Popular WWII museum in Portage is moving to Marshfield

The collection of artifacts was purchased by an Army veteran
Bret Esse packs up some military medals that are a part of his massive WWII collection
Bret Esse packs up some military medals that are a part of his massive WWII collection(Tim Elliott)
Updated: Jan. 30, 2022 at 5:00 PM CST
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PORTAGE, Wis. (WMTV) -A long-time tourist attraction in downtown Portage is closing its doors. The World War II History Museum has been a staple in the community for more than a decade. Thankfully, the museum isn’t shutting down, but rather moving to a new location.

“We made the purchase and now the fun begins,” said Army veteran Tyler Smazal. Smazal purchased the massive collection and is now packing it all up and moving it to his hometown of Marshfield, about two hours north of Portage.

“My dream was always that this would stay together, somehow,” said Bret Esse.

Esse is the original owner of the collection. Over the years, he’s amassed hundreds of artifacts from the war. From uniforms, documents, helmets, medals, you name it – each part of Esse’s collection has a fascinating story.

“I started collecting World War II stuff when I was about 10-years-old,” said Esse. “I always tell people that if you leave here and you don’t feel something pretty strong, then I did something wrong,”

In 2009, Esse and his wife Bonnie opened the museum in downtown Portage. His interest in the war combined with his love and gratitude for veterans lead to his business becoming a popular tourist attraction.

The Portage WWII History Museum has been in downtown Portage for 13 years
The Portage WWII History Museum has been in downtown Portage for 13 years(Tim Elliott)

“If you would have told me we were going to make it 13 years, I would have never believed it,” said Esse. “I was surprised after six months of being open that someone came from La Crosse and now we have people coming from all over the world,” he said.

Recently, the Esses have been experiencing health problems. They say it’s become increasingly difficult for them to run the museum. The decision to sell his beloved collection was not easy.

“It was hard, but everything has to come to an end, and I’d rather have it end on our terms,” said Esse.

Smazal came through for a tour one day and when he heard the collection was for sale, he knew he needed to act.

“I thought I got to do something,” said Smazal. “I look at this, hopefully, as a legacy continuing on what Bret did for himself, his community, and the state of Wisconsin,”

Smazal joined the U.S. Army in 2006. He spent six years in the service. Today, he and his wife own several businesses in Marshfield. Smazel couldn’t bear to see the collection sold off piece by piece, so he’s keeping it all together and moving it north.

Esse is says selling his collection to a veteran made the process that much more pleasant.

“That’s what I really love -- that a vet is taking it over and he’s got a lot of passion and I’m thrilled,” said Esse.

Now, Smazal is in the process of boxing up all the items. He’s also taking 67 glass display cases with him.

“Some of its sobering. You touch some items that you feel “who touched this? Who used it? What was it for?” he said. “It is history, and we are here for that reason, and it would be a completely different world if those men and women and their families wouldn’t have stepped up,”

A collection of military helmets sits in Esse's downtown shop
A collection of military helmets sits in Esse's downtown shop(Tim Elliott)

Esse says he hopes this collection continues to remind people of the sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation – the men and women who saved the world.

“It’s one thing to walk up to a vet and thank them for their service. We are hoping that after they leave here, they know why they are thanking them for their service,” said Esse.

Smazal hopes to have his museum up and running on May 1. It’s called and is located 253 S. Central Ave., Marshfield, WI. You can follow them on Facebook at “War Room Museum & World History”

He’s also asking for donations to help pay for moving expenses, operation costs and the future expansion of the museum. If you’d like to donate, click here.

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