On Route 63 opposite the Geneseo campus sits a wooden sign and a long gravel drive that leads to a small white building surrounded by planes. This almost accidental find is the 1941 Historical Aircraft Group Museum, affectionately nicknamed "The HAG" by its volunteers.
Retirees and younger volunteers including Geneseo students staff The HAG, a nationally recognized World War II museum that is often overlooked by students in spite of stunning brochure pictures. Some fast facts: the museum was founded in 1981, everyone who works there is a volunteer and the collection of airplanes and artifacts from WWII would make a historian's jaw drop.
Jump back 29 years. It's 1981 and Austin Wadsworth, descendent of the famous Geneseo Wadsworth family, decides to use acres of his family farm for the National Warplane Museum. The museum's founders - including Wadsworth and a handful of other United States veterans - intended to collect and preserve planes from World War II in their original forms. After a directorship split in 1993, the NWM relocated and those left behind formed The HAG.
"Austin stayed here because it's his land and because a lot of us had worked with him to keep the planes on grass strip," said Raubie Hopkins, a volunteer who has been with the museum since its beginning. "We like to call ourselves 'The Greatest Show on Turf.'"
Most of the volunteers who have joined The HAG over the last 17 years are individuals who visited the museum once and never wanted to leave. "It's mostly people who have always been interested in airplanes, but had been working. Now they've recently retired, and this is what they make their lives," Hopkins said.
What exactly do the volunteers do? They mainly work in the museum's hangar, which is full of planes and information about their histories. Volunteers work on restoring the planes; they refurbish and rebuff, reinstall and repaint. Basically, they bring the planes - which were either purchased or received as a donation - back to their original states.
Other volunteers do paperwork, work on advertising or prepare for upcoming renovations. The work of the volunteers is a tribute to the physical memory of these planes.
If you know anything about military planes, this next bit might mean something to you: staggerwing, C-45, C-47. If you don't know a thing about military planes, the next few lines should help. The first flew with 105 other biplanes in the British Royal Navy. The next is one of a remaining 13 in the world. The last dropped the 82nd airborne in the second wave of the D-Day invasions.
Imagine now what the restoration of one of these planes might do for a veteran. "They're beyond thrilled," Hopkins said. "A couple of the B-17 guys have actually gone into tears."
If the planes aren't enough to make someone stay for a day, the stories certainly are. The volunteers, who sit in the office reminiscing or give tours out on the field, collectively have hours of stories about the planes, the WWII era and the people who have visited the museum.
Long-time volunteer Bill Leonard summed up the character of the museum: "It's just average people, just farmers, this and that, and they run this … and there's no lawyers, no engineers, no people on payroll. Ordinary people can do seriously extraordinary things."
In the decades spent building and learning, these volunteers have become friends and created a history together that is as special to them as the one they are preserving.