Hidden gem in Litchfield a rare link to Civil War

The Grand Army of the Republic Hall, a small castle-shaped building tucked between a church and a detached garage in Litchfield, Minn., looks like a humble monument to a bygone era.

But the brick structure — known as Memorial Hall when built by Civil War veterans in 1885 — is one of only three GAR halls in the country with an intact meeting space.

Pictures of the founding members still line the walls. Wooden chairs inscribed with members’ names are still set up in rows. And still visible on the wall is a large motto: “We are the boys of ’61.”

The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for nearly 50 years but Litchfield residents are working to get the site added to the more renowned list of National Historic Landmarks.

“The [hall] is the best example of the hundreds of posts found in small towns across the nation in the late 19th century,” states the application written by historical consultant Daniel Hoisington. “Stepping into that hall today is a remarkable journey into the past.”

The Grand Army of the Republic, a precursor to service organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, was founded in 1866 and grew into a political and social force that encouraged fraternity among members, advocated for benefits for injured soldiers and their families, and helped establish what’s now called Memorial Day.

At its high point in 1890, the GAR had nearly 430,000 members and nearly 7,000 posts nationally, and Minnesota had about 8,500 members and 178 posts, according to Hoisington. Litchfield’s branch, the Frank Daggett Post, was the first in Minnesota to build its own hall.

“These were very forward-looking gentlemen,” said Connie Lies, a former member of the Litchfield City Council and Meeker County Historical Society. “They built the hall to look like a fort and then immediately deeded it to the city of Litchfield.”

The deed states the city must maintain the premises and “scrupulously preserve” it as a memorial for the veterans, Lies said.

Civil War veterans used the building until the early 1930s; the last post member died in 1936. During the Depression and World War II, the building sat vacant.

When a local businessman was helping plan the county’s centennial in the 1950s, he visited the hall, said Darlene Kotelnicki, a member of the Litchfield City Council and the city’s heritage preservation commission.

“He just walked in. The door was unlocked. There was bird poop. There were no utilities. He went to the city and said, ‘We need to clean this up,'” Kotelnicki said. “The glory of all that is that it hadn’t been used since the last veteran was there. So, for 20 years, no one touched it, and everything was the same as they had left it.”

More than 95,000 properties are listed in the National Register, including more than 7,000 in Minnesota. About 2,600 properties are listed as National Historic Landmarks, with just 25 in Minnesota, including the Charles Lindbergh house in Morrison County and the Sinclair Lewis boyhood home in Stearns County.

The National Registry lists 16 halls built specifically for GAR posts; most have been adapted for other uses and the artifacts removed. The two other halls with intact rooms are in Massachusetts and New York.

Hoisington submitted a draft application to the state historic preservation office, which will decide this summer if it will forward to the application to the National Parks Service.

Although Litchfield’s hall is rare, few local residents “grasp exactly what they have,” Lies said. That included Lies and Kotelnicki until a few years ago, when the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic hosted its national convention in Litchfield. A longtime member said they had never seen a GAR hall as well preserved as Litchfield’s.

“That’s really what started us thinking we should go for National Landmark status,” Kotelnicki said. “It took someone else coming into our community for us to realize that.”

https://www.startribune.com/hidden-gem-in-litchfield-a-rare-link-to-civil-war/600157616/

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