G.A.R.

When Halsey Wood’s design for the second Fennimore County courthouse was built in 1889, a generous corner of the main floor held a meeting room for the Grand Army of the Republic. Other than its monthly meetings, however, many others enjoyed the hall’s wood-panelled Medievalism, for the G.A.R. Hall became (along with Kemper Hall and the old Masonic Lodge that once stood on the public library site) a focus of civic life: a place for exhibits, lectures and debates, public meetings, etc. It also held Agincourt’s first public art exhibition—what came to be called the G.A.R. Exhibit of 1912.

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The G.A.R. itself had formed after the Civil War (at Decatur, Illinois in 1866) as an association of veterans, an opportunity for camaraderie that ultimately identified with the political goals of the Republican Party—a party that would be considerably at odds with today’s conflicted GOP. By 1890—when the organization reached its ultimate membership of nearly a half million—the G.A.R. was solidly identified with partisan politics, and political candidates had difficulty being elected without G.A.R. endorsement. The nascent labor movement and Democratic politics met in humbler quarters and even the open air [see the history of Gnostic Grove, for example].

So, in 1912 at the instigation of Amity Burroughs Flynn, widow of Agincourt’s half-term mayor Ed Flynn, several of the community’s leading citizens (and likely supporters of the Republican cause, by the way) lent pieces from their personal collections of decorative art for an exhibit intended to raise the level of aesthetic sensibility in the community at large. A complete list of the G.A.R. Exhibit has yet to be compiled, but Mrs Flynn persuaded many of the city’s “first families” to lend artwork—pieces they enjoyed each day in a casual domestic setting—for a formal month-long exhibition in a public (and some would say politically charged) venue. Mrs Flynn’s motive was noble and her use of the G.A.R. Hall may have been expeditious, but attendance as a consequence may have been less than she hoped. News coverage in The Plantagenet suggests unqualified success. Given the hyperbole and boosterism of the times, I suppose that’s to be expected.

Two years later, with memory of the exhibit still fresh and Agincourt’s first public library in the early stages of planning, Amity Burroughs Flynn injected her notion of greater public appreciation for the visual arts: Why not expand the library program to include space for the ongoing display of art in all its forms? Mrs Flynn’s idea caught the imagination of the people who had responded to her 1912 initiative and changed the very nature of what had become the almost formulaic “Carnegie library” type. Her presentation to the Library Board must have been powerful; Ed would have been proud. Without it, the library of 1915 and the Community Collection that it housed would likely not have come about.

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