Photos by Cameron Flaisch
History is the study of change over time. When change is pervasive, most people rely heavily on the memory of others, as well as the preservation of history, in order to educate a society.
Leslie Duke, owner of the Duke Museum of Military History (110 East 8th Avenue, Rome), has been working on compiling hundreds of thousands of artifacts from the Civil War, to the post-Vietnam era of history, which he uses to shine a light on the tools of command and conquer for Floyd County and other surrounding areas. Even though Duke believes that he just simply “scratches the surface of history,” that doesn’t stop him from sharing his impressive collection of war relics with his community.
The Duke Museum of Military History hosts a section of articles on Civil War history, World War I, World War II, and a section dedicated to Korean and Vietnam veterans. There is also an area devoted to the Iraq and Afghanistan war. And because Duke would be hard-pressed to squeeze them inside the walls among his other treasures, a convoy of military vehicles stands outside of his Downtown Rome institution.
Leslie Duke, a lifelong resident of Floyd County, discovered his passion for serving veterans, as well as his affection for all-things-military, after joining the army in 1992. “We have veterans who come in daily thanking us for giving them a place where they can feel comfortable, where they can tell their stories and more. I really enjoy giving them an atmosphere where they can pull up a chair, feel at home and get things off of their chests. That is what keeps me going as a local business owner,” Duke says.
As a Georgia 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, raising awareness is conceivably the top priority for Duke. The responsiveness started as Duke began retaining more volunteers who come from all over Rome and all offer their time from the heart.
The need for a space chronicling the sacrifices many have made, as well as the interest in the museum’s facilities, propelled Duke and his volunteers to give back to their community. “Here, we do everything if it has something to do with the history of the American military,” Duke says.”
This phrase proves true, as the museum is the lead sponsor for local Memorial Day and Veterans Day events, and they also organize parades, air shows, school field trips and other events focused on educational opportunities.
Duke Museum of Military History also partners with the City of Rome, Shorter University, the Rome Braves and the US Army Recruiting Command where they meet one Wednesday every month to help train troops who are registered and preparing for basic training.
“We are planning to meet with our school system in Rome, as well as the surrounding school systems, and have them come out and take tours here. It’s one thing to sit in the classroom and read a page or two about a certain conflict, but when you can actually come out here, we put you into the history. When you walk into the museum we can put history into your hand, which is a big difference,” Duke explains.
It comes as no surprise that Duke stays busy. Every weekend he is booked for informational trips he uses to add to his knowledge and improve the overall effectiveness of the museum.
“Patriotism is like charity—it begins at home.” –Henry James.
The words of Henry James ring true to most Americans, but really hits home in the hearts of many residents of Northwest Georgia. Duke is no different. “The museum specializes in highlighting patriotism,” he says.
One foot inside the door and even the most unpatriotic among us must pay homage to the sacrifice of many, if nothing else. “Almost everything here in the museum has been donated to us from people in the community, whether they are veterans themselves or family members of war veterans. In fact, we have people donating items to us every single day. It never ceases to amaze me how generous people are, which is a big reason why I enjoy managing the museum,” smiles Duke.
Even at 4,000 square-feet, the Duke Museum of Military History is busting at the seams, and is still growing.
“Each exhibit we have here is only about half done. Because we have had so many artifacts donated, we have to double, and even triple some of the units here at the museum,” says Duke.
He coincides that, of course, that is a great problem to have. “For example, our room dedicated to the Korean and Vietnam veterans is completely full. We actually haven’t even finished the room yet, but there are so many items we would still love to display. We hope that the continuity of adding new things each week will keep people coming back, not just once, but many times,” he says.
With a steady stream of donations, you can always bet that what is being contributed will be cherished by Duke and his volunteers. The largest donation to the museum was “the General,” a 1966 M151A1 Military Utility Tactical Truck (MUTT) that was given to Duke’s by Brigadier General retired William Wigley’s son, Jeff, in his honor.
“In the museum’s World War I exhibit, everything that is displayed in the cases belongs to one man, Mr. Anderson, who was a machine gunner. His granddaughter actually lives in Rome, and she donated every single bit of his personal possessions to the museum. From his bible and his manual, to his uniforms and even the flag he was buried under makes up this exhibit,” says Duke.
Not everything in the Duke Museum of Military History has in their possession represents Old Glory and the men who fought under it, like a Nazi flag from World War II.
“This flag was donated by our operations manager, Mr. Bruce Kelley. His father was one of the men who kicked in the gates at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. He reached up and yanked that flag off of the wall, because they no longer needed it. As sad as it is, it is a part of history, and we don’t sugar-coat anything,” says Duke.
Everything in the Duke Museum of Military History is authentic. Duke has a wall full of Japanese rifles brought back from the war, as well as Japanese suicide swords, which the children who visit are no strangers to.
From the moment one steps into the facility, it’s hard to miss Duke’s passion for the artifacts in his museum, as well as the history he is teaching to others who come through the doors of his museum. In the spirit of service and respect for those who bled for us all, it helps to have a person with a heart for giving leading the charge.
To schedule a tour call ahead at 706-506-4077 or contact Duke via the museum’s Facebook page. Just search “Duke Museum of Military History”