If you’re tired of crowded aviation museums that take hours to tour, the Kelch Aviation Museum may be just what you need. Located in the tiny town of Brodhead, Wisconsin, about a two-hour drive from Chicago or Milwaukee, the museum is a tribute to the “Golden Age of Aviation,” the period between the two world wars, when aviation made some of its biggest strides: the introduction of airmail, the development of passenger and homebuilt aircraft, and the completion of Charles Lindbergh’s famous New York to Paris flight in 1927.
The museum has 19 aircraft, most of them flyable, which grew from a collection of 12 vintage airplanes owned by Alfred Kelch. Born in 1918, Kelch was a talented artist and mechanical engineer who founded Kelch Manufacturing, which produced the first plastic steering wheel used by autos. A lifelong aviation enthusiast, Kelch collected memorabilia at an early age and began collecting airplanes as soon as he could afford one. He was very active in the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and was at one time the director of EAA’s Vintage Aircraft Association. Kelch died in 2004.
The museum’s collection consists primarily of the 19 aircraft and 3 vintage autos, but also includes 10,000 aircraft books, photos, models, and much more.
The main entrance leads you to one of two hangars, which also includes a small gift shop. You can start the tour anywhere. I chose to turn left and began with a display of two airmail aircraft. The first aircraft is a 1928 Stearman 3CMB, which was built specifically for delivering airmail.
Each airplane has a placard with extensive information regarding that particular aircraft, which makes for some interesting reading. The placard for the Stearman is shown below:
The second airmail airplane is a Travelair 4000 (pictured at top), which was once flown by Charles Lindbergh. However, the cardboard cutout shown in the picture below is not of Lindbergh, but of “Wild Bill” Hopson, a legendary airmail pilot. Note the oil drip pan underneath the Travelair; all the engines in the museum are filled with oil because the aircraft are maintained in flying condition or are being restored to flying condition.
Additional displays around the two airmail aircraft provide a wonderful glimpse into the methods and hazards of the early days of airmail flying. I was surprised to learn how well-paid airmail pilots were! I always assumed the pilots were “daredevils” who did the job for the challenge and bragging rights, but it turns out they were paid at least three times the average wage at the time: a base salary of $3,600 per year plus five-to-seven cents per mile flow, compared to an average annual salary of $1,300 per year.
After visiting the airplanes in the first hangar, head over to the second hangar for more. One of my favorites in the second hangar is the 1937 Pietenpol “Air Camper,” an early homebuilt aircraft that could be built in a garage with simple hand tools. Plans still exist for this airplane in case you might be interested in building one!
The best part about the Kelch Museum is that, unlike many aviation museums, you can get right next to the airplanes. You can’t touch them or climb on them, but you can see construction details and peer into the cockpits, like the Pietenpol’s cockpit below. And friendly and knowledgeable volunteers are standing nearby in case you have any questions.
After you finish your tour, be sure to stop by the gift shop to check out the t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other merchandise. If you decide you want to buy something after you leave, you can always order online as well.
HOURS AND ADMISSION FEES: The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission for individuals is free, although a $10-20 donation is appreciated. Tour groups should call +1 (608) 897-1175 for pricing.
GETTING THERE: If you’re lucky enough to own a small airplane or know someone who does, you can fly directly to the museum. The Brodhead Airport has three grass runways, varying in length from 1,380 to 2,430 feet. After you land and tie down your aircraft, the museum will be within walking distance.
If you drive, the address is N2463 Airport Road, Brodhead, WI 53520. There is ample free parking.
The airport also hosts the EAA’s Chapter 431, a friendly group of folks who host meetings and fly-ins throughout the year. Their sign reads, “A Home for Grassroots Aviation.” If you’re interested in one of their events, be sure to check their calendar as you plan your visit!
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Eileen Bjorkman is a freelance writer, retired US Air Force colonel, and author of three aviation books, including The Fly Girls Revolt: The Story of the Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat, which will be released in May 2023 in the US.