At Brevard’s Memorial Day observances in 2016, Emmett Casciato, Tom Bugala, and Ken Corn got to talking. Casciato and Bugala had recently moved to the mountains from Florida, and all three men (Corn is a Henderson County native) owned extensive collections of military memorabilia spanning decades of war. “We began talking about our collections and how it would be great to be able to display them,” Bugala recalls. Casciato took charge and arranged to exhibit his collection, along with items from Bugala’s, in a temporary exhibit in the lobby of Brevard’s old Aethelwold Hotel in October of last year. But Casciato had grander plans.
“Emmett was the first person in the community that was open to the idea of making displays for the local street festivals and fairs,” recalls Ken Corn. Casciato’s leadership led to the founding of Brevard’s Western North Carolina Military Museum. Less than a year after that first exhibit, the museum opened in 3,000 square feet of space on East Main Street, in a former medical center, with opening ceremonies late summer highlighted by speeches from two Army generals who commanded troops in the Gulf War and in New York after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. More than 800 artifacts drawn from the personal collections of Casciato, Bugala, and Corn, along with other sources, are on display. Separate rooms are dedicated to both World Wars, the Korean conflict, the Cold War, Vietnam, and Middle East engagements.
While the museum has its share of military hardware from those battlegrounds, the personal memorabilia are what many visitors remember. “The items that touch people most are the personal stories of veterans, the front pages of newspapers during the war years, and the medals and pictures,” says Casciato. “Many veterans and families of veterans have donated items since we first opened [last] October.”
The museum has also produced a book, World War II Veterans of Western North Carolina: Their Stories in Their Own Words, by Brevard author Janis Allen, who was inspired after attending last year’s show. Her husband suggested interviewing veterans to write a book as a fundraiser; using contacts provided by Casciato, Allen finished and published the work just three months later. “My dad’s World War II story is in the book, so it has a very special meaning for me,” adds Allen.
Casciato, a retired physical-education teacher, brought his lifelong interest in military history with him when he and his wife Toni moved to Brevard from Lake Worth, Florida, nearly two years ago. “For years I’ve wanted to start a military-history museum. This is my way of giving back to those who served,” he says. Now the curator of the facility he founded, Casciato helps locate possible sources of new material for display. (The nonprofit museum is funded by tax-deductible donations as part of the Community Focus Foundation and charges no admission.)
Co-curator Bugala, who served in the Air Force for 11 years, has an equally long interest in things military: “I’ve been [into] it since I was a young boy,” he says. His father was a history teacher and also a military-memorabilia collector. “My collection has been not only my lifetime, but my Dad’s, too.” After his father’s death in 1996, he split the collection with a brother, favoring artifacts from engagements fought in the Pacific by the Marine Corps during World War II. “I set up the World War II Pacific Theater room at the museum as a tribute to my Uncle Tony, who was killed in action in 1942 in the Pacific,” Bugala says. “I still have the Western Union telegram that my grandmother received from the USMC notifying the family of his death.”
Most of the artifacts in the museum’s War on Terror room are from Ken Corn’s collection, born from personal experience of Middle East conflict. Corn is a photographer who was sent to Iraq in 2003 by the Raleigh TV station for which he was then working. “I spent two months with the Army convoying across the entire country, finally stopping in Mosul,” he says; he is now the museum’s media manager. Corn returned to Iraq the next year, embedded with National Guard troops from North Carolina, although he was called back home after just two weeks. But the memory of his visit to a military hospital in Germany treating wounded soldiers from the Iraq war still haunts him. “Most of those brave men and women will never be able to live a normal life again,” Corn points out. “I think I can speak for all of us involved in the museum that it’s not about glorifying America’s involvement in wars. It’s about remembrance. If we remember the sacrifices and the toll war takes on American families, maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to take up arms.”
The Western North Carolina Military Museum, 21 E. Main Street in Brevard, is open 10am-4pm Wednesday through Saturday, 1-4pm Sunday. Admission is free; donations are welcome. For more information, visit wncmilitaryhistorymuseum.com or the museum’s Facebook page, or call 828-884-2141.