Many museums around the United States have impressive pieces of medieval armor, but there is only one place where you can visit a collection that shows with brilliant simplicity 1,500 years of the evolution in the function and artistry of arms and armor. The Art Institute of Chicago? No. The Smithsonian? No. It is the Castlerock Museum in Alma, Wis. -- a Mississippi River town of fewer than 1,000 residents.
The museum, which opened in June, excels at telling how arms and armor evolved from the Roman Empire to the cusp of the gunpowder era. Highlights include an 11th-century sword from the First Crusades, helmets dating as far back as 300 A.D. and full Maximillian armor that dates to about 1530.
The museum's founder, Gary Schlosstein, explains how the museum came into being in such an unlikely place.
Schlosstein, a retired circuit judge with deep roots in the Alma area, began collecting antique weapons at an early age. "I started collecting by picking up a Civil War musket when I was 10 years old and then I got into collecting early firearms. As I grew older, my interests grew older."
He bought his first pieces of medieval arms from a fellow enthusiast who decided to focus on other interests. "I ended up, over ... a couple of years, picking up his small collection of medieval arms; it just sort of fired my interest. And then I just started attending some various East Coast auctions and things like that. From that time on, it just grew in degree."
A few years ago, he came to appreciate the breadth of his collection. "I finally realized that the collection was really outstanding as far as being representative of a long period of time and of the types of weapons that the average person used throughout these periods."
Schlosstein created the museum as a nonprofit and took out a loan to finance construction of the building, which began last year in his hometown.
He worked with Christopher Dobson, a former armourer at the Tower of London and expert in medieval and Renaissance history, to design the museum's layout. A key decision was to pair period art with the museum pieces. "That enables us to not just have a helmet on the wall or a mace on the wall but to show how it was actually used," Schlosstein said.
The collection includes a number of pieces that Schlosstein considers especially remarkable. "The most striking feature when you walk into the room is the full Maximillian armor."
The museum's extensive collection of helmets spans from about the year 300 to the 1700s. Schlosstein singles out one helmet in particular. "And in that group of things is one helmet that's a parade helmet that was made about 1560, made in Milan. It's got sculpted in repoussé, or high relief, figures from Grecian mythology and from Roman mythology, a sea monster lying across the top of it, coats of arms. ... [It] would have been worn by someone certainly high-ranking, a military officer or a ruler himself."
Visitors will also be impressed by a sword, authenticated by a leading expert on medieval swords, that was almost certainly carried in the First Crusades at the end of the 11th century. Schlosstein indicated it is the only extant sword from the First Crusades that has a religious inscription carved into it.
Let the Castlerock Museum get you to Alma, but don't rush away. Alma is a pleasant place to enjoy for a weekend getaway. The village, founded in 1848 by Swiss immigrants, is terraced into the bluffs along the Upper Mississippi and is in the midst of a rebirth. The combination of new blood in town, including many artists, and a push to rehab historic buildings is giving the village a fresh look.
Wings Over Alma (312 N. Main St.; 1-608-685-3303; www. wingsoveralma.org) serves as a tourist information center and art gallery and is a good place to start your visit.
The village also has a growing shopping district along historic Main Street, with a number of locally owned stores that feature hand-crafted items.
Buena Vista Park, on County Road E, has expansive views of the river and should not be missed. You can drive to the top, but if you have the time and energy, hike the steep trail from town up to the top of the bluff.
Just past the entrance to Buena Vista Park, Danzinger Vineyards and Winery is one of the new crop of vineyards along the Upper Mississippi. You can sample five of their wines for free at their scenic blufftop location (S2015 Grapeview Lane; 1-608-685-6000; www.danzingervine yards.com).
Alma is also within a half-hour drive of many cities along the Mississippi, including Winona and Wabasha, Minn., and the villages around Lake Pepin, making it a good base for exploring the region.
Dean Klinkenberg is the St. Louis-based author of the Mississippi Valley Traveler guide book series. He maintains a site of travel tips and blogs at www.MississippiValleyTraveler.com.