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Detailed models of Civil War ironclads, built by an unknown hand.
Detailed models of Civil War ironclads, built by an unknown hand.

Military Memorial Museum

Field review by the editors.

Crossville, Tennessee

The Military Memorial Museum in Crossville hearkens to an earlier time, and not just through its artifacts. Housed in an 1885 courthouse, its display philosophy is "about as eclectic as you can get," according to museum president Mark Pfaffenroth, offering a space packed with thousands of items. Although the relics are generally sectioned into their various wars, they bump into each other with a regularity that prevents them from becoming predictable, and keeps your head on a turret.

The museum fills Crossville's 1885 former courthouse.
The museum fills Crossville's 1885 former courthouse.

The museum has very few in-depth labels. Instead, human QR codes, otherwise known as tour guides, mingle with the public, waiting for a visitor to stop and examine something before leaning in to explain what it is. Maybe there was never a time when museums were exactly like this, but few are like this now.

Another appealing aspect of the museum -- one that would alarm schooled professionals -- is that much of its collection remains somewhat of a mystery. The museum, we were told, was started by an elderly local couple who simply accepted donations from anyone. This created a collection of great diversity but poor record-keeping, which means that many of the artifacts now must stand on their own. "There isn't much information available," was a frequent lament of Mark when we asked about specific items. He said that the museum still doesn't have an inventory of its collection -- estimated at over 5,000 items -- although they're working on it.

Model of Camp Crossville, a World War II POW camp for German and Italian officers.
Model of Camp Crossville, a World War II POW camp for German and Italian officers.

A showcase of impressively-detailed models of Civil War ironclad ships, for example, was donated by a local man, but the museum failed to write down his name. A Japanese silk smoking jacket with a painted portrait of an American GI came to the museum in the mail, its owner unidentified. A copy of Life magazine with the well-known "kissing sailor" World War II photo has been autographed by one of the several men who claimed to be the kisser, but its donor is unknown.

A wax WWII soldier with her Women Airforce Service Pilots patch.
A wax WWII soldier with her Women Air Force Service Pilots patch.

When he first started going through the displays, Mark said, he found a Spanish World War II pistol still loaded with live ammunition. "Well, we can't have that laying around," he recalled thinking at the time, although he had no idea how long it had been there.

Some of the more regional items do have a remembered history. The "Brady Box," a chest made of rot-resistant local wood, was buried deep beneath a stable by a Crossville family to hide their valuables from marauding Civil War raiders. The marble tombstone of Confederate private W.A. Yancey was discovered in an East Tennessee landfill. "We were going to give it back," said Mark, "but when we found out he had a new tombstone we decided to keep it."

A .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun was another local donation. "Apparently a man in Crossville had it sitting in his living room for years." said Mark. "People just have a lot of different things."

Some of the relics are not what they appear to be. A Confederate cannon, whose muzzle points ominously at visitors as they enter the museum, is a 20th century replica built by a Civil War cosplayer ("It fires and everything," said Mark). A battered bazooka is in fact a Hollywood prop (from Saving Private Ryan), as are the Nazi uniforms in the POW camp display (Band of Brothers).

Yokohama kimono with hand-painted GI hanky.
Yokohama kimono with hand-painted GI hanky.

The POW camp exhibit is one area of the museum where much is known, since the camp occupied several hundred acres outside of town. Chosen because of its then-remote location, Camp Crossville opened in 1942, housing captured officers from Rommel's Afrika Korps. "It was anything but bad," said Mark of life in Camp Crossville. "They had a theater troupe. They would order stuff out of the Sears catalog." The Germans could even drink beer, a beverage verboten to every American in dry Cumberland County. Among the relics on display in the museum are floorboards from one of the camp barracks, a big light bulb from one of its guard towers, and a coffin crate used to send a dead POW back to Germany. A miniature model of the camp, made by museum volunteers in 2012, includes a smokestack for the camp's boiler room. "A visitor asked me, 'Is that where they incinerated the German prisoners?'" said Mark. "I told her, 'No, ma'am, we didn't do that.'"

The museum collection spans rough 250 years of armed conflict, ranging from a display of elaborate military sash badges worn during the Napoleonic wars (Mark said that they were found in a bombed-out museum on the Germany-France frontier) to a "TopGun" tank gunner trainer, built for the U.S. Army, which looks like something from a 1980s arcade and is unloved by the current museum staff because it no longer works and takes up valuable exhibit space. We suggested to Mark that some local kids could MacGyver it with a version of Battlezone, the vintage wireframe vector-graphic tank battle video game. He said that he'd consider it.

The Military Memorial Museum has the vibe of an overstuffed Victorian salon, and we hope it never changes, even if the collection does become somewhat better organized. "We've tried to clean it up so you could actually see a few more things," said Mark, "but I don't want it to be sterile. I go in there all the time and find something new. We're working to preserve that feel."

Military Memorial Museum

Address:
20 S. Main St., Crossville, TN
Directions:
I-40 exit 322. Turn south onto TN-101. Drive a half-mile. At the four-corner stop bear right onto US-70. Drive 2.5 miles into town. At the stoplight turn right onto US-127/Main St. Drive three blocks. The museum will be on the left.
Hours:
M-F 10-3 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
931-250-5520
Admission:
Donations welcome.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Afrika Korps POW CampAfrika Korps POW Camp, Crossville, TN - 5 mi.
Rock City BarnRock City Barn, Crossville, TN - 8 mi.
Boy Scout 1929 Flash Flood MemorialBoy Scout 1929 Flash Flood Memorial, Rockwood, TN - 19 mi.
In the region:
Airplane Filling Station, Powell, TN - 56 mi.

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