Recognizing George M. Chinn
George M. Chinn was a military arms expert and innovator and a former Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) director. Now he is the subject of a new exhibit at the Kentucky Military History Museum (KMHM). Chinn was many things, but above all, he was a character. If you said that to a room full of people, you would see nodding heads and lots of knowing smiles—and all who knew him would have a story to tell to prove the point.
A favorite goes like this: When he was 5 years old, Chinn took apart a Gatling gun and put it back together in working order. It took him a while, but he did it without help. It was a defining moment that signified his love and aptitude for firearms and showed his stubborn determination to see a task to completion.
Born in 1902, Chinn spent much of his childhood in Frankfort. One can imagine him beating a well-worn path from the state penitentiary, where his father was warden, to the arsenal, a building he later would help set on its present course. The arsenal manager probably had mixed feelings about him, both enjoying his inquisitiveness and tiring of the many questions he had to have asked.
When he was a teen, Chinn’s father sent his son to Millersburg Military Institute. That experience led him to ROTC at Centre College, where they asked the robust young man to play football. Therein lies another story: Sidelined once with an injury, Chinn was not content just to sit on the bench. He pitched in to help Charley Moran coach the team to its historic 1921 win over Harvard, breaking the Ivy League team’s two-season unbeaten streak.
Moran recognized Chinn’s natural leadership ability—so much so, that when Moran left Centre for another coaching job, he summoned Chinn to join him. Chinn was a good coach and had a promising career. But, he saw another opportunity and dropped coaching to open a restaurant – in a cave – near Harrodsburg. He and his wife, Cotton, did more than open a restaurant in a cave.
The Cave House also had a speakeasy (this was during the days of Prohibition) and an indoor firing range. Stories from the Cave House made Chinn a local legend. The list of Chinn’s life and career accomplishments grows even more diverse from the 1930s on. He was a bodyguard for Kentucky Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler, guide at the state capitol, Sergeant of Arms for the Kentucky Legislature and a production line inspector for weapons’ manufacturers.
There, he further developed his knowledge and expertise of military arms. During World War II, despite being too old and too large, Chinn became a Marine—with Chandler’s help. Chinn’s reputation as a weapons expert and innovator preceded him. Before long, he was the Navy’s go-to person when someone had a weapons problem to solve. This ability to innovate and improve is a focus of the exhibit, “George M. Chinn: Sights Set on Innovation.” “What I admire most is his mind,” said KHS curator Bill Bright, who helped put together the exhibit. Chinn could “visualize” solutions to problems. “He did for military weapons what Wozniak and Gates did for computers. He added the right pieces to make them reliable and usable. He was what was then called a garage (in his case, cave) inventor.
Today we would consider him an extreme maker,” Bright said. After Chinn retired from the Marines, he became director of the Kentucky Historical Society. Yet, he continued to consult with the Navy on weapons problems. At KHS, he was instrumental in the development of the Kentucky Military History Museum, which is, and was, a joint venture between KHS and the Department of Military Affairs housed at the arsenal.
Chinn stepped down from his post as KHS director to be deputy director in 1973 so he could serve as KMHM director. He brought to his new post a wealth of knowledge, his personal collection and a collection he had put together for a Smithsonian museum that never developed. He was a character, and he never lost his “maker spirit.” At the time of his death, he still was trouble-shooting a weapons problem that needed to be fixed.