Anoka County history: Ladies of the GAR home in Anoka

The Grand Army of the Republic, known as the GAR, was established in 1866 and reached its zenith in the 1890s with over 400,000 members.

The organization was dedicated to serving needy veterans of the Civil War’s Union Army, and helping the widows and orphans of the fallen soldiers.

The Ladies of the GAR was their auxiliary.

Like their male counterparts, who built soldiers’ homes throughout the country, the Ladies of the GAR built homes for destitute women and children.

The only such home in Minnesota was located in Anoka at 427 West Main Street, where Main Motors is today.

The site was initially five acres adjacent to the cemetery.

Two brick and stucco cottages were built there in 1898, and were available to any woman, according to the by-laws, who was “direct kin” to a Civil War veteran.

The local newspaper reported, in November of 1907, that a fifth cottage was to be erected to be a hospital wing, at a cost of $2,800 and Mrs. Mary Bigelow was hired as matron.

According to the paper, it had 11 rooms, and was appointed with white iron beds, hardwood floors, a furnace, hot and cold water, and –wonder of wonders—a telephone!

The basement was said to be “commodious.”

In 1927, 34 women were living there and the need exceeded the facilities.

The Ladies of the GAR needed to raise $8000 to build a new cottage.

This goal was achieved by holding bazaars, card parties and food sales.

The new facility had a paid staff of eight, and its 23 rooms housed 33 additional women.

As time went by, there were fewer members of the Ladies of the GAR to support the home, although as late as 1960 there were still 600 GAR members in Minnesota.

It became necessary to sell off some of the land in order to keep the home operational.

The buildings fell into disrepair and the staff was reduced.

The residents were welfare pensioners and averaged 80 years of age, so they were unable to help.

Still, they muddled through for 50 years, until 1960—nearly 100 years after the Civil War.

By then, the site had been reduced to three acres and most of the buildings were not habitable.

The State Fire Marshal mandated extensive repairs that were not financially feasible.

A small and elderly, but still valiant core of dedicated people tried to keep the home available to the 17 residents who would be displaced by its closing.

They lacked $17,000 for a sprinkler system, and new wiring.

The last six months, Mrs. Johnston, a niece of a Civil War vet, cooked and cleaned and cared for the 17 old women, essentially running the entire facility by herself.

The Ladies of the GAR home was permanently closed on Feb. 1, 1960.

The two remaining buildings were removed and the site reverted to the city.

Editor’s note: Maria King is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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