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Group working to reopen little-known Civil War museum in Illinois

By TIM LANDIS | The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill. | Published: October 20, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.  (Tribune News Service) — The Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum at Seventh and Cook streets in Springfield is thought to be one of the few surviving museums of its kind in the country.

Members of the National Woman's Relief Corps, Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic, now are working to reopen the 1,000-square-foot Civil War museum closed since early August for organizational changes and work with a collection ranging from a portion of a flag that hung at Ford's Theatre on the evening Abraham Lincoln was assassinated to day-to-day military gear of Union soldiers.

Opened in 1941 in a converted home, the current stone structure was built in 1963 at a cost of $75,000. The museum, staffed by volunteers in recent years, is just south of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.

"The museum will be reopening," National Woman's Relief Corps Secretary Kathy Bower said in an email. "We need some time to redo some things to help preserve the artifacts. There's been a few significant changes that are being implemented. With the changes we have to make sure we are completely ready."

Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal order of Union veterans founded in Decatur in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, according to a history compiled by Sons of Union Veterans of Civil War, suvcw.org. Membership peaked at 490,000 in the late 1800s. The group disbanded with a final "encampment" in 1949 in Indianapolis.

The last member, Albert Woolson., died in 1956 at 109, according to the organization history. A portrait of Woolson is part of the Springfield museum collection

The National Woman's Relief Corps, Auxiliary to The Grand Army of the Republic, was formed in 1883 and survives its namesake fraternal organization. The Civil War museum in Springfield was established to preserve GAR history, including documents, papers and Civil War equipment, often donated by families of Union veterans. The organization paid $9,194 for a Victorian-style home to house the original museum, according to archives at The State Journal-Register.

Communications manager Clint Schemmer with The Civil War Trust in Washington, D.C., said relatively few GAR museums appear to have survived. One of the largest is The Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library in Philadelphia.

"What intrigued me most about that (Springfield) collection is that is has been maintained in our own time and going back decades by the Woman's Relief Corps," said Schemmer. "It would put it in a different category."

Springfield also is home to Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War national museum at 503 S. Walnut St

Mike Naylor, co-owner of Abe's Old Hat Antiques & Country Store, 111 N. Sixth St., said it has been years since he visited the GAR museum, but he said he often directed visitors to the antique and arts shop to the site.

"It's a wonderful display of Civil War memorabilia, especially in such a small place," said Naylor. "It's a shame it hasn't received more attention."

While the museum is not the draw of the Lincoln sites or Route 66, Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Gina Gemberling, said the bureau was informed of the museum closing.

"All of our sites are important," said Gemberling. "It's on our radar."

tim.landis@sj-r.com

©2017 The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.
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