WILKES-BARRE — Soldiers and civilian workers can be found on a daily basis roaming about the 109th Field Artillery Armory carrying out their duties among pieces of the most modern military equipment.
But also within the imposing walls there can be found a person tasked with looking after the artifacts of local veterans throughout history that are housed in the 109th Field Artillery Museum.
Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Keen, the unit historian for the 109th Field Artillery, is in charge of the acquisition of the artifacts. He also cleans them and does some preservation work.
Keens said items in the collection can date from before World War I, and include musical instruments, medical equipment, living equipment, ammunition containers and photographs to name just several. He said the artifacts give glimpses of “little bits and pieces of daily life” for the 109th Field Artillery, 3rd Pennsylvania Field Artillery, 9th Pennsylvania Infantry and 143rd Pennsylvania Infantry units.
“I don’t think we have anything right now from the 24th Connecticut, which is how we started back in 1775,” Keen said.
The armory on Market Street by Kirby Park was built in 1923, but the museum itself was not constructed until the 1990s. Keen said the space the museum occupies initially served as a chow house, but the staff at some point began to realize just how many historical items they had inside the cavernous building.
“We still find stuff randomly,” Keen said. He said people who had family members who were part of the unit seem to donate things, and those artifacts quickly have added up.
“That stuff started piling up, and rather than leaving it in a locker … we decided to put it up on display,” he said.
Visitors to the museum seem to come in as sporadically as the artifacts. Sometimes a handful of visitors come each week in some months, while in other months, nobody will come to visit the museum, Keen said.
Kathleen Smith, regent for the Shawnee Fort chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) based in Plymouth, always has had a keen interest in that military history.
“It’s fascinating to look at the artifacts, and they’re battle-worn and you can tell what they’ve been through — sometimes hell and back,” she said.
Keen sees the artifacts as a sign that despite the passing of time, some things that soldiers use never change.
“Some of the equipment that I use and that I carry … it’s just new versions of the old stuff,” he said.
Managing the artifacts at the museum is no easy task.
Keen said the 109th Heritage Association has the job of preserving the history and heritage of the unit. In the 1990s, he said, many retirees were in the organization and played an active role. Now, the organization has only a handful of people, leaving Keen with the sole responsibility of tending to the museum’s collection on top of his full-time duties.
Smith said some of the artifacts are in poor condition.
“They’re falling apart,” Smith said. “They (armory staff) don’t have archival boxes, they just don’t have the money or the manpower,” she said.
But Smith and the DAR are looking to support the museum and the history that it holds. A luncheon will be held at Genetti’s in Wilkes-Barre at noon May 17. The event will feature a program titled “Lineage of Honor: The Proud History of the 109th Field Artillery.”
Featured speakers will be Mike Stevens (of WNEP’s “On the Pennsylvania Road”), WNEP news anchor Tom Williams and WILK News Radio’s Sue Henry.
Smith said the proceeds will benefit the museum. A similar luncheon was held last year.
“Last year, we purchased a patriot grave marker, and we’re actually dedicating that on Memorial Day of this year,” Smith said. That grave marker is in Shipp Cemetery in Larksville and it honors a veteran of the Revolutionary War.
Smith would like to preserve the museum’s history for future generations, and believes that veterans and their sacrifices should always be remembered.
“I think we owe it to them to remember what they did and the sacrifices that they made,” she said.