Clear-cutting forests during the 1800s and very early 1900s was an economic practice—timber men and farmers cut everything that was saleable to a sawmill. Since most trees were large, old-growth timber, nearly all was usable. The result: All the trees in an area was cut. This total exploitation of resources cleared thousands of acres.
Combined with using the creeks and rivers as skid trails, roads and flumes, the practice left a region’s forest resources in apparent state of ruin. From this, sprang the profession of forestry. Lumbermen and farmers learned to practice “selection management.” This new method harvested fewer trees at relatively frequent intervals, left some forest cover, and replaced the harvested trees with seedlings. The logging industry saved itself.
Like the pioneers who looked out to a seemingly endless supply of trees, the early collectors, dealers, and show promoters in our hobby have acted as though there would be an endless supply of “cheap relics” that they could turn into real money. Worse yet, they have acted as though the hobby would forever replenish itself with new members.
Our hobby has reached a crisis point. The reasons are numerous: Natural attrition, failure to follow simple supply and demand economics, changing interests, and new opportunities for satisfying historical curiosity are a few, but the most poignant, like that created by early clear-cutters, is the failure to reseed the hobby.
Oh, I know there are a few of you who give away near-worthless patches to little kids who are dragged into shows. That is sort of like putting a toy surprise in a box of cereal—it provides an immediate, warm feeling, but really, does it do anything more? It is a long-shot gamble disguised as “getting the young involved.”
Think about those seedling trees. That was some forward thinking. The people who planted those were probably not going to be the same people who harvested the fully grown trees. They planted those seedlings for “the next generation.”
The same is true about “getting the kids involved.” Sure, it is great for the next generation—if the hobby survives. But we are at a crisis point. Shows are being cancelled at the same time when collections are coming to market faster than buyers can absorb. With the forest ablaze, it probably isn’t the best use of resources to be “planting seedlings.”
IS IT A FREEFALL?
It isn’t inevitable that the hobby succumbs, but it is likely to follow the same path as Model A restorers, Depression glass collectors, and Beanie-Baby buyers if the hobby—as a whole—doesn’t step in to fight the flames. Right now, “getting the kids involved” isn’t going to help much. Why? Because kids don’t have thousands of dollars with which to pursue their interest. They aren’t likely to have thousands of dollars to play with in the next 20 years, either. They are kids!
The people who can help save the hobby, however, are not the 4-14 crowd, but rather, the 30- to 50-year-olds. Those in this older demographic tend to have jobs, some free time, and extra cash to spend. Our hobbies need to be actively seducing those folks if we want to be sure we have someone to whom we can sell our collections.
Sure, it is a lot easier to hand a patch to a little kid and get a nod of approval from the parent, than it is to approach adults walking off a softball field and saying, “Hey, wanna go for a ride in my WWII Jeep?” But, essentially, that is what we all need to be doing. Perhaps not so forthright, but at least an “adult version” of, “hey buddy, wanna ride in my Jeep?”
It’s do or die time, folks. Time to send out the raiding parties. The only way we are going to get the numbers of cash-spending, free-thinking adults to enter our hobby is to raid their other interests. We need to seduce and convert them to “our way.”
The historic military vehicle community is already pretty adept at this raid and capture technique. You can go to most any air show, car show, or tractor show and you are quite likely going to see a few military vehicles on display. Those military vehicles are planting “fast growth” seeds in a populated pasture. Those seeds, however, have the potential to develop overnight with someone saying, “I sure like my T-bird, but a half-track would be so much cooler.”
We have seen this conversion occur in a number of auctions recently as WWII tanks were driven well past the half-million dollar price. The buyers weren’t your average military vehicle hobbyists. In large part, they were new folks with fresh money entering the hobby. They were men and women who already had Jaguars, swimming pools, yachts, and a variety of other toys. What they didn’t have already was a WWII tank. They brought fresh money into the hobby. Whether they remain in the hobby and contribute, remains to be seen.
For years, the Board of Directors of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA) have cooperated with the boards of antique truck, Jeep, and construction equipment collecting clubs, to cross-pollinate the hobbies. Still, despite these efforts, outside forces like legislation and gas prices are always working against the growth of the historic military vehicle hobby. Cross-pollination can’t be a one-time effort. It must be ongoing and aggressive.
I am not aware of the same sense of hobby preservation, though, on the military relic side of the game. I haven’t seen large-scale efforts from the boards of directors of the Ohio Valley Military Society (OVMS), Orders and Medals Sociey of America (OMSA), or American Society of Military Insignia Collectors (ASMI)C to aggressively develop their customer base. Oh, I know I will get letters that say, “We try… we do a ‘every member get a member’ campaign” or a description of some other passive-aggressive campaign. But as I said, I am not aware of any concerted, funded effort to grow our hobby.
About two decades ago, many museums finally became aware that membership on their individual boards of directors was not a reward for long service or a prestige position. Rather, they realized their survival depended on stacking their boards with hard-working, ground-breaking individuals who would fight for the survival of the institution. As soon as a museum could, it replaced the DAR ladies and local “historians” on their board with retired business men and women. It wasn’t an effort to diminish the importance of what the previous board members played in the history of the institution, but rather, an awakening to the reality that the museum’s survival is like any other business—if you aren’t growing, you are dying. The same is so true for our hobbies.
It is time for members of the collecting communities to demand of their clubs and organizations to stop rewarding people with powerful board positions only to sit and do nothing for the growth of the hobby. Yes, status quo is important, and you need enforcers to maintain it. Internet forums have perfected the “enforcer” role in the guise of “moderators.” Moderators are, by far, the quintessential protectors of the status quo. They clean up the “aisles” of discussions, ban people who don’t play by the rules, and sit back waiting for the next infringement. They contribute to the hobby by keeping it on a path. Their job, however, isn’t that of recruiter.
We need people on the boards of our collecting communities who are going to work for the immediate future of the hobby. While planting seedlings is great, it isn’t going to help when it is time to sell your collection. Our boards need to be filling the thinning lines right now. And to do that, they have to be seducing and recruiting people who have time and money today—not 30 years from now. That will be too late.
What can you do? It might be an old, tired saying, but basically, “Get involved.” Share your passion outside of your comfort zone. Putting on small exhibits at your local museum or VFW might be satisfying to you, but it really isn’t getting the message out to new people. Give talks to your local Chamber of Commerce, ask to be put on the agenda of the local handgun or hot rod club meetings. Think about ways to engage people who have some free time and some extra cash. These are the folks that can enter our hobby today and make a difference.
Challenge your current club or favorite internet forum leadership. Ask them, “What are you doing to insure the hobby will be strong in 5 years, 10 years, and 15 years?” Status quo or passive recruitment is going to provide very favorable results in that time frame.
And, the next time you receive a ballot in the mail, ask yourself, “What is this person going to do promote the hobby?” It really isn’t important if he or she has “been a lifelong collector of SA daggers” or “restored more than five WWII vehicles.” Their qualifications to sit on the boards of our clubs should include, “Has run a profitable business,” “has organized countless groups,” or “led numerous campaign to spread the word about x, y, or z.” (Magazines, by the way, are pretty good at this already—just look at all the unwanted subscription offers you get in the mail! Those are evidence of trying to raid one interest group to find subscribers to another one.)
And yes, after we have those key leadership position filled with people who are working for the hobby, let’s plant some new seedling as we give away those cereal box-like relics to little kids. Who knows, one day they may be sitting on one of the boards of directors guiding our hobby into another generation of collectors who enjoy the material culture of military history.
Promote the hobby to preserve the memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles