Boise Places Worth Seeing

Boise GAR Hall - Where Old Soldiers Told Old Stories

Here's a little bit of a history lesson, courtesy of your pal Crandal.

If I were to ask ten people on the street if they know where the Boise GAR Hall is, I bet all of them would stare at their shoes for two minutes or at best inquire why Boise has a building dedicated to a toothy fish that can't even be found in the state. On the odd chance that I did actually find someone who was familiar with the building, the chances are good this person wouldn't know anything about the GAR Hall other than it currently contains offices belonging to the University of Idaho. For the time being we'll ignore the fact that the place has been overrun by Vandals and just be happy that a building built at the end of the 19th century has survived numerous urban renewal projects and isn't a Starbucks.

First and foremost, let's get something straight. In this case, GAR is not a fish; it's an acronym that stands for Grand Army of the Republic.

In the days following the Civil War, Union Army veterans felt the need to reunite periodically to play poker and reminisce about forced marches, hard tack, and dysentery. Although many fraternal organizations sprang up, it was the Grand Army of the Republic, founded in Illinois in 1866, that quickly became the most popular. Within seven months of its founding, the GAR had spread to ten states. As its numbers swelled in the following years, the GAR quickly figured out how to use their numbers for political gain, just like the AARP. At first they lobbied for equal voting rights for black veterans. That didn't turn out as well as they hoped it would, but it did allow them to recruit the majority of black veterans. The GAR was far more successful when it later lobbied the government for federal pensions for Civil War veterans. By 1890 the GAR had over 400,000 members representing every state, which gave them enough of a block vote to determine the fate of the presidential election in 1888. In short, the GAR was the club to be in if you were a Civil War veteran, and presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley were all GAR members.

Idaho had its share of Union Army veterans, which resulted in the the founding of the Idaho Department of the GAR in 1888. According to the Idaho Historical Society, thousands of veterans made their way to Idaho after the war, and if you don't believe it they'll even let you look at the official record. The state had 32 GAR posts, some of which were chartered in thriving metropolises like Salubria, Rathdrum, Van Wyck, and Eagle Rock. Each post was named after a notable Union officer from the Civil War. Sadly, the Boise post was not named after General Joseph Hooker or General Ambrose Burnside, those gallant Union leaders responsible for single handedly improving our lexicon. Think about it; when was the last day you didn't hear at least one reference to hookers or sideburns? All was not lost, however, because the Boise post was named after General Phil Sheridan, who did a fine job of encouraging the extermination of buffalo and all the Plains Indians who didn't want to wear trousers and celebrate Christmas. He also had an enviable mustache.

Oh Philip, why did you hate buffalo and Indians so much?

In 1892, the lads from the Phil Sheridan Post built a two-storey brick meeting place on State Street behind the Idaho State Capitol building. The Boise GAR Hall is still there in its original location, right next to St. Michael's Cathedral. In fact, you really can't take a good picture of the GAR Hall without capturing the sign for the St. Michael's Thrift Shop, which is located in a small building behind the hall. There's nothing all that fancy about the outside of the hall, but the blue paint on the awnings and the window frames keep it from being too drab. As for the inside of the building, I can't tell you what it looks like in there because going inside would certainly cause a person to contract a wicked case of Vandal cooties. I can really live without that, but I'm thankful them Vandal folks installed flush toilets and keep the grout looking nice.

So what happened to the grand institution we know as the GAR? Despite its popularity, the GAR faced one insurmountable organizational problem. Because the GAR limited its membership to folks who had actually served in the Civil War, it was impossible to recruit new members. Think of it as a kind of reverse Mormonism. The result: when the last living GAR member died in 1956, the organization died with him. The GAR does have a fine legacy, however. They are responsible for more statues and monuments that Nero, and their pledge to decorate the graves of Union soldiers every May 30 (Decoration Day) was the basis for our modern Memorial Day. The Boise GAR Hall itself was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

That's quite a bit of history for a nondescript brick building in the shadow of a cathedral. It makes you wonder what kind of stuff we lost when the redevelopment zealots started tearing down old Boise.

Place worth seeing: Boise GAR Hall
Where: 714 W. State St., Boise

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Hours: Outside
Dawn to dusk, 365 days a year  
University of Idaho hours
Cost: Free
Website: None
Fun fact: If those walls could talk, they would say, "Get these Vandals out of here."