Touching History at the Military History Society of Rochester

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I have logged many, many hours over the years visiting battlefields, historical homes, living heritage sites, reenactments, roadside markers and all sorts of art, history and military museums. Near the top of these experiences was a full day I spent at the Imperial War Museum a few years back while working in London for over a month. With over two million visitors a year and some 11 millions artifacts, the IWM is hard to beat for immersing yourself in the history of warfare.

This past week I had a very different, yet truly remarkable experience in my first visit to the Military History Society of Rochester. Located up a flight of stairs in a warehouse inhabited by various artist galleries and studios, the MHSR occupies roughly 2000 square feet of space packed with all manner of historical artifacts focused on telling the story of the US military through the local lens of Rochester, NY.

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A timeline of US long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War at the MHSR

Founded several years ago by Chuck Baylis as the American Civil War Artillery Association, the group’s mission has since grown beyond his original collection of Civil War artifacts to encompass American wars from the Revolution to the present. The first room still focuses on the Civil War including detailed displays on artillery, uniforms and the 140th New York Volunteer Regiment formed in Rochester in 1862. A timeline of American long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War covers an entire wall.

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A timeline of military uniforms from the American War of Independence through the present at the MHSR

In the rear space of the museum, the focus swings to 20th-century with displays on World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and present day wars. Uniforms, guns, swords, equipment hang from the walls, rest on shelves and lay slung over mannequins. Scale model airplanes hang from the ceiling, model vehicles rest on the floors and cases and a D-Day diorama sits nearby. Throughout the museum are some 2000 books as well as countless other letters, maps, photos, schematics, deck plans, prints, posters and other ephemera for perusal or research.

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 A US .50 caliber machine gun at the MHSR

Baylis has been joined by a number of passionate volunteers who can be found at the museum during its operating hours on Thursdays, Fridays and some Saturdays. Civil War reenactor, historian and wargamer Mike Vasile (co-author of the excellent Arena Games: Gladiatorial Combat rules) is responsible for many of the scale dioramas throughout the museum. Scale ship modeller Timothy Igoe of Historia Militaris Shipways has contributed several naval models to the collection and is currently undertaking a build of the USS Rochester (CA-2) for the museum. Retired Social Studies teacher Orton Begner rounds out the group with a deep knowledge of every object on hand.

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A US M1919 Browning machine gun at the MHSR

The one-to-one interaction with the MHSR’s members and the collection is what sets the museum apart from any other I’ve every visited. Everything has been well labeled, organized and put on display but hardly anything in the museum sits behind glass. Care to hold the various types of artillery rounds used in the Civil War? Want to feel the heft of a WWII era Thompson submachine gun or M-1 rifle? Would you like to take a look inside a pack carried by an American GI on D-Day? Want to lie down with a German MG-42? Ever wanted to hold a Japanese officer’s sword or 1913 “Patton Saber”? Just about everything in the museum, with the proper care, respect and assistance from one of the staff, can be touched, offering an incredibly rare opportunity to physically connect with past.

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 A German MG-42 and StG 44 at the MHSR

The mission to bring history alive beyond the walls of the museum also occurs with the exhibits members of the group bring to school groups and veteran events in the Rochester area. With its focus on celebrating the men and women of Western New York’s service in every branch of the military past and present, the museum is serving a unique and human mission of connecting today’s generations to a long tradition military service.

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My son gets some hands-on time with a Thompson submachine gun at the MHSR

In all my years of interest in history and military heritage, I have yet to find a museum as alive as the experience found at the Military History Society of Rochester. As a wargamer, the opportunity to see and handle so many objects up close is unparalleled. My time spent at the museum on my first visit was brief, but meeting the guys and seeing the collection at the museum will definitely bring me back my next time in Rochester.

Interview with Chuck Baylis of the MHSR

The Military History Society of Rochester is located in the Anderson Arts Building at 250 North Goodman Street on the second floor. Admission is free.

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