Summer Road Trip: Russell Military Museum
In our yearly Summer Road Trip series, we venture outside the city limits in search of good, clean, and inexpensive summer fun. Starting close to home and working our way out, we’ll cover everything from indoor laser tag arenas in Waukesha to illicit swimming quarries in Redgranite.
Summer Road Trip destination: Russell Military Museum
Distance from Milwaukee: 39.8 miles
The roadside attraction is a dying art. Many towns were built around the strange things one could see from the highway; unfortunately, these locations now struggle in the modern world. One such intriguing, out-of-time site is a lot full of old military vehicles sitting along I-94 near the Wisconsin/Illinois border. Almost everyone heading to a concert in Chicago cranes their necks when they see this mix of Jeeps, trucks, and tanks piled together near the Russell Road freeway exit. For $10 a pop, visitors get a chance to see these war machines up close, and even climb into a few of them. Or, at the very least, see how many Fallout 3 flashbacks they can trigger.
The Russell Military Museum is the public exhibition of a private military collection. Mark Sonday began his military collection like many do: he was a gun collector. Sonday comes from a family of veterans. Small pieces became larger pieces. Larger pieces became multiple pieces. Multiple pieces became home to a Red Army helicopter. He initially exhibited them at a nearby farm, but decided to move to the current space about five years ago to take advantage of the higher visibility from the highway. His collection spans World War II to the Gulf War, with most of the pieces being from the Korean War and the Vietnam (ahem) Conflict.
Most of the World War II pieces are housed in an internal garage for better preservation. The two most impressive pieces are a light Stuart tank and a Sherman tank. Standing next to these machines feels historical, even if they seem smaller than what a WWII tank should look like. The internal garage space holds plenty of other vehicles, including a Harley-Davidson scout bike in decent condition. There are also quite a few smaller pieces, ranging from pistols to newspaper clippings scattered through the display cases. The exhibit feel less like a museum and more like going through someone’s very specific attic. Replica rifles sit next to real grenades. Eras of warfare blend into each other like a four-day Call Of Duty bender.
The area just outside the door allows for some slight interactivity. A few pieces sit ready while visitors sit, giggle, and prepare for camera-phone pictures. There’s a Humvee, a chopper body, and a few other vehicles. These have seen better days, as evidenced by the bullet holes in the windshield of the Hummer. But it’s easy to take a moment and feel like an action hero inside these machines—or, you know, observe some respectful silence. Walking inside lets visitors take in just how bombarded with information they are, from the dials in the cockpits to the stencils on the side. The vehicles are still impressive, even with panels missing and wiring sticking out like weeds.
The cracked lot of the museum features most of the vehicles that can’t fit indoors. Many of them are aircraft, like fighter jets or crane helicopters. The signage and trivia is less obvious here, but the pieces are bigger. Sonday purchases multiple vehicles in the way that baseball card collectors have multiple Ryan Braun cards. It’s usually a lot easier to expand the collection with trade stock rather than straight cash.
The most interesting thing to see at the museum is the hollowed-out fuselage of a fighter jet. The approach looks out onto the highway, which is an impressive visual on its own, but Sonday has parked a Bluth-style stair-car next to the cockpit. Visitors ascend the staircase to look inside and see a mostly intact cockpit.
The journey ends where it began: in the gift shop. Sonday holds court there, deftly answering questions from veterans about his collection, and about military equipment in general. Collecting isn’t as easy as it once was. The prices for Iraq War memorabilia are still too high. Auctions that used to be attended solely by Sonday and the scrap metal guy are now filled with potential buyers. The collection is a celebration of history, but not the stoic reverence of The History Channel or any WWII movie. It’s more like how history truly is: scattered, valuable, and totally worth the price of admission.
Other nearby destinations of note:
• 7 Mile Fair: It’s either this or those outlet malls.