Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The G. A. R. Memorial Hall

In 1902, the Grand Army of the Republic, or G. A. R., the association of Civil War veterans, was one of the most important organizations in town. Established in 1867, as the E. W. Peirce Encampment, Post 8, the local G. A. R. post was the oldest in Plymouth County and by the turn of the century, had a host of affiliate organizations including the Women’s Relief Corps (W. R. C.), T. B. Griffith Camp, Sons of Veterans (S. of V.) and the G. A. R. Associates. Membership in the G. A. R. at the time (exclusive of these auxiliary organizations) included about 135 members as well as a large associate membership of prominent citizens.

With its history and large membership, the local organization felt a keen need for the construction of its own Memorial Hall, as later explained by Alvin C. Howes, head of the later building committee:

“He stated that there are two reasons for building the memorial hall. The first is that their members need a home, and the second is that the Grand Army is one of the greatest associations in America, and the building will stand as a memorial to those who defended the country when their assistance was wanted.” Prior to this date, the organization had leased space in the American Building on South Main Street, beginning in 1871.

Shopping around town for a suitable site, the G. A. R. ultimately selected a lot on North Main Street between the Captain Drew House (where the Central Fire Station is now located) and the residence of J. B. Ryder, which lot they purchased from the Peirce Trust. Though the neighborhood remained residential at the time, the proposed G. A. R. hall as well as the planned Public Library would by 1904 have created a small civic area on the eastern end of the downtown district.

Plans for the Memorial Hall called for an impressive building. “It will be built of brick and stone, of handsome architectural design and will be two stories high. The dimensions are 55 by 38 feet. On the ground floor will be the post room which will be utilized for a meeting room. This room will be 38 by 25 feet and will have convenient ante-chambers. There will be a room on the first floor in which the post can store their Civil War curios and relics, of which they have a large number.

“On the second floor will be a large banquet hall with the kitchen adjoining. The hall will be 38 feet square. The finish will be in North Carolina pine. The lighting will be done by gas and electricity and the heating will be by steam …. It is estimated that the building will cost about $6,000.”

The cornerstone of the building was laid in a ceremony on September 17, 1902, which was described by a correspondent of the Brockton Times the following day as “one of the most interesting events in Middleboro for a long time.” The program, which started at 4 p. m., included a chorus of Middleborough High School students singing “America”, “The Star Spangled Banner” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Building Committee chair Howes addressed the assembled audience following which a tin box containing various newspapers; rosters of the G. A. R., W. R. C., S. of V., and G. A. R. Associates; a G. A. R. badge; bylaws of the local post; and miscellaneous other items was placed inside the cornerstone. Warren B. Stetson, the post’s chaplain, read an appropriate scriptural passage.

Much enthusiasm attended the day’s events, but the G. A. R.’s hopes for its Memorial Hall were soon to be dashed. It is not readily apparent from the remaining reports what occurred, though it seems that a representative of the state prohibited further construction on the building, alleging that its foundations as constructed were insufficient to carry the weight of the proposed building. A second report blamed the local district police.

“What will be done at the G. A. R. building, in the process of construction, is a quandary. The foundations were laid, the details arranged for the floor and the cornerstone has been laid. Recently a member of the district police looked over the building and pronounced the foundations unsafe, not substantial enough to support the building. Work was stopped and nothing is being done there. Most of the members of the building committee of the memorial hall are attending the national encampment in Washington and definite plans cannot be made until they return.”

By late October, the G. A. R. seemed to have reconciled itself to the failure of its building scheme. “The G. A. R. corporation preserves silence as to the probable outcome of the construction of its building. It is understood a meeting of the corporation will be held soon, and then a disposition will be made of it. One member says that it will be voted to sell what is completed of the structure and drop the idea of a memorial building.” It was not reported why the organization did not simply rebuilt the structure’s foundation.

Ultimately, the G. A. R. did dispose of the property and the completed foundation. In 1907, Middleborough grocer E. J. Kelley constructed the large house which now stands upon the proposed G. A. R. site, and it appears from the building’s dimensions that it sets upon the original foundation for the Memorial Hall that never was.

As for the G. A. R., it eventually found accommodations in the former Peirce Academy Building which stood on the site now occupied by the Middleborough Post Office on Center Street. Long abandoned for educational purposes, the Academy Building, and more particularly its second floor hall, became closely associated with the G. A. R. in its later years. In when the building was razed in order to make way for the new federal post office, the G. A. R. moved temporarily into the Bon Mode Building a short distance away on Center Street before finding a more permanent home in the former School Street firehouse in 1933. By this time, however, there were few members surviving and within a short time, the organization would become defunct.


Members E. W. Peirce Post, Grand Army of the Republic, Middleborough, MA, photograph, c. 1909
Surviving members of the local G. A. R. post, some looking weary with age, parade through Middleborough Four Corners following the turn of the century. Prior to the organization of the American Legion, the V. F. W., and other veterans' groups, the G. A. R. was the principal organization promoting patriotism within the country.

G. A. R. Medal, lithograph

Sons of Veterans, lithograph postcard, c. 1900
The Sons of Veterans was one of the G. A. R.'s several auxiliary organizations which also included the Women's Relief Corps.

E. J. Kelley House, 151 North Main Street, Middleborough, MA, photographs by Michael J. Maddigan, October 11, 2009
Following the decision by the G. A. R. not to build a Memorial Hall on North Main Street, the land was acquired by Middleborough grocer E. J. Kelley in 1906. Kelley constructed this house atop the abandoned foundation from the proposed Memorial Hall.

Boston Post, "Middleboro G. A. R. to Build", February 8, 1902; and "Memorial Hall Being Built in Middleboro", August 24, 1902
Brockton Times, "Middleboro", September 17, 1902; "Corner Stone Laid", September 18, 1902; "Middleboro", October 10, 1902


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