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Major eagle art collection to land in Wabasha

Preston Cook, who lives part time in Wabasha, talks about a display in the National Eagle Center highlighting some of the 20,000 items he has in his collection of all things related the bald eagle. He is donating the collection to the eagle center.
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WABASHA — Six words, "You can't have too many eagles," spoken in an old movie shifted art collector Preston Cook's passion to the bald eagle, eventually leading to a $2 million collection of about 20,000 items, including an Andy Warhol original.

His desire to find a proper home so the collection can be shown to the world led him to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha.

Center Executive Director Rolf Thompson announced the donation Tuesday, while 13 state senators were touring the facility to learn about Wabasha's appeal for $4.5 million in state bonding. The National Eagle Center is seeking the money for three projects, including expanding the building so it can house the art collection. Thompson said many more announcements about the collection are coming.

Cook, who spends his summers and early autumns in a nearby condominium and goes back to California for the rest of the year, said he never saw eagles while growing up in Evanston, Ill. He was an avid collector of many things, but about 45 years ago, when he saw the movie "A Thousand Clowns" and heard those six words, he got rid of everything else and focused on the American eagle.

It's "something that has taken over my life," said the retired real estate investor. "It has turned out to be a monumental task."


He chose the eagle because of its importance in the world history as a symbol of a nation, armies and courage. In the United States, that began June 20, 1782, when the bald eagle was chosen as the American symbol, Cook said. It was soon adopted on mastheads of newspapers and by the military.

His collection focuses on that symbolism. "I'm trying to get the connection to the eagle, how it impacted our lives from the earliest days," he said. It's goes back to the Roman eagle on the legion's banner, to Egypt and even Mesopotamia. "It's a strong symbol."

Cook's collection includes the paintings of Warhol and John James Audubon, to brochures, to simple things with the eagle on it, to stories of Old Abe — the eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War.

Cook is 69 and has decided it's time to find a permanent home for his collection. "I felt it deserved a home and shouldn't be sold piecemeal," he said.

There are also eagle centers in Alaska and Tennessee, but he didn't think the other two states would work. Wabasha, on the other hand, is in the nation's heartland, it has live eagles and Wabasha "is a wonderful community," he said.

The collection is being cataloged and now has 13,000 entries, he said. He plans to buy a building in downtown Wabasha so items can be displayed before the eagle center finishes its expansion. He said he'd like to have a major collection on display at all times, and rotate some items in and out.

"It deserves a first-class home and it could be done here," he said.

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