Coast Guard museum on Cape Cod weaves storytelling, displays
BARNSTABLE, Mass. — Jack McGrath and Rich Fichter have a running joke between them about who likes to talk more.
"I'm the second most talkative person here," said Fichter, a retired Coast Guard chief, who along with McGrath is a board member, docent and jack-of-all-trades at the Coast Guard Heritage Museum.
The museum, tucked in picturesque Barnstable Village on Route 6A, features a collection of Coast Guard memorabilia tucked inside a historic gem of a building — the 1856 U.S. Customs House and Post Office Building. The building was once the home of the Donald G. Trayser Memorial Museum, dedicated to the history of the town of Barnstable. The Coast Guard museum opened in 2005, and the building continues to undergo repairs to its 158-year-old facade.
The museum has had the help of grants from Cape Cod Five and the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod; donations from Coast Guard men and women; and the sweat equity of a hardy band of 15 to 20 volunteers. It tells the story of the Coast Guard from its earliest days as the Revenue Cutter Service to its modern era as the only military branch that puts no limitations on the jobs done by women.
"We went from, 'How are we ever going to fill this place?' to 'What are we going to do with all this stuff?'" said McGrath, who spent four years in the Coast Guard and serves as the president of the museum's board of directors. "We're in a good position. We can be selective."
Two floors of the building are stuffed with maps, photographs, uniforms and other artifacts — all of them with a tale to tell. Of course, the museum pays homage to the well-documented 1953 rescue of men onboard the tanker Pendleton, which snapped in half and sank off the coast of Chatham, and the Fort Mercer, another tanker ravaged by that '53 nor'easter.
There's a photograph of Seaman Ervin Maske receiving a gold medal for his heroics in the Pendleton rescue, along with the uniform he wears in that photograph. Upstairs, the museum also has a uniform from Pendleton hero and Coxswain Bernie Webber, though it's from later in his career in Vietnam.
Nearby, is the helmet of Chief Warrant Officer Randy Rice, a rescue swimmer once stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, who received a gold medal in 2012 for a rescue of two crew members from the sailboat Eva southeast of Cape Cod.
Throughout the museum are models of aircraft and ships used by the Coast Guard through the years, many of them carefully crafted for the museum by Michael Maynard of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, including a replica of the 270-foot Coast Guard Cutter Campbell. Maynard includes details right down to a spilled bucket of paint on one of the decks and rust near the hawsepipe, through which the anchor chain is lowered.
Lighthouses, a key part of the Coast Guard's mission to keep boaters safe, are given their own room on the second floor. On Tuesday, museum volunteers were unpacking a Fresnel lens on loan from the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine. The specially designed lens allows a lighthouse to be seen from greater distances.
Few people know the Coast Guard's role in wartime, McGrath said. A display on the second floor includes a pennant from Vincent Lalicata of Dennis who was onboard the CG-20 in June 1944. Sixty of the 83-foot patrol boats like the CG-20 were shipped to England to support the D-Day invasion of Normandy and wound up rescuing 1,500 people, McGrath said.
On that same floor, the Coast Guard's role in Vietnam is chronicled, including a compilation of home movies edited with music from Woodstock.
The museum survives on its entry and membership fees, donations and gift shop purchases, McGrath said. Volunteers are also key and the museum can always use more, he said.
This summer, the museum is getting some expert help from seasonal curator Mary-Elizabeth Pratt, a history major at Wittenberg University in Ohio.
McGrath can tell you about the Coast Guard's role in taking reindeer to Alaska and how breeches buoys, like the one on loan from the Orleans Historical Society displayed in the lobby, were used to make rescues from shore.
"I love history," said McGrath. "I'm proud of what the Coast Guard does and did."
Fichter, who retired six weeks shy of 30 years in the Coast Guard, loves to share his stories. "It keeps me in touch," he said. "It's just an atmosphere I've always liked, and I can pass on my experiences."
The Coast Guard Heritage Museum greets 2,500 to 3,000 visitors per year. As with many museums, sunny and hot days are slow, and rainy, cool days draw bigger crowds, McGrath said.
McGrath and Fichter want to make it clear that you don't have to be a Coastie or know much about the Coast Guard to enjoy a visit. And despite their gift of gab, they'll talk as little or as much as you want.
"The most enjoyable guests are the people who come in and don't know anything about the Coast Guard," McGrath said.