By Patrick Winderl
BIG SANDY - In the banquet room of a bar in Big Sandy is a 16-foot plaque bearing the names of more than 800 people. Painted beside 22 of the names are white crosses.
Each name is that of a Big Sandy resident who served in the military, from World War I through Vietnam, and the 22 crosses represent those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The plaque, which consists of two 4-by-8 wooden panels, has adorned the wall of the Mint Bar for the last two years. It is there thanks to the hard work of a woman who spent more than four years compiling a list of every veteran from Big Sandy.
Ruth Pegar said she first became interested in the project a decade ago, when she worked at the museum in Big Sandy and helped compile a list of World War II veterans for a book that was printed in 1995.
The book, titled "The War Years," was published by Curtis Media Corp. and profiled hundreds of Chouteau County residents who served in World War II. Pegar said she has heard that at one time Chouteau County had more people per capita serving in the military than any other county in the United States, though she has been unable to confirm it.
Several years after working on the book, Pegar decided she wanted to do something to honor vets from Big Sandy who served in conflicts dating from World War I to Vietnam.
She was able to get many of the names from the local VFW club, but then the search became more difficult.
"After that, they were kind of hard to find," she said.
Pegar contacted government agencies in Fort Benton, Helena and Washington, D.C., hoping to expand her list. She put ads in the local paper asking people to send in photos and information about relatives who served in the military.
"I wrote articles in the Mountaineer saying, 'We need more, we need more, we need more,'" Pegar said.
Finally, after more than four years of research, she had developed a list of about 800 names. The next step was finding a way to commemorate them. Pegar initially looked at engraving the names on a metal plate, but finally decided to have Altec Graphics in Havre design and create a wall-mounted wooden display. The names are painted in black and divided by conflict. The memorial is surrounded by red, white and blue lights.
Pegar was given some money by local service organizations to help pay for the memorial, but much of the cost she paid out of her own pocket.
"I don't object to that. Think what these kids had to pay for it," she said, pointing to the plaque during a recent interview in Big Sandy.
Pegar said she was inspired to honor Big Sandy vets because so many people she knows have served in the military. Among the names on the memorial are those of her seven brothers.
Her son is in the Army Reserve and deployed in Iraq.
"They've been eating camel," she said. "He doesn't think much of it."
The museum in Big Sandy also has a list of the community's veterans. The list fills about 10 sheets of paper and is surrounded by photos of the 22 residents of Big Sandy who have been killed in combat since World War I.
"These are kids I knew real well," Pegar said, pointing to pictures of several World War II casualties. Among the photos are those of Kenneth King, Pegar's former neighbor, and Clarence Randall, a former classmate.
Initially, Pegar planned to display the memorial in the museum where she worked, but when that didn't pan out, she tried the Big Sandy Fire Hall.
That was nixed when it was determined that the plaques might be an obstruction for firefighters, so Pegar turned to the community for help. She published an advertisement in the local newspaper, and soon heard from the owners of the Mint Bar.
Walt and Judy Sivertsen contacted Pegar and said they would like to display it in the banquet room of the Mint.
Judy Sivertsen said the response to the memorial has been overwhelmingly positive.
"We've had a lot of comments on that," she said. "They think it's neat. They stop in to see if their relative's name is on it, and if it's not, they let us know so we can add it."
The Mint is a good home for the memorial because of the amount of exposure it receives.
"It seemed like a good place for it," she said. "This is kind of a community restaurant and bar."
"Actually, it's the best place in town for it," she said, adding that the response has been "good, good, good."
Many of the veterans whose names appear on the plaque still live in Big Sandy. Outside the Mint Bar, Pegar received a hug from Big Sandy resident Dave Berg, whose name just happens to be on Pegar's plaque.