While the National Park Service in Montana struggles to find a way to build a new museum and visitor center at Little Bighorn Battlefield, an ambitious group in Monroe, Mich., is working toward establishing Lt. Col. George Custer's hometown as the center for all things Custer.
William H. Braunlich, president of the Monroe County Historical Society, said in a telephone interview that the project involves establishing a unit of the National Park Service in downtown Monroe called Custer National Monument and Museum.
It wouldn't involve large capital expenditure by the cash-strapped federal agency, he said. Instead it would transfer ownership of existing resources from the city of Monroe and Monroe County to the Park Service. Those resources would include a county museum, a world-renowned Custer collection and an annual payment of $200,000 for the first 10 years of operation.
One of the Park Service's newest units, the War of 1812 River Raisin National Battlefield Park and River Raisin Heritage Trail, was established in Monroe two years ago. The Historical Society envisions the Custer monument as a second unit of River Raisin.
Braunlich said the Monroe group sees its project as complementary to Little Bighorn Battlefield. He said that since the Montana battlefield's name change 30 years ago from Custer Battlefield National Monument, the park here has concentrated less on Custer and more on the battle and its causes.
"Renaming and refocusing Custer National Monument in Little Bighorn, Montana, to Little Bighorn National Monument creates a very significant opportunity for Monroe County, Mich.," literature from the Monroe group says.
With its vast collection of Custer material as well as historical surroundings that would have been familiar to Custer and his wife, Libbie, Monroe is well positioned to tell the complete Custer story from all sides and all perspectives, Braumlich said.
Also tossed around in conversations in Monroe are a supposed standstill of plans for a new Little Bighorn museum in Montana and the recent relocation of most of the Little Bighorn archive and artifact collection to the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center in Tucson, Ariz. The collection was removed temporarily because the existing facility at Little Bighorn is inadequate to properly store its 149,000 artifacts.
The Little Bighorn collections include a huge array of materials related to Custer and his wife. Libbie left many of the couple's personal belongings, including everything from his jock strap to his buckskin uniforms, to be housed in a museum built near the battlefield where he died. The collection includes documents signed by President Lincoln and guidons carried at the Little Bighorn battle.
Braumlich denies it, but there is some indication that the Monroe group is interested in the Custer-related material transferred to Arizona.
In a pamphlet explaining the project, the group noted the transfer of artifacts and records from the battlefield to Tucson.
"Those important historical resources need a home and they need to be redeployed to tell the Custer story," the pamphlet said. "We believe that the leadership of the National Park Service, should they be extended the opportunity and the demonstration of community support, will embrace this vision."
Braumlich said he could foresee loaning materials back and forth between the two museums' collections, but said that the Monroe collection so extensive "we have no need to raid the collection in Montana."
Patrick O'Driscoll, National Park Service public affairs officer in the Denver region, said the Park Service was not aware of any plans in the works in Michigan.
He said the Park Service position remains the same -- the Little Bighorn collection will be returned to Montana once a new museum with proper storage is built at the battlefield.
When that happens depends on a number of complicated land transactions, as well as finding the money for construction. Park Service budgeting restraints could mean a long wait.