"Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Hall, Aurora and the history of Memorial Day" - Daily Photo - 05/26/13
A statue of a Union Soldier used to stand guard atop the red platform at the center of the roof. A fund was formed to provide donations to repair the statue, which was removed to be refurbished a number of years ago. Dates continue to be postponed for returning the sentinel. As of this coming Memorial Day, no firm deadline has been established, an indicator that the citizens of Aurora seem no longer to consider it much of a priority.
The Soldier's Monument Association formed in Aurora in 1869 with the intent of raising funds to construct a monument to veterans of the U.S. Civil War. The group was very successful, and secretary Fred O. White proposed that a building should be erected in honor of the soldiers instead. White was inspired by a recent visit to Memorial Hall in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and noted that that structure was a useful meeting place and library. The Aurora building was intended to be almost identical to the Foxborough building, though the builders decided not to replicate the granite roof and stained glass. Joseph Mulvey was hired to design the building; no other Mulvey-designed structures have yet been identified.
The building was constructed on Stolp Island, a small piece of land considered to be "neutral territory" between the east and west sides of Aurora. Stolp Island was a popular spot for public buildings due to increasingly strained relations between the two sides of the river. The GAR Hall was the only public library in Aurora until a Carnegie library opened across the street in 1903. The hall was the meeting place of the Aurora GAR Post No. 20, which was one of 779 posts in the Department of Illinois. Any honorably discharged veteran of the war could join the group, including those from the Confederate States Army. The group was formally recognized until the death of its last member in 1947.
The Grand Army of the Republic Hall was slated for demolition in the 1960s. Public outcry forced the city to change its plans, and a 1963 fundraising campaign provided financial support to rehabilitate the building. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and was part of the Stolp Island Historic District when it was separately listed in 1986. It is now a museum, though it is currently undergoing another restoration and is closed to the public.
The octagonally-shaped building was built with locally-quarried limestone. The standing Gothic Revival structure is one and a half stories and features a small lot outside of the building with an 1851 cannon, a bench, and a flagpole. An addition was constructed in 1884 on the south wing, but was demolished during the 1963 restoration.
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping" by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication "To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead" (Source: Duke University's Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920). While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 - 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
In 1915, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," Moina Michael replied with her own poem:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms.Michael and when she returned to France, made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries. In 1921, the Franco-American Children's League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans' organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their "Buddy" Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.
Traditional observance of Memorial day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.