Taking a spin around the property in an M113 armored personnel carrier.
Taking a spin around the property in an M113 armored personnel carrier.

Russell Military Museum

Field review by the editors.

Russell, Illinois

If you travel just south of the Wisconsin state line on I-94 you'll see an arsenal of parked fighter jets, helicopters, and tanks. Too old to be an active military base, too neat to be a scrapyard, it's the Russell Military Museum: the personal armory of the Sonday family, who've been sharing their government-castoff hardware with the public since 1986.

Outside the museum entrance: an MGM-5 nuclear missile.
Outside the museum entrance: an MGM-5 nuclear missile.

"We enjoy the tanks and big stuff," said Kyle Sonday, museum VP and son of Mark Sonday, who started amassing the collection in the late 1970s. Despite appearances, the Sondays' interest is in military history, not active firepower (Those who want to blast away with weapons will need to go elsewhere). Following a path that we've seen before, the museum evolved out of a private obsession that grew too big. One cannot keep a howitzer in the basement or a Skycrane helicopter in the back yard -- at least not for very long.

Sign indicates why it's wise to keep the hatches open.
Sign indicates why it's wise to keep the hatches open.

Inside the museum's 10,000-square-foot building (a former car dealership) is some nicely preserved armament, but most of the vehicles are outside, in various states of repair and disrepair, spread across 15 acres. Adjacent to the museum's front door is an MGM-5 nuclear missile (one of two nukes in the collection), but the back lot is the real heart of the museum, a dream-come-true salvage yard that any 12-year-old would appreciate. Tanks, jeeps, trucks, and Humvees are everywhere, along with amphibious landing ships, halftracks, helicopters, fighter jets, and at least one hovercraft.

Huey Cobra attack helicopter guards a shipping container.
Huey Cobra attack helicopter guards a shipping container.

(Because so much of the museum is outdoors, the Sondays close it in bad weather, so call before you visit).

One tank, an M1 Abrams, is in fact an Australian Centurion with a fake exterior, a clever makeover engineered by the Sondays when the U.S. government refused to loan an American tank for the filming of Courage Under Fire. "It had unsavory American soldiers," said Kyle, explaining the military's reluctance to help the movie-makers.

12-foot-long, 1:100 scale model of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy.
12-foot-long, 1:100 scale model of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy.

For an extra charge visitors can be bump-and-rumbled around the property in a tank-tracked M113 armored personnel carrier -- a good way, Kyle said, to briefly experience the hard knocks of military life. Also out back is an "egress trainer" -- it looks a little like Sealab -- that was designed to toss soldiers around like a tumble dryer to imitate a troop transport that's been hit by a roadside bomb. The trainer is a static display for now, said Kyle, although he hopes to eventually figure out how to safely allow visitors to ride it.

Apollo-era relics and displays are an unexpected museum bonus.
Apollo-era relics and displays are an unexpected museum bonus.

Tourists eager to get to the big weapons out back might rush through the indoor museum -- and that would be a mistake, for it shelters some surprising relics. The "dog doo transmitter," for example, is a homing beacon encased in a simulated turd. "The idea," said Kyle, "is that it would be left on the ground undisturbed by the enemy, because who's gonna touch it?"

Another oddity is a full-size model of an experimental tilt-rotor aircraft, supposedly Russian, that Kyle later learned was actually built by an American company that went bankrupt. "We bought it from this guy in Austin," said Kyle. "He also had a MiG-21, so we think he must have painted it Russian to match his motif."

Self-propelled artillery parking only: an M4 Sherman next to an M7 Priest.
Self-propelled artillery parking only: an M4 Sherman next to an M7 Priest.

The most unexpected exhibit in the museum is its small collection of space relics -- some of it space-flown -- purchased from a NASA facility in Alabama. There's a glove which, according to its accompanying sign, cost the government $7,500; a large model of an Apollo capsule complete with miniature moon men; a space suit that was worn during Zero G training; and an unused pair of astronaut underwear.

Souvenir grenades.
Souvenir grenades.

One case displays several dozen tiles from the Space Shuttle, items that were apparently low in the value hierarchy of NASA artifacts. "They put 'em in a box with no packing, taped it up, and FedEx'd 'em to me," said Kyle.

The gift shop, also part of the main building, sells a variety of war surplus, such as dummy grenades used for training and official U.S. military can openers for the museum's vintage field rations, which, according to Kyle, includes peanut butter from World War II and ham-and-eggs-in-a-can from 1968.

Kyle noted that the popularity of video games such as Call of Duty and World of Tanks has vastly increased the public's familiarity with military hardware, especially among young people. While this has boosted popular interest in places such as the Russell Military Museum, it has also led to some unreasonable expectations. "It blows my mind," Kyle said, "when an eight-year-old comes in here, knows every tank ever made, and wonders why we don't have them all."

Russell Military Museum

Address:
43363 US-41, Russell, IL
Directions:
I-94 exits 1 or 1A just south of the IL-WI state line. Drive west, then turn north along the frontage road to the museum, on the right side.
Hours:
Open April-Nov., hours and days vary. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
847-395-7020
Admission:
Adults $10
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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