By: Matthew E. Becher & Harold McFarland
Oringinally Published: February, 2010 in the Boone County Recorder
At its February, 2009, meeting, the Boone County Historic Preservation Board was pleased to welcome a new member – Boone County resident and author, Harold McFarland. During the session, Mr. McFarland asked who had destroyed the Frank Milburn factory building on Park Street at the edge of town. After the meeting, a couple of us drove to the site. Hal was right! The building was gone, and the entire area was covered with fresh straw.
The World War II project Milburn had worked on here was as secretive as the Manhattan Project (building the first A Bomb). He, along with local help, secretly made a key component for the Norden Bombsight – a mechanism which gave bombardiers far greater accuracy. Milburn’s shop was part of a network of military contractors deliberately scattered across the United States to avoid detection by the enemy. Exact records of where parts were made and by whom are scarce. Milburn’s was one of the few documented production sites.
After the war, Frank became a self-help guru for would-be inventors. He reached out to these hopeful entrepreneurs around the world through syndicated newspaper columns and his own local TV show which not only showcased real-life success stories but also gave practical advice. Thousands personally visited Frank in Burlington, and an estimated 100,000 letters flooded the tiny Burlington post office over the years. Thanks to these activities, the Milburn property was considered so significant to the history of the region and nation that it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
I knew that Frank’s wife had donated the 9-acre property to the University of Nebraska Foundation in late 2007, and I had informed the Foundation of its historic significance in mid-2008. Despite this, and without securing a demolition permit, the Foundation hired a local contractor to destroy this irreplaceable chapter of Boone County’s heritage. When asked about the lack of a demolition permit, the Foundation’s representative indicated that he had assumed that the contractor would secure the proper permit. This assumption has robbed Burlington of one of its most significant contributions to the war effort.
The Foundation’s only concession has been to agree to allow us to purchase and erect a bronze plaque on the edge of the property. Over the past year, Review Board members and staff have worked with Judge Moore’s office in an effort to reach some sort of middle ground with the University of Nebraska Foundation, hoping that they would want to avoid the negative publicity that this “oversight” might bring them back home. The question remains as to whether the bronze plaque offer is adequate.