New museum rising in Chehalis


A wedge of steel beams taking shape near Interstate 5 in Chehalis is the future home of one of the West Coast's largest tributes to America's veterans.

In an ambitious project that still isn't quite paid for, the Veterans Memorial Museum is set for a move from its small Centralia storefront to a brand new building on the outskirts of Chehalis.

Museum leaders hope to be moved into the new building by Veterans Day this fall.

The museum's collection of more than 10,000 military items dating back to 1775 will have more room for display, and veterans who gather at the museum to talk about old times will have more room to relax.

The overarching goal, said museum director and co-founder Lee Grimes, is to give honor and publicity to the millions of ordinary people who have worn uniforms of the American armed forces.

"I never want America to forget the price of freedom," said Grimes, quoting the late Stan Price, a Centralia veteran to whom the museum's video viewing room is dedicated.

The old museum is an important spot for many local veterans, some of whom have donated old uniforms, photographs and even a shell necklace to tell the story of America's military through the eyes of its soldiers.

The land for the new museum is owned by the city of Chehalis, which gave the veterans group a 120-year lease for $1 per year.

"A lot of people asked us why we moved to Chehalis," said museum Director Lee Grimes said on a recent walk through of the pre-engineered steel building.

"This is the reason," he said, nodding toward the nearby freeway.

He hopes that all the passing traffic will double, or even triple attendance immediately upon opening.

Still, it took plenty of imagination to see how the bramble-covered 2½ acres could ever be home to a showplace museum, Grimes said.

It was covered with garbage and burned out cars, and is surrounded on several sides by a Weyerhaeuser loading yard.

Looking beyond that, however, museum leaders decided that the nearby antique steam train created a synergy, and that the freeway frontage would provide invaluable visibility.

Work has gone quickly since the official ground breaking this September. The steel girders began rising Dec. 1, and Grimes hopes the building will be completely enclosed by sometime in February.

That will just about use up the $700,000 the museum has already raised, which includes a $255,000 grant from the state.

About $400,000 more in cash or donated labor is needed to finish the interior.

Grimes hopes to raise at least $200,000 of that by selling $100 sponsorships for laser-engraved tiles which will be displayed at the museum's entrance.

He hopes to take care of the remaining costs by convincing community members to volunteer their time and construction expertise in finishing the interior.

People are needed to put up walls and sheet rock, lay carpet and tile, and perform other carpentry and construction work.

For Grimes, 55, the veterans museum began as a personal quest.

He started interviewing veterans after hearing a voice commanding him to preserve their stories.

"God spoke to me one night," Grimes said.

He immediately bought a camcorder and began recording veterans stories. As veterans began giving him memorabilia, he started the museum in his garage.

He officially founded the museum with his wife Barbara and with Loren and Patty Estep of Centralia in December 1995.

After much discussion and prayer, the Grimes mortgaged their home and Lee quit his job to take over as a volunteer full-time director for the museum. He said he still works 60 hours a week.

The current museum was opened in 1997.

In 2001 he started taking a small salary. Museum board member Dale Ingle of Centralia said Grimes' salary works out to be less than minimum wage.

"Lee and Barb made a tremendous sacrifice to put this together," Ingle said.

The museum is not dedicated to war or to the military, but to the people who wore the uniform, Grimes said.

"Who were these veterans that preserved our freedom?" he said. "Ordinary people that live up and down our streets."

One such citizen soldier is Gene Wilber, 84, who was a medic in the Battle of the Bulge and four other World War II battles.

"I've been shot at, but I've never been hit," Wilber said during a recent visit to the museum, where his war experiences live on.

Gene and his wife Phyllis, a Navy veteran, donated their uniforms and old photographs to tell the story of their early years and love.

A proud supporter of the museum, Wilber said it's a place where veterans can talk about their shared war experiences.

"It's the fellowship we get together," he said. "We're all here with the same idea."

Grimes, not a veteran himself, said he treasures the history he learns from people like Wilber.

"To me this is a sacred, honored place," he said during a tour of the current site, located in an old electrical warehouse near a used car lot. "Most people will shed tears when they come through the museum."

He walks past the display case with the Wilbers' items. Mannequins wear their uniforms. One of Gene's dog tags is hanging from the wall near pictures from their youth.

"It's the little things that make it important, as it is with life," Grimes said.

The museum has an amputation kit from the Civil War, foot and flea powder from World War II, and pictures of "Reckless," a horse that received medals for valor in the Korean War.

A comic book called "Heroic" tells the story of the late Gene Curtis of Chehalis, who led a platoon of black soldier in World War II.

Another display case has "dear John" letters one soldier received while in the Navy.

Half the museum's collection is stored away in cramped back rooms. Those items, including a shrapnel-shredded Japanese World War II flag and American military snowshoes, will be put on display in the new museum.

About 80 percent of the exhibits in the museum are from local veterans and their families, but the museum has a national scope, Grimes said.

He knows of no other museum like it in Washington. He said the nearest museum with a similar theme is in Branson, Mo.

That institution is also known as the Veterans Memorial Museum.

"But we were first," Grimes said with a grin.

An Internet search found a handful of other similar museums in Alabama, Tennessee, and San Diego, Calif.

Greg Hagge, assistant curator of the Fort Lewis Military Museum south of Tacoma said he isn't aware of any similar museums in the Northwest.

"I'm aware of some private collections passed off as museums here and there, but nothing like the Centralia deal," he said.

Drivers on Interstate 5 will have a hard time missing the new metal-sided museum, especially once the 39-inch high letters on the new sign are installed.

Visitors to the new museum will enter from Main Street or state Route 6.

The new museum is on the former Southwest Thomas Avenue. The city of Chehalis renamed the street Veterans Way in September and has plans to install a unique red, white and blue street sign.

The stretch of industrial land is already home to one museum of sorts.

The Chehalis-Centralia Railroad Association's antique logging steam locomotive, is based just a block away.

Grimes said he hopes many visitors will come to visit both attractions, possibly as part of a package tour or "potty break" stop for buses trundling between Seattle and Portland.

Like the old museum, the new building will have coffee and cookies at a "USO" station — familiar lingo for veterans who remember the military hospitality stations.

The new building will have a large gift shop, selling hats, T-shirts and other memorabilia to raise money for museum operations.

The second floor of the new structure will have a large meeting room. Some local service groups have already asked about renting space, Grimes said. Military service groups also have expressed interest in using the area for reunions, he said.

Wayne Galvin, a museum board member and former Chehalis city council member, has already brought his Korean War-era Army intelligence unit to the veterans museum for reunions.

He has sponsored a plaque on display to honor his father.

His own military memorabilia, including an actual full-size radio from that era, and a photograph of him playing guitar, is in a nearby cabinet.

"The thing that makes this place unique is the personal touch, the stories behind the artifacts," Galvin said. "This place brings people together."

Brian Mittge covers politics, the environment and Lewis County government for The Chronicle. He may be reached by e-mail at, or by telephoning 807-8237.