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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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Memorabilia Mecca

December 20, 2010 - 11:24 AM | by: Douglas Kennedy

The main wall of Bannerman Castle rises over the Hudson, 50 miles north of New York City.   The words “Bannerman Castle Arsenal” are plastered in giant letters on its side announcing it presence to south-bound river traffic.  Last week historian Thom Johnson, was there examining the structure, which he says is an essential part of American military history and a “Mecca of military memorabilia.”

“It was where many of the items that are now collected and sold on the military collecting market were once stored.”

Stored by the island’s namesake:  Francis Bannerman, who many refer to as the father of the modern-day army-navy surplus stores.

In fact, by 1890,  Bannerman had purchased 90 percent of the captured military goods from the Spanish-American War, having already collected much of the surplus from The Civil and Revolutionary Wars.

“Some of that was stored here,” said Johnson, as he looked over the castle’s many stone turrets. “In fact that was the reason the island was purchased and the arsenal was constructed.”

Before the turn of the Century, Johnson explained, Bannerman had so much military surplus, he didn’t know where to put them. Much of it was explosives so he didn’t want to keep it near residential areas.

“One day he and his wife were on a boat on the Hudson and he spotted an island in the middle of the river,” said Johnson. “He immediately purchased it.”

And built the Scottish-type castle as an arsenal. He also built a gothic residence, both sitting  just below West Point Military Academy.

“From there he built an empire,” said Johnson. He had  both a catalogue and a store at 501 Broadway in Manhattan.

“He was very successful,” added Johnson.

In the 50’s and 60’s, the island and castle were so dear to Americans, they were featured as the final scene in Hello Dolly, and as a travel marker in North by Northwest.

But today the majestic brick buildings are in disrepair—- destroyed by decades of neglect.  Last winter the East wall collapsed in a snow storm, and Johnson fears more will fall soon unless something is done… And done quickly.

“This is part of Americana,” said Johnson. “The story of the Bannerman business is the story of great entrepreneurial spirit. He also built this extraordinary structure that can be used in many ways to teach and enlighten our lives.”

Johnson and his group, The Bannerman Castle Trust now have a plan to secure the castle and restore the Bannerman residence to its original glory.

They’ve applied for government funding, but are looking for others who want to help.

“[People] can give whatever money they can or they can volunteer their time,” he said. “We really do want the public to be involved in any way they can to help save this.

He says anyone interested in saving the castle can go to Bannermancastle.org for more information.

Photo credit: Thom Johnson