Veterans Memorial Hall is a joint program of the St. Louis County Historical Society and the United States Military service veterans of northeastern Minnesota, with a mission to gather, preserve, interpret, and promote the rich and diverse human experiences of veterans, their families, and communities through museum, archival, and educational programs.
History of Veterans Memorial Hall
Today, the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center (the Depot) is home to a program called Veterans Memorial Hall; it is part of the St. Louis County Historical Society. But at one time, it was separate from the Society. A hundred years ago, it was called the Soldiers Memorial Room—a misleading name, for it was really a comfortable suite of rooms for the veterans’ community—and it was situated three blocks north of its current location, on the main floor of what was then the brand new St. Louis County Courthouse.
In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, St. Louis County had only 42 able-bodied men eligible for service in Civil War in the entire county, and only 18 men volunteered to serve in the Civil War. Most of those men signed up to serve with units from their home states, such as New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In the three decades after the war, owing to westward migration and local opportunity, Duluth was founded, and its population exploded to about 100,000.
Many of these “new” Duluthians were veterans of the Civil War. Here, as around the nation, Civil War veterans who had fought for the Union came together and formed the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a social group. This was a national organization and quite large. Duluth was so big that it had three different GAR posts: Joshua B. Culver Post #128, Willis A. Gorman Post #13, and the short-lived Rutherford B. Hayes Post.
Owing to the tremendous number of veterans, and because women still could not vote, Civil War veterans—through the GAR—carried a tremendous amount of political clout, both nationally and locally. (If women had been able to vote, undoubtedly this bloc would have had an impact on the influence of the GAR, though what that influence would have been is necessarily unknown.)
At the time, states and municipalities around the nation were undertaking massive construction projects. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, new state capitols and other public buildings were needed. Often, local leaders would look to the local chapter of the GAR to provide political support for the construction of a proposed project; without that base of support, they knew a project might not come to pass.
In Wisconsin, state leaders turned to the GAR for support to construct a capitol building in Madison. The Wisconsin GAR agreed to support the project with the stipulation that a room in the capitol would be dedicated to veterans. This was acceptable. The room, originally referred to as Veterans’ Memorial Hall, was later transformed into the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum. In Minnesota, a similar arrangement was made, and the capitol rotunda was reserved for veteran-related artifacts and items. It is still that way today. Most likely, the same relationship influenced the inclusion of the Soldiers Memorial Room in the St. Louis County Courthouse.
At the turn of the 20th century, St. Louis County’s population was still booming, so the county decided to build a courthouse that would be unrivalled in Minnesota. They hired one of the notable architects of the time, Daniel (“D.H.”) Burnham. Burnham had achieved national fame after successfully designing the Chicago World’s Fair and the Flatiron Building in New York City. The county hired Burnham to design not only the new courthouse but also the layout for the Duluth Civic Center. This campus would eventually incorporate the courthouse (1909), the county jail (1923), Duluth City Hall (1928), and the Federal Building (1929). At the time of its completion in 1909, the county courthouse cost $1 million.
In Burnham’s architectural drawings, one can see the plan for the rooms that were dedicated to the veterans of St. Louis County. They were built on the eastern side of the main floor. Called the Soldiers Memorial Room, this suite of rooms featured a reception room, kitchen, and library. It also included a large room with a stage. Measuring 65’ x 35’, this was one of the largest rooms in the courthouse. The Soldiers Memorial Room was beautifully furnished in a style consistent with the rest of the courthouse building. Chairs from the room can be found in the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center today, as can the GAR speaker’s podium and sign-in desk. Burnham’s blueprints from 1909, which were drafted on massive linen sheets, still hang in the St. Louis County Courthouse.
Following the inauguration of the Soldiers Memorial Room, a glowing article was printed in the Duluth Evening Herald on January 5, 1910:
"The walls were hung with old and new flags. Bunting was draped in every corner. The handsome lodge furniture with the room, [text missing?] was in place. The new home of the Duluth order was the admiration of all. Old time pictures, dear to the heart of every Grand Army man, were hung all about the room. They consisted of old prints of famous people and several slogans printed with [text missing?] all modern improvements and the lodge room itself, go to make up one of the finest memorial halls in the entire country."
In the 1920s, the GAR Post decided to enhance the look of the Civic Center by installing a large new flagpole. Again a nationally prominent architect was hired, Cass Gilbert. Gilbert was known for his work on the Minnesota and Arkansas State Capitols, and also for the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC. The flagpole is referred to as the “Sailors and Soldiers Monument” and has a memorial at its base dedicated to the members of the Joshua Culver Post. It also has a statue of a knight sitting in front of the monument, which was sculpted by Paul Bartlett. It was around this time that the Room began to be universally referred to as Memorial Hall.
The Hall was used not only by the GAR but also by the United Spanish War Veterans. Eventually, the location was used by many different veteran organizations, from the Disabled American Veterans to the Veterans of the World War. Its library had many pieces of memorabilia and books from the many different wars and engagements. It displayed items such as a WWI German machine gun and a Civil War era military drum.
But inevitably, as the years progressed, the number of GAR members diminished, and in 1926 the remaining two posts combined into the Gorman-Culver Post #13. The United Spanish War Veterans began operating the room. In 1954, the John McEwen Camp No. 6 of the United Spanish War Veterans celebrated their 56th anniversary in Memorial Hall. But eventually, even the Spanish War Veterans became such a small number that the hall had to be closed.
Possibly because of the existence of the VFWs, Legions, and other veterans' organizations with their own buildings and spaces, there wasn't a need a great need for the room. Pressure to use the space for other governmental functions may also have contributed to the closing of that particular space as a Veterans Memorial Hall.
Officially at 11:37 am on Tuesday, October 19, 1965, Memorial Hall was locked up. Many of the items in the rooms were distributed among different regional veteran organizations and libraries. The remaining items in the room, such as the nine Springfield rifles and a dollar given by Albert Woolson, were sent to the Twin Cities Chapter the United Spanish War Veterans. But some of the the furniture and many other items were donated to the St. Louis County Historical Society or stored. This ended the first long chapter of Veterans Memorial Hall at the courthouse.
Since then, Veterans Memorial Hall has moved to the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center (the Depot) and is maintained by the St. Louis County Historical Society and the military service veterans from the Arrowhead region. The speakers at the original dedication ceremony promised, “Your services to the country will be remembered so long as liberty is prized and the patriotic valor is remembered.” Veterans Memorial Hall aims to honor that statement. We have collected more than 1,500 artifacts and 6,000 veteran stories. Today, we have one of the largest collections of military items and veterans' stories in the state of Minnesota.