A military obsession, tank collection and big influence on Dubois

DUBOIS — Dan Starks fired off facts and statistics machine-gun fashion throughout the 1.5-hour tour, but he was really rifling them off by the time he got to the Battle of the Bulge exhibit.  

“There’s a lot of stories to tell here,” the Dubois billionaire told several journalists touring the National Museum of Military Vehicles in early May, in advance of its official opening. “This was the battle where we suffered the highest amount of American casualties.” 

During the six-week-long World War II battle there were some 70,000 American casualties, he said, but it could have been worse. The only thing that stopped the Nazis’ offensive, Starks explained, was a logistical blunder involving military vehicles. 

“They literally attacked until they outran their supplies and their armored spearhead stopped for lack of fuel,” Starks said. “The crews had to get out and start walking back to Germany.” 

Just like Starks’ encyclopedic memory, his museum houses an exhaustive collection. A National Museum of Military Vehicles ticket is good for two days, Starks explained. Someone who wants to really look closely at everything can’t take it all in one day.

“There’s a lot here,’” Starks said. “It’s really very dense.” 

Although the National Museum of Military Vehicles’ exterior has been completed and its doors open for a couple years, the $100 million facility is hosting its grand opening event on May 28. The occasion is the completion of the last exhibit, and they’re making a shindig out of it. Activities include tank rides, a machine gun firing range and a Wyoming National Guard flyover of a Blackhawk helicopter. 

The event is still days away, but Starks, who dwells with his family on a nearby ranch, has been a stimulating force of the Dubois economy for more than a decade already. The former St. Jude Medical CEO and his wife, Cynthia Starks, have started an array of businesses, creating around 50 jobs in a town with a year-round population of less than 1,000 people, he said. 

Based on WyoFile’s discussions with roughly a dozen townsfolk, there’s a mixed bag of public perception about Starks and his influence on the isolated northwestern Fremont County community. Many residents, appreciative of new jobs and growth, are meeting the museum and other Starks businesses with open arms. Others are leery, worrying that Dubois is suddenly on the fast track to being overrun, like its western neighboring resort community, Jackson Hole.

‘On the map’

“He definitely put Dubois on the map,” Don Thompson, a WYDOT road maintenance worker, said from the Rustic Pine Tavern. “We don’t want to be another Jackson Hole, but [Dan Starks] has definitely had a positive impact on the businesses.” 

That’s a widespread sentiment, judging by WyoFile’s conversations with a random assortment of locals. 

“It’s good,” Dubois Super Foods cashier Monna Lendley said of the Starks’ effect. “He’s just a down-to-earth man. You wouldn’t even know that he’s rich.” 

Starks and the National Museum of Military Vehicles have also been showered with statewide praise. 

“There are lessons in that [military vehicle] collection that every American needs to know,” Gov. Mark Gordon told the Wyoming Legislature in February, “and I thank you, Dan, for putting Dubois on the list of must-visit places in Wyoming.”

Starks chose the Dubois area not for Dubois, but for 17,000 acres of rangeland butted up against the Shoshone National Forest’s Absaroka Range. He was coming out of out of a “high-stress,” “high-intensity” life as the executive of a Fortune 500 company, complete with “Wall Street Journal attacks,” subpoenas and class-action lawsuits, and sought to slow life down in the mountains on a property that offered respite and seclusion. 

“We wanted to find a place with privacy somewhere in the Rocky Mountains,” Starks said over lunch at the Village Cafe. “There was nothing that attracted me to Dubois, it was just the piece of property that we liked. Dubois just came with it.” 

Starks’ property was unimproved when they bought it in 2011, he said. They opted to hire local builders, who chipped away at improving the new spread and abode until it was move-in ready Thanksgiving weekend of 2016. 

“Part of the reason it took so long is because it was all local labor,” Starks said. “We wanted to put it into the local economy here rather than bring in some big outside crew to get it done fast. We didn’t really care. We were living in a double-wide trailer while the house was being built, and we were happier than hell.” 

The Starks became full-time Wyoming residents after their home was completed. Shortly thereafter, the former denizen of Chanhassen, Minnesota retired. His former employer, St. Jude’s Medical, was acquired by Abbott Laboratories, where Starks remains on the board.

Of his fortune, Starks said billionaire is a fair description. Due to his board post, his 7 million shares of Abbott stock are public record. With a share price of $140 late last year, that asset alone, at the time, was worth nearly $1 billion. 

The transition into retirement enabled Starks to put more time and energy into a budding hobby: collecting military vehicles. His first acquisition, in 2010, was a Sherman tank: a rusted-out $50,000 “paper weight” that didn’t have an engine or transmission and took eight years to restore. Starks financed the fixes, but steered clear of the dirty work himself: “I was a liberal arts major,” he said. “I don’t have a tool box. That’s why I’ve got a restoration shop over there with six people working full-time.” 

Despite never serving himself, Starks was obsessed with military affairs dating to when he was a little kid playing soldiers in his childhood home of Buffalo, New York, he said.

“The first books I read were books on the Civil War and the American Revolutionary War, French and Indian War. I just loved that stuff,” he said. “It was to the point where, when I was in fifth grade and we were studying the American Civil War, the teacher had me teach the class.” 

Later in life, he set out to learn more of the tales and turmoils of friends who went to Vietnam. It only intensified his interest. 

“I read every Vietnam War book I could find,” Starks said, “and there was a point where I actually couldn’t find any more Vietnam War books to read.” 

The advent of the internet helped solve that dilemma, and he’s got a hearty military reading backlog.

Hurrying through the museum, Starks encouraged the group of journalists to put themselves into the shoes of a 20-year-old American soldier who’s plopped down in Vietnam. Those young men, he explained at the jungle warfare exhibit, would have been totally unaccustomed to venomous snakes, tropical diseases or mortal violence.

“These are mostly people that grew up in the city or grew up in the suburbs,” Starks said. 

Using $50 million worth of tanks, planes, Humvees and handheld weapons to draw people in, the museum sets out to portray war objectively and give its visitors an appreciation for the sacrifices of veterans, Starks said. He supports maintaining a mighty U.S. military in pursuit of “peace through strength,” and believes the United States is a force for good. 

“We’ve got a black eye from our genocide of Native Americans,” Starks said. “But we liberated over 475 million non-Americans around the world in our history. Nobody has done that.”

At 140,000 square feet, the The National Museum of Military Vehicles building, which sits on the banks of the Wind River, is much larger than a typical big-box store. It can be a surprising site for those driving along Highway 26.

Tyler Sorch, a longtime Fremont County cattle rancher, has met Starks and thinks he’s “a good-hearted guy.” He’s taken his kids to the museum, too, “and they love it.” But Sorch and others WyoFile spoke with were uneasy about the changes underway.

“This building looks like it belongs in Vegas. It does,” Sorch said. “It doesn’t belong in frickin’ Dubois, Wyoming.”

The current assortment of military equipment filling the museum spans the period primarily from World War II to the Vietnam War. Their purpose, Starks said, is like a “bait-and-switch:” “People come to see the vehicles,” he said, “and then we use the vehicles to tell a story of service and sacrifice or remarkable things about the history of American freedom.” 

Starks, meanwhile, has continued stockpiling vehicles and war relics through online auctions and even eBay, and he’s especially keen on amassing more recent military mementos. 

“My aspiration is to build another building about this size,” said Starks, who already purchased land for the next site closer to Dubois on Highway 26. “That’s the future location, if my health stays high and I don’t run out of money.” 

The museums, Starks said, will never turn a profit, but are endowed so that they’ll survive in perpetuity: “Not only do we not recoup anything, but we forever fund it.” 

Even for a billionaire, it’s been a “significant” investment. 

“I kind of joke about it,” Starks said. “I could have bought a big mansion, I could have bought a big yacht or I could have become a drug addict. Or I could have done this, and this appealed to me more.”

The second museum on the drawing board will complement the first, covering the Cold War and Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Once it breaks ground, the construction promises to bring another pulse of economic activity to Dubois, which has lost around 100 residents since the 1980s, when Louisiana Pacific closed its sawmill in town. Even preceding the museum’s doors swinging open, changes have been afoot in town. 

A decade ago, when Dubois town councilman Randy Lahr moved to town, businesses in town “weren’t doing well.” 

“Then we had a major fire downtown,” Lahr said. “It was one thing after another that was destroying our downtown area, but now it’s very vibrant and vital — and the museum is part of that.” 

The typical visitor has changed. Lahr, president of the taxpayer-funded Destination Dubois, said that 90 to 95% of tourists in town used to come from dude ranches in the region. Now about half of visitors are stopping in town for some other reason, which is a “phenomenal improvement,” he said. But the summertime throngs are also pressing up against the limits of services in town. 

“You see lines at restaurants that are 50 people long, and you kind of get upset because you don’t want it to be that way,” Lahr said. “You want those people to be having a good time.” 

Retired rancher Tory Taylor is among locals who want to see Dubois’s destination appeal slow. There are similarities, he said, to the timber harvest days from four decades ago, when some residents weren’t pleased with the dominant industry in town, but were afraid to say it out loud. 

“A lot of people today whisper in the grocery store and the post office, they don’t like what’s going on,” Taylor said. 

But the community, Taylor added, is split: “There’s a lot of people who would like to see Dubois become Jackson as fast as we can get there,” he said. “They’re trying their best, and they’re doing a pretty damn good job at it.” 

The Starks, meanwhile, are making investments in the community outside of the military museum, vehicle restoration shop and their ranch. Cynthia Starks headed up Nana’s Bowling and Bakery, and she founded the Neversweat Old Time Photos business downtown. 

Starks’ daughter and son-in-law are also looking into building a new 80-room hotel co-located with the existing museum. That project is in the “due-diligence” stage, and whether it will go forward has not been decided. If the hotel is a go, construction would start in 2025, he said.

Sewage infrastructure on the property for an under-construction outbuilding is being built to specs that would accommodate the hypothetical hotel, Starks said. 

The Starks are also in the process of erecting 24 apartments in town, which one longtime local said are badly needed. 

“Any kind of long-term rental in Dubois is hard to find,” Jim Butkovich, a retired welder, said during a break from produce shopping. 

Everything is being converted into short-term rentals, he said.

Butkovich welcomed the changes Starks and his family have brought to Dubois. There’s even been a personal benefit, he said. 

“I did several thousands of dollars worth of business for him,” Butkovich said. “I did work for him when he was building his house, irrigation projects, stuff like that.” 

Starks’ investments in Dubois aren’t all business-oriented. For a “few years,” he’s covered the costs of air ambulance rides for all northwestern Fremont County residents, from Crowheart to the Teton County line, he said. Once he paid a year’s salary of a public safety officer at the K-12 Dubois School — a position that was going to get cut.Seasonal Dubois resident Bernice Waas agreed with several others WyoFile spoke with who said the Starks effect has done more good than harm. It’s the new jobs, she said, that have provided the biggest boost. The 77-year-old, who was lunching at Noon Rock Pizza, also appreciates what the National Museum of Military Vehicles is all about. 

“My father was in World War I, my husband was in World War II and one of my sons was in service during Vietnam,” Waas said. 

When Waas goes into the museum, she wants to read everything. Her family has a hard time peeling her away, she said. “They’re like, ‘Come on, let’s go!’”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.