WAPAKONETA — Three years removed and some 240,000 miles distant from the moment he made history, the first man to set foot on the moon stood on a platform in a field off Interstate 75 in Wapakoneta.
On a sweltering hot July afternoon 50 years ago, Neil Armstrong came home to Wapakoneta to dedicate the museum named in his honor. Armstrong, in front of “a melting crowd of 7,000,” quipped, “It was 236 degrees when I landed on the Sea of Tranquility and today Wapakoneta is not far behind,” according to Akron Beacon Journal columnist Mickey Porter, one of the many journalists on hand for the occasion.
Armstrong, Porter wrote, then “hauled out a big white handkerchief and swabbed the sweat from his eye hollows before hiding himself behind a pair of chain-gang-boss reflector sunglasses. It was 2:30 Thursday afternoon, July 20, 1972.”
Exactly three years earlier the eyes of the world were glued to grainy television pictures as Armstrong took one small step onto the surface of the moon.
Porter wrote that “just about every house” in Wapakoneta was “bedecked with flags” for the museum dedication. And, he added, “had burglars only known, all the folks who live in those houses were out in the middle of a 13-acre cornfield on the edge of town where the museum rises out of the crops like an overblown vampire. Its walls snake this way and that like wings and its head is an R. Buckminster Fuller-esque geodesic dome.”
Armstrong Air and Space Museum historian and collections coordinator Greg Brown said the museum building was intended to look like a lunar habitat. “A building like this had never been attempted,” he said.
This year, the Armstrong Museum, now engulfed by motels, restaurants and other commercial enterprises, celebrates its 50th anniversary. Like the moon landing itself, the museum took a lot of planning, cooperation and just plain will to get from idea to reality. “Everyone had to do a job appropriately and efficiently,” said Logan Rex, the curator and communications director at the museum.
That planning began not long after Armstrong and his fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin had departed the surface of the moon. After flying into the Neil Armstrong Airport near New Knoxville the day after Armstrong stepped on the moon, then-Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes announced from the porch of Armstrong’s grandmother’s house, where the astronaut was born in 1930 and where “a throng of more than 100 newsmen and spectators” had gathered, that the state would build a $1 million museum in Armstrong’s honor, The Lima News reported.
For Armstrong’s parents, Stephen and Viola Armstrong, the “announcement of plans for the museum came only moments after their son had crawled from the lunar landing vehicle into the Apollo 11 command ship (piloted by astronaut Michael Collins) following his son and Edward (Buzz) Aldrin’s blastoff from the moon,” The Lima News wrote July 22, 1969.
While a local site selection committee had already visited 10 potential museum locations by July 24, 1969, efforts to raise the local $500,000 share of the museum’s $1 million price tag, also got off to a fast start. Daniel R. Porter, director of the Ohio Historical Society, told the Cincinnati Post just four days after the moon landing that $1,010 in public contributions already had been received.
By the end of July 1969, a Cincinnati philanthropist, who pronounced the museum a “terrific idea,” had donated $1,000 as had Lima-based Pangles Master Markets. The Wapakoneta VFW post, meanwhile, announced that proceeds from the sale of a commemorative medallion would go toward the museum.
In August, the Wapakoneta Machine and Tool Company announced a $10,000 donation as did the Wapakoneta Telephone Service Company. In Lima, City Loan and Savings and Gregg’s Department Store both announced $1,000 donations that same month. Other donations would soon flow in with service clubs, restaurants, schools, and other businesses all chipping in.
Much of the local share came from smaller donations. Rex noted that up to 9,000 people paid to sign a book to be given to Neil Armstrong, who in turn donated it to the museum. A production of the play “Cinderella” by elementary school students raised $20 for the museum. By early September 1969, local fund-raisers reported nearly $268,000 in contributions and pledges. By the end of October 1969, donations had topped $528,000. Eventually, about $550,000 was raised, the equivalent today of about $3.7 million, according to Rex.
On a rainy April 16, 1970, more than 100 people, including Rhodes and Armstrong’s parents, walked into “a corn-stubble” field for the groundbreaking ceremony for the museum. Another 100 watched from the parking lot of the nearby Chalet Inn. Contracts for the construction of the museum were awarded in December 1970, with Peterson Construction of Wapakoneta being awarded the main contract.
Meanwhile, proposals for museum exhibits rolled in as fast as pledges of funding. “The Ohio Historical Society is being swamped with exhibit suggestions and objects for the Neil A. Armstrong Museum in Wapakoneta,” The Lima News reported Sept. 8, 1969. “Never in recent history of the Society has a museum project created such widespread public interest and response,” Porter told the newspaper. Museum historian Brown noted that Armstrong’s parents also were instrumental in donating artifacts while many other people were moved to knit sweaters and write songs and poems for Armstrong.
In October 1969, the Ohio Historical Society purchased the first artifact for the museum. For $2,000, the 1946 red and yellow two-seat Aeronica Champion in which Armstrong learned to fly was bought from a man in Massachusetts.
In addition to that plane, when the museum opened in July 1972, exhibits included the F5-D carrier fighter used in training in the early 1960s, the Gemini 8 capsule Armstrong rescued after a faulty docking maneuver in earth orbit in the mid-1960s and a Wright Brothers airplane built in Dayton in 1913.
The museum’s main exhibit arrived on dedication day, July 20, 1972, in the care of Tricia Nixon Cox, daughter of then-president Richard Nixon, who delivered a moon rock to the museum. Brown noted that the moon rock at the museum today is not the same one delivered in 1972. Many different moon rocks have been exhibited at the museum, he said.
For his part, the ever-understated Armstrong, told The Lima News on dedication day, “This is not a homecoming. I’m just here to see the museum,” adding that he preferred “the old displays,” such as his first plane.
File Photo | The Lima News
An undated postcard depicts the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta during its early years. The museum first opened its doors 50 years ago in July to celebrate Wapakoneta native Neal Armstrong being the first to walk on the moon.
File photo | The Lima News
David B. Meeker, right, president of the Neil Armstrong Museum Association, holds the Apollo 11 moon rock presented by Tricia Nixon Cox, left. She delivered the rock on behalf of her father, President Richard M. Nixon, and the National Air and Space Administration at the opening of the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta on July 20.
File Photo | The Lima News
This Jan. 7, 1973 photo shows Jerome J. Palumbo Jr., left, of Marae Inc. presenting a memorial plaque commemorating the history of American manned spaceflight to Kathy Minkin, then-curator of the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta. The plaque contained each of the 28 insignia used in those space flights.
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