Russell Military Museum
The Kenosha Military Museum (May 2008: now called the Russell Military Museum) isn't about war, or patriotism, or even about the military, really. It's about hardware -- the bigger, the better.
It's also about Mark Sonday, the rarely-seen owner and supplier of exhibits for what must be the largest private collection of war surplus in the country.
Mark opened this place in 1986, following a path that we've seen before: a collection gets too big, the obsessed collector turns the collection into a museum so that he can buy more stuff for the collection. In Mark's case this move was obviously warranted. One cannot keep a Sherman tank in the basement, or a Skycrane helicopter in the back yard -- at least not for very long.
The museum's exhibits are spread across 15 acres. Mark is away most of the time, buying tanks and bombs, so his wife Joyce runs the place. She sells training grenades in the gift shop, among other chores. Since most of the museum is outdoors, and since Joyce and Mark live south of the border in Illinois, Joyce sees no reason to drive up here and open the museum when it rains. This is thoughtful, in a way, but it also requires that visitors call ahead if the weather seems spotty.
The grass near the gift shop is kept mowed, and the hardware is displayed on concrete pads with little signs on weathered wood pedestals. At least you know the name of what it is that you're looking at: a Higgins Boat landing craft, an M-48 Bridge Layer, a Sexton self-propelled gun. But walk a little further, into the back acreage, and the Kenosha Military Museum reveals itself what it is at heart -- a dream-come-true junkyard that any 12-year-old would understand and appreciate. Rusting tanks, jeeps, trucks, missiles, humvees, halftracks, and helicopters are everywhere, scattered among the scrub pine, weeds, and wildflowers.
Veterans who visit this place to relive their youth may be in for a bit of a shock. Mark doesn't have much of a maintenance budget, and most of his collection shows its age -- plus it had the crap beaten out of it when it was young. Hatches are missing, glass is cracked, paint is flaking, rust is everywhere. If you tried to take any of this stuff into battle now, you'd be dead in five seconds. That is, if you could get it to run at all.
But that isn't the point. Mark, like any good collector with spare parts or resale on his mind, goes for quantity over quality when he can get it, hoping to trade up in the future. Most of his duplicates are for sale, with all of the profit, we imagine, plowed back into the collection.
And lest we give the wrong impression, some of the surplus that Mark has on display here is still in good running order. Mark, for example, has a particular fondness for the M-4 Sherman tank -- he has eight of them. On those days when he is here, he sometimes fires up one of the Shermans and crushes cars with it.
Wisconsin has always been a little chary of Mark and Joyce's museum. It's one of the first things that visitors see when they drive into the state on I-94, and that probably rubs some bureaucrats in Madison the wrong way. Since 2002 the village of Pleasant Prairie has been trying to move the museum -- and a couple of nearby porno book stores -- somewhere else. The Puppetmasters would rather have hotels and restaurants here, but who would eat and sleep in them if there was nothing to see?
Instead, Wisconsin should deed several dozen more acres to Mark, and give him the purchasing and maintenance budget for a world-class armored juggernaut. Imagine the crowds that would flock here if Mark could get his hands on a Flying Wing, or an atomic cannon?