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Before there were American Legions or VFWs, Civil War veterans built this place in Minnesota

Since its construction in 1885 by Civil War veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Litchfield (the first built in Minnesota), remains a perfectly preserved piece of history, the same as it was when being used by veterans who built it as a place to gather, connect and socialize.

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GAR Hall, which houses the Meeker County Museum, was initially constructed in 1885. Today, the Meeker County Historical Society is the caretaker of the building on Marshall Avenue in Litchfield. The Meeker County Museum is attached to the back of the building, and was built in 1961.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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LITCHFIELD, Minn. — Since its construction in 1885 by the Grand Army of the Republic veterans, GAR Hall in Litchfield, Minnesota, remains the same as it was when being used by the Civil War veterans who built it as a place to gather, connect and socialize.

“The building itself is the first GAR hall built in the state,” said GAR Hall and Meeker County Museum Executive Director Danelle Erickson. While there were other posts and groups throughout the state, they would use pre-existing buildings or gather in homes. “It’s kind of almost a precursor to the VFW, American Legion, that kind of thing. It was kind of a way for the soldiers to stay connected.”

Currently, Erickson and the Meeker County Historical Society are waiting to hear if GAR Hall will be granted National Landmark status; it is already on the National Register of Historic Places. There are only 25 National Landmarks in Minnesota.

Today, there is only one other GAR Hall still in existence in the state, Erickson said. “So, it’s kind of the first and the last in a way,” she said of GAR Hall in Litchfield. The other remaining hall is located in Mower County.

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GAR Hall and Meeker County Museum Executive Director Danelle Erickson poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The Grand Army of the Republic held regular meetings and had thousands of posts throughout the United States, along with thousands and thousands of members, according to Erickson. There were close to 300 members throughout the years at the Litchfield hall.

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“It’s very memorable from the outside, that fortress look. It just kind of shows a lot about the men that were here at the time,” Erickson said about the design of the brick building.

“Another thing unique about this building here is those men all knew they weren’t going to live forever, so as soon as they built it and dedicated it, they then turned it over to the Village of Litchfield,” she said, noting the city had yet to be incorporated. “When the men were done using this after they had passed away or whatever, that then the city would take over and kind of become caretakers.”

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Stamps featuring prominent Civil War players sit on display at the Meeker County Museum at the GAR Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

And the reason you step back in time to the late 1800s and early 1900s when stepping through the front entrance is because the deed for the property specifically spelled out that the building was to be preserved and used in a manner that maintained its original purpose — to honor the Civil War veterans and preserve their history.

The old wooden chairs upon which those veterans sat during meetings are set up as if there will be a meeting tonight. The altar stands at the front of the room, waiting for whoever is going to lead the meeting. The photos that line the walls are of the members of the hall. The decor is original to the time.

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A bust of Ulysses S. Grant, who was the 18th president of the United States and led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War in 1865, sits in a window at the Meeker County Museum at GAR Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Today, the Meeker County Historical Society is the caretaker. The Meeker County Museum is attached to the back of the building, and was built in 1961.

The Meeker County Museum is two stories of artifacts from the early pioneers. It contains a cabin from Acton Township and the items the family that lived in the cabin used, as well as Dakota Native American artifacts. Also on display are military artifacts from the wars in which the U.S. took part from World War I forward.

In the anteroom of GAR Hall are Civil War artifacts, including cannons, literature and photos of important players in the war.

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Cannons and historic literature sit in the entryway of the Meeker County Museum and GAR Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

While some of the men honored at GAR Hall were local to the area prior to the Civil War, many came to Litchfield and Meeker County following the war.

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In 2021, prior to Erickson becoming executive director, there was a group of local citizens who were concerned the history of the building was not being maintained in accordance with the deed.

“I came in on the end of it and kind of gathered bits and pieces here,” Erickson said. “The people that were concerned, we met with them, and really, our goal is the same — to preserve the history. Just kind of different views on how that was done.”

Coming in as the new director, Erickson and the group pulled out the historic documents, including the 1885 deed, to really understand the intentions of the original members when they deeded the building to the city.

There is now a handbook so everybody is on the same page regarding the care and upkeep of the facility.

Programming at GAR Hall includes Civil War roundtables the second Thursday of every month at 1:30 p.m., with different speakers throughout the year.

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Historic books sit on a shelf at the Meeker County Museum at the GAR Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

“The Civil War, especially for American history, is pretty much one of the most written about book-wise,” Erickson commented. “Each year there are thousands of books, hundreds at least, on the Civil War. It’s very much a topic that people are interested in, and continue to be interested in.”

GAR Hall and Meeker County Museum are located at 308 North Marshall Avenue, Litchfield, and are open year-round from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

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Exhibits sit on display at the Meeker County Museum at the GAR Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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