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History Alive- The GAR Papers

Steve Burger

Historic documents were moved from the Coliseum to USI for restoration and safekeeping. You won't believe what was in the refrigerator!

Racing against time and poor conditions, a team of researchers from the University of Southern Indiana removed materials from two rooms at the Evansville Coliseum earlier this month.

The problem is that the Coliseum is a drafty, old building and not the proper place to store historical documents. A couple of years ago, a group called the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War complained that the documents and artifacts were going to be lost. A deal was brokered between that group, Vanderburgh County officials, the county veteran's council and USI to move some of the documents to USI for preservation and storage.

Credit Steve Burger / WNIN
USI archivist Jennifer Greene and graduate assistant Alex Hall remove items from the cabinet in the upper left of the photo.

The first stop was a locked cabinet in the former meeting room of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the local chapter of a prominent veterans group formed after the Civil War. The room in one corner of the Coliseum's ground floor is set up just as it was when the group met here. Since construction finished in 1917, there has been a room set aside for the GAR and its womens auxiliary.

The documents created by men who fought the Confederate Army with rifles and cannons were saved by a team of researchers toting cardboard boxes. USI archivist Jennifer Greene and graduate assistant Alex Hall began to sweat in the room still warm from a recent heat wave.

A musty smell rolled out as the cabinet was unlocked. That smell indicated to Greene that they're not a moment too soon to save the items inside. Piece by piece, Evansville history unfolded as the cabinet was emptied. A couple of bibles, a cigar box, first aid kit, scrapbooks and meeting records were removed from the cabinet, filling several boxes.

Credit Steve Burger / WNIN
The former GAR meeting room is much the same as it was when the group met here until the 1950's.

Greene couldn't contain her excitement at what she was finding. She said, "1883...Now we're getting to the good stuff. And look, there are names and addresses that we can cross reference with the city directory." Greene calls the find 'a historical gold mine' which will help them learn more about the membership of the GAR.


When they finished in the meeting room, Greene and Hall move to a dark storage area in the next room. There are coat hooks on the walls, tables, chairs, a couple of artificial Christmas trees and a Vitalaire brand refrigerator. A search shows print ads with the icebox selling for about $40 in the 1930's.

Piles of documents greet Greene as she opens the door, with more in the freezer compartment.  Green said she was mortified the first time she saw the mess. "My first reaction was, 'Oh no, not in the refrigerator!' A box in the middle of the floor would have been better."

Greene said it will take two to three years to archive, restore and digitize the collection so it can be made available to the public for research.

There are many more documents and artifacts from the Civil War and the Spanish-American War still being kept at the Evansville Coliseum. Greene hopes she can reach an agreement to move those items to USI for preservation and safekeeping as well before they're lost or damaged.

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