Preston Cook has valiantly tried to step quietly into his new life among the 2,500 souls of Wabasha, Minn.

He’s been only partially successful.

“If anyone recently made a big splash around here, it’s him,” said Wabasha Mayor Rollin Hall, who described Cook as “very personable, modest, not arrogant, a good listener. He fits into Wabasha very well.

“But he has been active — and this is about eagles.”

Wabasha — a renowned bald eagle flyway on the Mississippi River and home to the educational nonprofit the National Eagle Center — thought it knew something about obsessions with bald eagles.

Then it met Cook, a confidently understated 70-year-old San Francisco real estate developer.

He came to Wabasha in search of a permanent home for his singular and dumbfounding treasure — the Andy Warhols, the James Audubons, the Roger Tory Petersons and a semitrailer truck trailer full of 20,000 eagle-themed books, photos, statuary, documents, posters, medals, music, advertising, jewelry and everyday ephemera that celebrate the nation’s great bird.

Cook brought his collection, which is worth millions, to Wabasha as a gift for the Eagle Center, which enthusiastically accepted it. Then, he and his wife, Donna, followed the collection from California to the little town on the Mississippi River to oversee its arrival and ultimate display.

“I’m kind of a hoarder,” Cook said with a shrug. “I’m trying to become a donor.”

The Eagle Center, Cook and the town of Wabasha seem to have found one another at an opportune moment.

The center moved from a storefront into its stunning 15,000-square-foot riverside building in 2007. But its 83,000 annual visitors threaten to overcrowd the space. The Eagle Center’s executive director, Rolf Thompson, and the board have been trying to finance expansion for years.

Cook’s collection, accompanied by more than $100,000 to help fund its display, means the expansion now includes two downtown buildings next to the center.

That has brought a lot of construction to Wabasha, Minnesota’s oldest municipality but not its busiest as of late.

“When I got here, there were about 13 properties for sale downtown,” Cook said. “Now it’s just a couple.”

Mayor Hall credits Cook, in part, for the rivertown’s new bustle.

“There does seem to be a lot going on these days,” he said. “Some of that has to be due to what’s going on at the Eagle Center. Lots of people coming through town.”

Hunting for a home

Twelve years ago, one of those people was Preston Cook.

Then 58, he had a successful Bay Area real estate business (he was also commissioner of the Port of San Francisco). He came to town during what would be his 10-year search for a permanent home for his bald eagle collection, a home he hoped would appreciate, preserve and display what had been a principal focus of his life for 30 years.

His search would take him from Alaska (too distant) to Philadelphia (no live eagles) to Tennessee (Dollywood was very briefly in the running), before he settled on Wabasha, which by then boasted a new building for the Eagle Center and a board with a vision to embrace the unexpected gift.

How did this happen, this colossal collection?

Cook will admit to being “a collector” by nature (“I still have an old dresser I bought for $100 when I was 18,” he said). And he is, obviously, consumed by the mystique of the American bald eagle.

“Think about it — everyone has an eagle story,” he said. “Even if that story is, ‘I would love to see an eagle someday.’ … It is the living representation of our country.”

Besides, he added, “no one else was doing this.”

Three events turned Cook’s unfocused inclinations into a lifelong pursuit. First, in 1966, he said, he saw the Herb Gardner movie “A Thousand Clowns,” in which Jason Robards’ character proclaims, “You can’t have too many eagles!”

It was Cook’s Rosebud moment.

An internal switch flipped, Cook said, and he began scouring flea markets and antique stores for anything bearing an eagle — stamps, magazines, carvings, buttons, postcards, jewelry, plaques, coins, currency, flags, sheet music and beer steins.

Second, his real estate business took off, giving him the budget to extend his eagle searches into art galleries and auction houses.

Third? “EBay,” Cook said. “That was a new world for me. It was just endless. Search ‘eagle’ and you get 750,000 hits.”

Word eventually got out that there was a guy in San Francisco amassing an eagle-themed collection. The galleries and auction houses started calling him, and other collectors from all corners of the internet began sending Cook shipping crates of eagle items to examine, on spec.

“I was just inundated,” Cook said. “I had to put a stop to it. It just got out of hand, even for me.”

From cookie jars to Warhol

Cook’s collection is, for now, housed in a warehouse in downtown Wabasha (Cook bought the old American Legion Hall, which is now secure and climate-controlled).

To walk through it with Cook is to see the work of an affably intense one-man team of collectors, curators and archivists. File cabinets, display cases, shelves and work tables burst with thousands upon thousands of items that “tell the story of the American eagle through American history,” he said.

There’s a proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln, with an eagle on the stationery. There’s a Model T radiator cap with an eagle on the top. There’s an original Bowie knife, eagle on the blade. There’s a pair of red-white-and-blue cowboy boots, eagles on the sides. There’s an original Norman Rockwell print, eagle-themed. There’s a cookie jar. Guess what? It’s an eagle.

But it’s walking among the fine art that Cook tells some of his best stories.

The Warhol, a rare print from the artist’s Endangered Species Series, he found in a gallery in Portland, Ore. He worked several years to negotiate its price. (“I have my limits.”) A 5-by-4-foot painting of an eagle in distress is from English painter Robert Havell Jr. — who, Cook pointed out, is also the man who hand-painted the copper-plate engravings brought to him by a young American named James Audubon. Then Cook walks you over to an Audubon eagle print; then an Edward Savage print from 1796 that was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites.

Few people make it into the old Legion Hall for one of Cook’s tours. That will change if the Eagle Center can find $15 million to pay for its plans — a 125-seat event and education space; expanded care for and display of the center’s flock of live bald eagles (all of which have recovered from injuries but cannot survive in the wild); and larger gallery and education spaces, including a gallery next door for the Cook collection.

Thompson said the center has commitments for $2 million, has requested $5 million from the state’s bonding program, and is searching for the rest. They hope for a 2019 grand opening.

In the meantime, Cook is culling, editing and analyzing his great trove. And he and Wabasha continue to get comfortable with each other.

For his part, Cook had grown weary of the hubbub of the booming Bay Area. When his stepchildren moved to Indiana, he and his wife decided to move east permanently. Already, he’s been touched by the warmth of his new neighbors.

“Wabasha is a very social town — it’s great,” Cook said. “Moving to a small town has not been a cultural shock for us.” He added, “Everyone’s so generous. But Midwestern food is different from California food. I put on about 10 pounds since I got here.”

Inevitably, there is the faintest bit of grumbling around town.

Despite Cook’s best efforts to be low-key, he has bought up downtown buildings, the Eagle Center has been public about its gratitude for all his contributions and he is, in fact, a wealthy guy from California who drives around Wabasha in what is apparently the town’s only Tesla.

The mayor has heard some of the talk.

“There are people who don’t have his money who might want to spend his money another way, if you know what I mean,” said Hall. “It’s mostly some old-timers not comfortable with change. But what we have going on here is all good.”

Cook said that most of the townsfolk treat him like a regular guy, even if he occasionally gets stopped and asked about his eagle collection. And he said he has no regrets about exchanging San Francisco for Wabasha — except maybe one.

“If I had known I was going to move to Wabasha,” Cook said, “I would not have bought the Tesla.” 

Tony Brown is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.