums and history, and any excuse to visit Wolfeboro can’t be missed (the town if full of great shops and restaurants).

The Museum certainly stands out because a war tank is built into the front of the building to look as if it is breaking through the exterior wall. It creates quite a sight and seems a fitting statement for a museum focused on World War II.

The day we visited was a pre-summer weekday, and the museum was not yet busy with the rush of summer visitors. We began our visit with an invitation from the front desk employee to watch the brief movie on the World War II era. We entered the museum’s theatre with plenty of comfy seats; it reminded me of being in a 1940s theatre when the black-and-white newsreel format movie began.

I love 1930s and 40s movies, and I am a bit more informed than many modern-day folks on culture in the years before and during World War II. (That is what comes from having a mother who shared her memories of being a teen during the 1940s.) The movie took the audience through those trying years. On the one hand, the Great Depression ended, and that was cause of celebration. On the other hand, the world was rumbling with the threat of war. Soon, the conflict spilled into American lives and our nation was engaged in World War II.

After the short movie, we entered the first large exhibit room and were immediately enthralled with the huge number of glass cases containing hundreds of items from the 1930s and 40s. It felt like entering a huge time capsule with the aid of labels that told what we were looking at. From old toys, including a Shirley Temple doll, to a little metal toy typewriter, we were struck with the poignancy of seeing what America’s children were playing with during the war. As I gazed at the toys under the glass case I thought about the children who once played with these things while perhaps a father or older brother were far away fighting in the war.

Some real treasures of the World War II era have found a permanent home at the Wright Museum, including (on permanent loan from the NH Marine Corps Historical Association), a collection associated with a NH man, Rene Gagnon. Rene was the son of French Canadian parents and was one of six people who participated in raising the U.S. flag during the battle of Iwo Jima. The Wright Museum exhibit features Rene’s uniform and some historically significant photos.

Also on display is a fascinating Mission Map from the Army Air Corps; it is one of only two still known to be in existence.

I was fascinated by the displays of each room of a home from the World War II era. These rooms are furnished with everything a typical family would have had in their home in the late 1930s to mid 1940s. The kitchen had a Glenwood stove, Fiesta dishes on the table, and even old boxes of cleaning soaps from the time period. A living room was furnished with a sofa from the time period, and the staple of every household – a radio, to keep those on the home front up-to-date with the latest news of the war. A vignette of a dentist’s office from the time period will fascinate today’s youth. My daughter shook her head in surprise and a bit of horror when she saw how primitive the dentist’s chair and equipment from the 1940s looked versus today’s comfortable, high-tech dental offices she is used to!

The Time Tunnel section of the huge museum is a place one could spend hours. It’s a unique way to show visitors what was going on during each year of the war starting in 1939. We entered the first room in a long hallway with each room housing the collection of memorabilia from 1939 to 1945, when the war ended.

Displays also feature at the push of a button a choice of music, movies and other topics displayed on a small screen. When pushing the movie button, we saw previews for such films at The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Big Band music played when we pushed the music button. Many of the movies and songs were familiar to me because my mother often sang the songs from that time period, and told me about the old movies that were hits when she was a World War II teen.

As well as being a lot of fun, the Time Tunnel is a skillful way to teach children about life in the United States, and on the battlefield, during the war years. Large posters urging families to plant vegetable gardens, to can as much food as possible and to donate everything from metal to rubber tires to the war effort show how in-your-face the war was for each and every person.

Life magazine covers from the war years line the upper perimeter of each room, offering a weekly account of news and culture at the time. The Time Tunnel rooms are so detailed with what life was like, I felt as if I was truly stepping into the shoes of someone living at that time. It also brought home to me how much life has changed and how people today view war versus its impact so long ago.

After the Time Tunnel, we entered a huge room with an amazing collection of World War II era fighting vehicles. This room is a history fan’s dream come true. I can imagine, for the veterans who visit, the room is a trip back in time. Whatever the reason for viewing the amazing collection, there is no doubting it is a display like no other.

Those who love the old vehicles will want to be at the museum on Sunday, July 8, for the 14th Annual Wright Museum Family Day. Rides will be given in restored World War II vehicles, and there will be a barbecue lunch and authentic demonstrations by World War II re-enactors. Conversations with Rosie the Riveter and tours of the museum are scheduled, along with special activities and displays of memorabilia from the war years.

We ended our afternoon at the Wright Museum by checking out the more lighthearted soda fountain display. This vignette is a completely furnished soda shop from the World War II time period. It showed us that a soda shop was a place for local teens to gather and socialize while enjoying the simple pleasure of an ice cream. It was also surely a place for some much-needed relief from the worry of wondering how brothers, fathers and uncles and sweethearts were faring as they fought so very far away.

As we left the Wright Museum, I thought how much I learned in the short few hours we spent viewing the many displays. Every single aspect of life on the home front and on the battlefield was there to show us what life was like for those who lived through the war years.

If a person wants a chance to look back in time to see how we became the people we are today, there is no better place to do so than a step back in time at the Wright Museum.

The Wright Museum is open Mondays-Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm and Sundays noon to 4 pm from May to the end of October and other hours during the remainder of the year. Call 569-1212 for information or visit www.wrightmuseum.org. 

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