New book shows off National Eagle Center collection
Preston Cook's eagle collection has reached more than 25,000 items, everything from fine art to kitsch and pieces of Americana.
WABASHA — Preston Cook still has his first eagles.
On his dress uniform from when he joined the Army in 1966 were a pair of gold-plated brass buttons.
"They’ve been on every navy jacket I’ve owned since," he said. "About six or seven of them."
Coming from a family that had collected things, Cook said collecting came naturally to him. And one day, seeing the 1965 movie "A Thousand Clowns," Cook said a line uttered by Jason Robards’ character, Murray Burns, stuck with him.
"You can never have too many eagles," Cook said, repeating the line.
Taking that as a motto, Cook began buying eagles, focusing on how the bird was used as a symbol.
"I started picking up things, postcards, political pins and buttons, knick knacks, ashtrays," he said. "I always managed to set aside money to embellish my collection."
That collection has reached more than 25,000 items, everything from fine art to kitsch and pieces of Americana. Cook donated that collection to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. And, now, anyone who would like to see a selection of that collection, can take it home in book form.
Now available is Cook’s latest labor of love, "American Eagle: A Visual History of Our National Emblem," a book that highlights a cross-section of his collection.
The book is divided in sections, looking at how the eagle is used as a symbol in the military, in politics, in protest, in commerce, in art, in decoration, and in four other categories. Cook said he has about 60 categories in his own cataloging of the collection, and each of those categories is subdivided many times more.
As the years went on, Cook kept adding to his collection. When he started a real estate investment company in 1992, Cook said he realized he had the money and wanted to now devote the time needed to make his collection something truly unique.
"When I had more financial success, it allowed me to collect more eagle items," Cook said. "That could be prints for $1,000 or $5,000, or an Audubon for $25,000."
All the time and resources created something not found anywhere else. Cook said in doing research on items to purchase, he came across other individuals collecting eagle art and Americana. None, though, matched what he owned.
"No one had a collection anywhere near what I had," he said. "I felt it was important to American history to do what I was doing."
Through it all, Cook’s love of eagles has grown over the years. When he started, Cook said he didn’t know the difference between bald eagles and golden eagles, and while he’d likely seen one in a zoo growing up, he didn’t know when he first saw a live eagle, in captivity or in the wild.
"My collection is primarily the symbolism of the bald eagle," Cook said. Still, he’s come to understand the importance of the live birds. As a board member of the American Bald Eagle Foundation, a raptor center and history museum located in Haines, Alaska, he won the bid at a fundraising auction to release a bald eagle into the wild.
"It’s one of my favorite pictures of me," he said.
But when he considered a place to house his collection, remote Haines — a town often reached by ferry instead of by road — didn’t seem the right fit. He also considered Philadelphia, but the birthplace of the Constitution didn’t have enough live eagles.
Cook said he first heard about Wabasha and Eagle Watch, the predecessor of and current governing body of the National Eagle Center, in the early 2000s. He came out to meet MaryBeth Garrigan, one of the organization’s early members, and founding member Mary Rivers.
"I was here in 2007 when they opened this building," Cook said, explaining his many years connected to the Eagle Center. "I saw the possibilities in it right away."
Cook said he loved Wabasha immediately. Between the live birds at the Eagle Center, it’s Midwest location and the city’s friendly, helpful people, he knew he’d found a home for his collection. In fact, he’s bought a home on the river and moved to Wabasha "basically full time for the last three years."
Often, in the mornings, he’ll see those live, wild birds, swooping down on the river for their own breakfast as he enjoys his morning coffee. The birds, he said, are often out in abundance as the sun comes up.
"It’s an added benefit of being right here in Wabasha and seeing the live birds," Cook said. "You see people, and they stop in their tracks and they watch."
As the Eagle Center raises money and plans for an $18 million expansion, Cook’s collection is a big part of the reason why.
Cook said he hopes the collection will enhance and complement the current educational programs the Eagle Center provides, giving people a reason to come back, and maybe attracting a new brand of visitor as well.
In the meantime, there is the book. The large, glossy pages featuring 1,340 images of items from the collection can be bought through major online retailers and at the Eagle Center. Proceeds from sales will go to the Eagle Center and help with its efforts to bring the symbol of our National Bird to the public.
"The book is enduring, and it will be part of this institution for years to come," Cook said.
Preston Cook will be signing his book at several events in Southeast Minnesota. Here are some dates.
April 25, 6-9 p.m. at the Wabasha Public Library, 168 Allegheny Ave., Wabasha.
April 27, 2-3 p.m. at the National Eagle Center, 50 Pembroke Ave., Wabasha.
April 27, 6-8:30 p.m. during Taste of Wabasha at the National Eagle Center, 50 Pembroke Ave., Wabasha.
June 5, 7-8 p.m., Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis.