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This 1913 Cadillac with a 1916 Holmes wrecker, part of the collection at the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum, is a reproduction of the world's first commercial wrecker, built by the Ernest Holmes company in Chattanooga.

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Military families

Military families visiting Blue Star Museums this summer will find a loose interpretation of the word "museum."

Yes, there's plenty of fine art to be experienced, but there are also science museums, history museums, zoos, nature centers and children's museums in this network of facilities offering free admission to military families in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and American Samoa.

Which is why the troop of chimpanzees at Chattanooga Zoo and a restored 1926 Ford Model T at the International Towing Museum may prove just as popular as the decorative glassware at the Houston Museum and the Renoir paintings on view at the Hunter Museum.

The Hunter has participated since 2012, and its numbers have grown from 61 the first year to 423 in 2018, according to Cara McGowan, director of marketing and communications.

Marketing coordinator Ashley Owens says this is the first year that Chattanooga Zoo has taken part, but 667 visitors took advantage of the program just last month. It's not just the chance to enjoy the animals that some visitors have found meaningful. At least one was "in tears and very appreciative of the recognition" for military families, Owens says.

This is the 10th summer for Blue Star Museums, which is presented by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Defense and Blue Star Families, an organization that works to build community support for military families. For three months, stretching from Memorial Day to Labor Day, some 2,000 tourist attractions open their doors for free to active-duty military personnel and their immediate families, as well as National Guard and Reserves.

Not just an opportunity to enjoy the nation's cultural heritage through a vacation or staycation, the freebies are sometimes a way for families to learn about their new communities when they've made a military move.

Thirty-seven museums in Tennessee are taking part, along with 36 in Georgia and 27 in Alabama, according to a list compiled at www.arts.gov/bluestarmuseums.

"We've seen the tremendous impact the Blue Star Museums program brings to our military families, and we're thrilled to be celebrating a decade of support," says Kathy Roth-Douquet, chief executive officer of Blue Star Families. "Not only are museums fun to explore but are also great for making memories and strengthening military families as a whole."

Unlike some programs, Blue Star Museums does not extend free admission to veterans and retirees, although many attractions do offer reduced or special rates to the older military population.

Instead, Blue Star Museums is "an effort to improve the quality of life for active-duty military families, especially focusing on the approximately 2 million children who have had at least one parent deployed since 2001," according to www.arts.gov. "Blue Star Museums was created to show support for military families who have faced multiple deployments and the challenges of reintegration. This program offers these families a chance to visit museums this summer when many will have limited resources and limited time to be together."

The program is also a way to get recognition for out-of-the-ordinary attractions like the International Towing Museum. The Broad Street attraction has logged several visitors from military families this summer, says Jim Starry, who mans the gift shop. "When they come through, they love it," he says.

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.

TO PARTICIPATE

The Blue Star Museums free admission program is available for those currently serving in the U.S. military — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard as well as members of the Reserves, National Guard, U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps, NOAA Commissioned Corps — and up to five family members.

Qualified members must show a Geneva Convention common access card (CAC), DD Form 1173 ID card (dependent ID) or a DD Form 1173-1 ID card for entrance into a participating Blue Star Museum.

See the complete list of participating attractions at www.arts.gov/bluestarmuseums.

AROUND THE REGION

Chattanooga

› Chattanooga Zoo, 301 N. Holtzclaw Ave.

› Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, 201 High St.

› Hunter Museum of American Art, 10 Bluff View

› International Towing & Recovery Museum, 3315 Broad St.

Cowan, Tennessee

› Cowan Railroad Museum, 108 Front St.

Rome, Georgia

› Oak Hill & the Martha Berry Museum, 24 Veterans Highway NE

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