by CHRIS ROGERS
Forget piggy banks. When thrifty children stick a quarter into the beak of the mother eagle in Preston Cook's eagle-nest-themed toy bank and then pull a lever, the mother eagle drops the coin into the mouths of her hungry chicks. When lucky gamblers get the right combination in Cook's glitzy, eagle-shaped slot machine, it spews coins out at them. And, of course, if those thrifty children and lucky gamblers flip their coins over, they are likely to find yet more eagles. Humans are obsessed with eagles, and Wabasha's National Eagle Center (NEC) is about to get a huge and tremendously diverse collection of items, from swords to stamps, that mark the United States' centuries-long love affair with eagles.
Eagle artwork and exhibits on the cultural significance of eagles have always been part of the eagle center, but Cook's collection provides a treasure trove of more than 20,000 eagle-related items valued at over $2 million. His collection spans the diffuse areas of life where Americans have plastered with eagle images, from sports to scouts, patriotism to commercialism. He spent years amassing it and now he is giving to the NEC.
Cook has a Newark Eagles jersey signed by Baseball Hall of Famer Leon Day, an iconic bald eagle print from Andy Warhol's endangered species series, and an eagle sculpture by the famous 19th century wood carver John Bellamy. He has two-foot-by-three-foot pages torn from a rare copy of James Aubodon's "The Birds of America," a plus-sized publication appropriately called the "double elephant folio." He has a letter signed by Abraham Lincoln with an eagle in the masthead; images of "Old Abe," the eagle that accompanied a Wisconsin regiment into battle during the Civil War; and ads for "Old Baldy" brand oranges and images of eagles' heads on human bodies that make up the wine bottle labels for Eagle Eye winery. He has a Norman Rockwell print of eagles spreading their wings over a poster for the inaugural Boy Scout jamboree in 1937, and he has a photo of the very first Girl Scout to get a Golden Eaglet Award. He has recruitment posters from both World Wars — in one, a swooping bald eagle grasps a rat and a snake bearing the flags of imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in its sharp talons — and he has union buttons emblazoned with eagles and the slogan, "Organized Labor, Proud & Free."
"They're everywhere," said NEC Executive Director Rolf Thompson.
Environmental education, conservation, and bird rescue has always been a big part of the Eagle Center's mission, said Public Relations Director Eileen Hanson, "but the reason that's interesting for people is that eagle's have such an important cultural place."
Humans' fascination with eagles dates back far before the young U.S. picked the bird for its Great Seal in 1782. Many Native American tribes revered eagles, and the eagle was a symbol for the Nazis, too, and for the Roman Empire, ancient Egypt, and a slew of other civilizations. Cook said the eagle is the most used mascot for high school sports teams. Eagles are fierce and majestic, strong and free. They seem to embody so many of the traits humans aspire to.
"It's the most powerful bird. It's the highest flying bird. It is a strong, independent bird," Cook said. When Americans see bald eagles, they do not just see the bird, Haliaeetus leucocephalus; they see hundreds of years of symbolism, Cook explained.
To display and to hold all of Cook's collection, the NEC announced plans to expand into three adjacent storefronts on Main Street, restoring the historic buildings and remodeling the space to tie it in with the existing center and provide a fitting home for Cook's collection. It is a big task and a big responsibility for the NEC to take on, but they hope that together with longer-term plans to expand the center's environmental education wing and add more eagles, it will be a huge draw for visitors. "This expansion will make the National Eagle Center the only museum of its kind dedicated to comprehensive education about our national symbol," Thompson said.
The $6-8 million initial expansion project depends on fundraising and on state bonding money. It is unclear whether a bonding bill will pass this session, but the NEC is hopeful that it can get funding this year or in a future bonding round.
The public can get a sneak peak of Cook's collection this coming Thursday and Friday. The center will host an open house with conceptual drawings of the proposed expansion and a smattering of Cook's relics on Thursday, May 19, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and on Friday, May 20, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.