SPRINGFIELD, Ill. | Tucked away on the corner of Seventh and Cook streets, south of downtown, the sign on the building says Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum. People may not know that the Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization of Union veterans of the Civil War. The group disbanded in 1949, but the museum — with its collection of artifacts — lives on.
"Most people find it on the Internet," said Mary Phelps, the museum's volunteer caretaker. She's there almost every day, educating visitors about the Civil War and pointing out the museum's treasures.
There's a portion of a flag that was hanging in Ford's Theatre the night that Abraham Lincoln was shot. There are tintypes — early photographs on metal — of soldiers, taken by celebrated 19th century photographer Mathew Brady. And there is a series of original pencil drawings of battlefield scenes by noted landscape artist Edwin Austin Forbes.
"It's Springfield's hidden gem," said Michael Naylor, co-owner of Abe's Old Hat Antiques, 111 N. Sixth St. He recommends the museum to many of his customers.
"If you're looking for guns and swords and anything Civil War-related, it's one of the most deserving places to visit," he said.
Artifacts in the display cases were once part of the lives of the men who fought in the war. There's a knife and fork, a wooden flute, a canteen, a powder horn, a sword, a sewing kit, a wooden cane, a pair of steel-rimmed glasses and a Bible. And there are letters written home from the front, plus the military ribbons, badges and medals awarded to the soldiers for their valiant service.
Items in the 1,000-square-foot museum all have been donated, many by families of Union soldiers.
"Donations have slowed down. Over the last four years, we've gotten 10 or 12 donations," said Phelps, a former two-term president of the National Woman's Relief Corps, auxiliary to the GAR and the group that keeps the museum going. It's funded by members of the relief corps and by volunteer donations from museum visitors.
"There's not enough patriotism in the world anymore," said Phelps, 69, who often wears red, white and blue. "Everyone in my family has been in the service somewhere along the line. It's my job to keep it going."
When a visitor enters the museum, she often starts up recorded 1800s-era music loaded into a CD player — songs like "Goober Peas" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
"It gets people more in the mood," she explained.
Phelps joined the Woman's Relief Corps as a young wife, after her mother-in-law urged her to join.
"She said I needed a night out," said Phelps, who has since held just about every local and national office in the organization. In fact, she and her late husband sold their house in Byron, in northern Illinois, to move to Springfield — site of the group's national headquarters — because of Mary's involvement with the relief corps.
The twice-widowed great-grandmother, avid camper and NASCAR fan lives in an apartment attached to the museum she cares for.
"Once you get something started, you like to keep it going," she said.
History of the GAR
The Grand Army of the Republic was founded by Benjamin F. Stephenson, of Springfield, in 1866, and its first post was in Decatur. Membership was limited to honorably discharged Union veterans who served between 1861 and 1865.
Fellowship was one reason the group was founded; the other was to advocate for federal pensions for war widows and orphans. Promoting the principles of "Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty," the group became more political over the years. It supported voting rights for black veterans, established soldiers' homes and worked for Republican political candidates. Membership peaked in 1890 at 490,000.
But as veterans of the Civil War aged and then died, the organization dwindled. It officially ended in 1949. The last member, Albert Woolson, died in 1956 at age 109. A large portrait of Woolson hangs in the museum.
The National Woman's Relief Corps was organized in 1883 as the auxiliary to the GAR. The group, which numbers about 500 nationwide, promotes patriotism and honors all who have served in any American war; members do not need to be related to Civil War soldiers.
In addition to maintaining the museum in Springfield, its national headquarters, relief corps members volunteer in facilities that assist veterans, donate flags to schools and lodges, sponsor essay contests and place flags on the graves of soldiers.
Schoolchildren who visit the GAR Memorial Museum each get a copy of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the Pledge of Allegiance and the American's Creed — a pledge of national loyalty written by William Tyler Page and adopted in 1918 by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Learning to love history
Wanting to establish a Civil War museum, the Woman's Relief Corps in 1941 spent $9,194 on a house at 629 S. Seventh St., where the museum now stands. It had 11 rooms, a full basement, attic, garage and barn.
But in the late 1950s, members deemed the wooden structure unsuitable for housing the historic papers and memorabilia that had been donated over the years. So the house was razed and the current building was built in 1963.
The boxy, flat-topped, gray stone building — some say it resembles a mausoleum — turns 50 this year.
Phelps estimates the museum gets 75 to 100 visitors a month in the summer, many fewer than in past years.
"It's a smaller venue and, because it's run by volunteers, not open all the time, but they have a nice collection," said Kim Rosendahl, director of tourism for the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau. "What they have there, you won't find anywhere else in the city."
Last week, the Carpenter family — Don, Denise, 15-year-old Alex and 14-year-old Hunter — stopped by the museum. They traveled to Springfield from Rippey, Iowa, to see the Lincoln sites for the first time. The staff at Abe's Old Hat Antiques told the family about the museum.
"We were planning to see the (Lincoln) house, the tomb and the Lincoln (Presidential) Museum. We weren't aware of this museum," Don Carpenter said.
Mary Phelps never thought she would be educating people about history.
In junior high school, her history teacher reprimanded her for not paying attention in class.
"I will never have anything to do with history," she declared. She went on to have a successful career as an insurance agent.
Now, after 13 years at the GAR Memorial Museum and many more with the relief corps, she has these words of advice for her grandchildren.
"You never know what life has in store for you. Never say 'never.'"