The staff of Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine is always trying to connect new people to our hobby. In our effort to introduce people to the joys of collecting, preserving, displaying and interpreting military relics and vehicles, we venture to a lot of new ground.
You probably remember our venture into the NASCAR circuit to show fans that OD trucks and tracks are just as exhilarating as circle-track racing. Similarly, we work with veterans organizations to distribute our magazines and give talks to members. “So you wanna buy a Tank” is a popular, entertaining lecture that compares historic military vehicle (HMV) ownership to caring for an elephant that I have presented to many groups to heighten their awareness of the ability to own and enjoy an HMV.
Recently, our advertising “man-on-point,” Nick Ockwig and I traveled to the Chicagoland to spread the word to a fresh, new and excited audience.
Welcome to Military History Fest
Readers who have a bit of gray in their hair will remember the “best kept secret” of collecting back in the 1980s. Whether we dressed in vintage uniforms or not, going to WWI and WWII military reenactments produced loads of great, original gear: Painted helmets, accouterments and uniforms that were “too small” could be purchased for a song.
I recently felt those old sensations of discovery when Nick and I set up that 9th Annual Military History Fest at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Illinois. For the first eight years, the indoor show was known as “Reenactor Fest.” Even with the new name and a slightly modified focus, it is still a heavily reenactor-oriented show—for now, that is.
When we first entered the Convention Center, it was apparent this show was going to be about the size of a large military show, such as the MAX, but not as big as the Show of Shows. Row after row of cloth-covered tables totaled up to about 250 vendor spots. The similarities to a traditional militaria show, however, seemed a bit more clouded after this initial evaluation.
Okay, so maybe it was the towering Roman Centurion with some sort of wolf pelt around his neck that deflected my interest. Or maybe the gorgeous women in high-waisted Empire gowns and straw bonnets, took my eye from the tabletops, but clearly, this was not going to be our average military show.
Plenty of Activity
No, this was not the average military relic or indoor HMV show. In fact, it was incorporation the best of three related hobby worlds: Reenacting, militaria collecting, and historic military vehicle preservation. Nick and I were about to discover this event had some pleasant surprises. In fact, much of what event organizer Mike Bollow incorporated into his show could easily breath some fresh air into the way military relic and HMV shows are conducted. I was excited to experience the show and share the high points with you.
Let me give you the lay of the land: Behind the 250 vendor tables, a large cloth wall sequestered the rear one-third of the convention center. In this open area, various groups had built 12 large, full-scale dioramas, ranging from a Roman shop and Crusade encampment to Continental Army artillery position, WWI trenches and bunkers, and WWII German horse-pulled transportation unit and anti-tank defense. If that was not enough, a large stage and chairs occupied one section where performances were scheduled throughout the next two days.
Let’s go back to those encampments, though. It took the better part of two days for the various groups to assemble the dioramas. Intense attention to detail was obvious, as men and women completed the displays. They were all competing for $500 cash award that would be determined from guest-cast votes. The money wasn’t so much the motivator, as were the bragging rights.
Clearly, the organizers realized the success of the show depends on appealing to the whole family—not just the husband who drags a less-than-willing wife and kids to a military show. The encampments were real attention grabbers. The stage in the rear of the hall always had musicians, acrobats and first-person impersonators (like the pirate Blue Beard) performing to small crowds of guests throughout both days of the event.
The other neat trick I noticed was that kids were welcome—in fact, free-of-charge to attend with an adult. But it wasn’t just a ploy to get them in. Once inside the door, kids were invited to participate in a scavenger hunt. Handed a sheet of paper with nine items pictured, the kids tore off to locate a skull, golden revolver, cowboy spurs and other items strategically placed throughout the show, requiring families to stop and examine displays and vendors’ tables.
On Friday, admission to any veteran was free of charge. This worked. Probably a result of the 5-minute spot on WGN that morning or maybe the billboards on the Interstate, veterans and their families came in on what would have otherwise been a rather slow day. I saw the vets speaking with vendors, carrying bags of material (either their own souvenirs or recent purchases), studying the displays and sitting to enjoy the entertainment. The vets were there, and they were having fun.
The mix of vendors was about 80% reenacting supplies to 20% militaria dealers. I see this ratio coming closer to 50-50 as the word gets out about the show. Regardless, I was happy to snag a nice WWI grenade, a couple of helmets and a tunic with bullion insignia all at below-retail prices. It was very reminiscent of those 1980s reenactments!
As the show progressed, I was able to ask a few of the militaria vendors how they felt about the show. “Mr. Jerry” Dutschek, owner of Military Collectibles Shop in West Allis, Wis., had a number of tables. His observation was, “This is a good cross-over show with the opportunity to show my material to a new audience.” But was he selling? “The audience likes to see the better stuff. It provides the opportunity to interact. I have been selling a lot of middle-of-the-road material.” Mr. Jerry added, “Surprisingly, this is a good buying show. A lot of walk-ins have appeared.” He was anxious to show me the complete Naval Aviator leather flight gear he bought over his table.
Tom Neitzke had several tables covered with militaria. “For me, this show is great opportunity to clear out the stacks of goods that just don’t sell at bigger shows like the Show of Shows,” Tom remarked, adding, it was a lot more fun sitting behind his table than a regular show. “Where else can you reply to a Revolutionary War soldier asking, ‘How much for this SS cap badge?’,” Tom said with a smile.
Adding to the variety of opportunities, Military History Fest had two days of free seminars. I stepped into a couple, one dealing with the history of medical field gear and the other on the life of General John Pershing. Both sessions reminded me just how knowledgeable the living history community can be, sharing details about items that veteran collectors often over look. In addition, the “HistoryHunter” and frequent Pawn Star guest, Craig Gottlieb, was on hand to do appraisals and sign copies of his book. The path to his table attracted a lot of people. No matter what anyone says, a celebrity attracts paying guests. Craig did not disappoint those who came to meet (in his own words) “a reality sub-star.” He was absolutely gracious and entertaining, representing the hobby admirably to people who never thought there was such a thing as “military collecting.”
The festive nature did not end at the close of the show. On Friday, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine hosted a wine-and-cheese gathering for the vendors and displayers. This was followed by a very competitive military history trivia event, complete with beverages and prizes. Saturday concluded with a full dress ball where most registrants put on their best historic impressions for a night of live music and dance.
The overriding message of the event seemed to be, “Military shows can be fun—lots of fun. And not just the vendor, but for the whole family!” This is a theme I have preached before: If are hobby is going to remain healthy, we have to appeal to a broad spectrum of interests while always promoting the basics: Preservation, interpretation and focusing of military relic and vehicle collections. Military History Fest is delivering the goods.
Mike Bollow made an early Saturday estimate of about 1,500 paying customers through the door. A turn of the Chicago winter weather, however, allowed the number to cross that threshold nudging upwards of 2,000. In my very informal personal, near stalking observations, a family was spending around 80-100 minutes at the show.
Were they spending money? I did see a lot of cash changing hands, albeit, smaller amounts (less than $100 per sale). The reenacting community, we all will agree, tend to be a bit more “frugal,” and I won’t say they tarnished that reputation! Though they are adept at sniffing out bargains, once they find it, they do buy it.
My recommendation to readers:
1. If you have a military vehicle or piece of hardware, I strongly encourage you to figure out a cool diorama to enter at next year’s event. It is a real nice, heated facility in which to show off your vehicle.
2. If you are a traditional militaria dealer, consider setting up at the event. Follow the lead of other dealers at the show: Prepare to sell that stuff that just doesn’t seem to go at bigger shows. Uniforms, common headgear, insignia and field gear seems to go well here. What doesn’t seem to have taken hold yet are uniform groups, high-end medals, daggers, paper material or “personality” items.
3. Leave your “old show” ways at home. Plan to participate in the activities. The Pheasant Run Resort is a fully attached convention facility, complete with hotel, restaurants, bars, shopping, pools and full amenities. You don’t want to go off at night to do your own thing, Military History Fest has already made enjoyable plans for you. If your spouse has never wanted to go to another show with you, this would be one to take him or her. They can have a grand time and never have to sit behind the table waiting to say to the next customer, “Oh he isn’t here…let me see if I can and get a price…”
4. And finally, if you are involved in hosting a relic or HMV show, take a look at this event for tips on how to involve a fresh audience. The writing is on the wall, I am afraid. If we keep following the path of “shows for the enthusiasts,” our hobby will perish. We have to use a model of engaging a new audience while not alienating our current supporters. Military History Fest, in my opinion, has come as close to accomplishing this as I have seen (so far!).
Keep finding the good stuff,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine