The story behind the Michigan Military Heritage Museum

The Michigan Military Heritage Museum in Jackson is preserving the often-overlooked stories of Michigan's service members, creating a unique haven of history.

How the museum came to be and found a permanent home in southeast Michigan is a story in itself. The Jackson museum is one of several in Michigan that explore aspects of the state's military history. 

The Michigan Military Heritage Museum traces its roots to Scott Gerych, a veteran with 23 years of service in the U.S. Army who has a love of history. While volunteering at another museum, Gerych noticed a problem. There were items of potential historical significance that didn’t fit with the collection and were going to waste. 

“They were disposing of items and losing potential history and parts of people's lives,” Gerych says.

He approached his friends Brian Murphy and John Beeler about creating a museum to preserve the stories of Michigan service members in peace and war. This idea became a reality with the creation of the Michigan Military Heritage Museum.

The staff and people behind the museum, from left to right: Frank and Ellen Nefzger, Kevin Gerych, Scott Gerych, Dennis Skupinski.

The seed group of Gerych, Murphy, and Beeler expanded with the addition of Kevin Gerych (Scott’s son), Dennis Skupinski, Belinda Grier, Liam Collins, and Don Cartwright. This core group set out to find a home for the museum. Their quest initially took them to Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit. However, this effort failed to bear fruit. The search for a home continued.

A temporary home

Through good fortune, a visit to the Coe House Museum in Grass Lake resulted in the Michigan Military Heritage Museum securing its first home. 

While visiting the house, Gerych learned the Grass Lake Historical Society was looking for a group to assist with some projects.  The Michigan Military Heritage Museum team shared their vision and the organization was intrigued by the number of stories that could be shared and the impact those stories would have on a significant population of residents and tourists. A working relationship was achieved, and the Michigan Military Heritage Museum set up a one-room display within the Coe House.

This humble one-room version of the Michigan Military Heritage Museum demonstrated the power of its brand of storytelling. This distinctive storytelling style focuses on the everyday service members and less on the well-known heroes. Uniforms and original artifacts related to a particular service member are displayed along with a brief story highlighting their service to our country. Many of the service members featured are from rural Michigan towns or smaller cities. 

“Most museums don’t do this “old school” approach to history,” Dennis Skupinski says.

An example of an early story on display at the museum is that of Dr. Milton Shaw, from the small town of Morrice, just east of Lansing. Dr. Shaw served in the Michigan National Guard 119th Field Artillery of the 32nd Division in World War I. He was a company surgeon who was decorated by the French for pulling wounded soldiers to safety during heavy artillery bombardment. In a later campaign, Dr. Shaw was wounded and received the Silver Star, the United States third highest military honor. Through 1918, Dr. Shaw remained in France to treat victims of the worldwide influenza pandemic.

As the museum gained followers, donations of historical artifacts poured in. Reaching critical mass, the Michigan Military Heritage Museum began to search for a larger new home. Opportunity knocked when the landlord for a 3,300-square-foot building in Grass Lake became available. The museum and landlord struck a deal to lease the property for five years.

A second temporary home

On November 13th, 2016, the Michigan Military Heritage Museum opened its doors at 153 N. Union St.  in Grass Lake. Now, the museum had space to take advantage of the growing number of donations and could expand the number of stories of service members from the Civil War, the World Wars, Vietnam, and the Gulf War.

Another intriguing story at the museum is that of Jack and Lillian Campell of Grass Lake. Next to a display of Jack’s dress uniform, his M-1 helmet, and a captured German helmet, is a sign holder with their story. Jack was in Company D. 342nd Infantry regiment, 86th “Black Hawk” division. Jack saw combat in Germany and Austria before being shipped to the Philippines. While in the service, Jack reconnected with Lillian Ovens, who also called Grass Lake home. Lillian was serving in the U.S. Navy W.A.V.E.S (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in Norman, Oklahoma. They married and settled in Grass Lake, where they lived together until Jack’s death in 2015.

As the five-year lease in Grass Lake began to wind down, Scott Gerych and the rest of the Michigan Military Heritage Museum board began to look for a permanent home site.

A permanent home

The board found one at the site of the former Camp Blair in Jackson.

Camp Blair served as an important site for Union soldiers from 1864-1866 during the Civil War. 

“One-third of all the troops from Michigan who were mustered out received their final pay and returned home at Camp Blair,” Scott Gerych says. “Several regiments trained here for service during the war, and the hospital provided treatment for many of the wounded and sick.”

The camp was named after Michigan Governor Austin Blair, who served from 1861 to 1865. Governor Blair ran the state government from Jackson (his hometown). As a result, Jackson became a hub for Michigan’s Civil War efforts. You can find some plaques outside the Michigan Military Heritage Museum, which go into more detail on Camp Blair. If you journey to the state capital, you’ll find a statue of Governor Blair on Capital Square.

On November 13th, 2021, the Michigan Military Heritage Museum opened its doors to its permanent home at 311 N. Wisner St. in Jackson. 

The new space allows for bigger artifacts, such as a World War 1 ambulance, several cannons, and even a replica of a M3 tank. The full-sized tank replica was donated by James Romans of Parma, who was inspired to create the replica based on the tank from the movie “Sahara.”

Among the many stories at the museum, two personal ones stand out to Scott Gerych -- his grandfather’s and his wife’s grandfather. His grandfather, Sgt. Paul B. Scott of Centerline, Michigan, served in the Pacific in WWII with the 34th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. His wife’s grandfather, T5-Donald J. Fate of Remus, Michigan, served in Europe in WWII with the 59th Armored Infantry Battalion. 

“I knew both of them, so their stories are a part of my life,” he says. 

A story that resonates with museum secretary Belinda Grierwith and showcases the power of the stories is that of Nico Akemann and Ralph Brown. 

 “This was like the very first spring we opened. Nico came in. He lived in South Lyon. Him and his son came in. He was going through, and he read Mr. Brown's story. Mr. Brown was a WWII navigator (U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. serving on a B-17). He (Brown) served in Europe. One of the missions he flew was Operation Chowhound. 

Nico read Brown’s story and got extremely emotional and said he could now cross something off his bucket list. He was an 11-year-old boy in Holland during the war. And the first thing he got from the airdrops, Operation Chowhound, was a chocolate Hershey bar. The Nazis were starving the people of the Netherlands, so the (Allied Forces) airdropped food to them. 

“A few months later, we had an event honoring WWI. We had six WWII vets there. Mr. Brown was one of 'em. Nico came to meet him and thanked him for saving his life,” she says.

The power of stories to relay the important history of Michigan service members is thriving at the Michigan Military Heritage Museum in Jackson. Visit the museum 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Brenda and Chuck Marshall have been chronicling the beauty and culture of Michigan for over ten years. Their stories, filled with local insights and experiences, are published on In addition to his writing, Chuck is passionate about photography and has become a prominent documenter of Michigan's vibrant music and craft beer scenes. Together, they promote Michigan one story at a time
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