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Local Reno Post of the GAR Was Civil War Equivalent to Today’s Veterans Organizations

As we prepare for Memorial Day 2023, once known as “Decoration Day,” it might be good to look back at an organization that once had an integral and important role in the observance of the holiday for many years into the 1940s.

For many years during the 1940s and 1950s and perhaps before, the post home of the Reno Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, on West Third Street in downtown Williamsport was the site of daily rummage sales. But what was the Reno Post?

The Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR as it was better known, was founded by a group of Civil War Union Army veterans in 1866 to strengthen the bonds of comradeship, honor the memory of the fallen, and, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “to care for him who has borne the battle and for his widow and orphan,” as well as to fight for pension benefits for former Union soldiers.

The GAR became one of post-Civil War America’s most powerful lobbies or political pressure groups. Technically, the GAR was a non-partisan organization, but inevitably it became a valuable political ally of the party of Lincoln, the Republican Party. Almost every U.S. President from Grant to McKinley was a GAR member, including James Garfield, Rutherford Hayes, William Harrison, and William McKinley.

The GAR and its commander, General John A. Logan, were the catalysts for the establishment of Decoration Day, later Memorial Day, in 1868. This day became a sort of high holy day for GAR posts across the country as they commemorated their fallen comrades on that day amid respectful pomp. At its peak in 1890, the GAR had more than 400,000 members nationally.

Locally, after two abortive attempts to establish a GAR post, Reno Post 64 was founded on October 13, 1876, with A.H. Stead as its first commander. The post was named for General Jesse Reno, who fell at the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland.

Shortly thereafter, two other GAR posts were established in Lycoming County, the Colonel S.D. Barrow’s post and Colonel Charles Fribley’s post. The Fribley post was made up of area African American veterans and was named for the commander of the Eighth Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops.

The Reno Post had the largest membership, and by the first decade of the 20th century, the other county posts combined with the Reno Post. Its post home, beginning in 1897, was at the former Immanuel Church at the corner of Laurel and West Third streets, where the former Midtown Parking Deck was located.

Of course, Memorial Day was the biggest day annually for Reno Post members. These men, many bewhiskered, would stand ramrod straight as they met at the post home for the great procession to the Wildwood Cemetery, where they held a service to honor their departed comrades. They then returned to the post home for a meal prepared by the post’s women’s auxiliary and, following that, often performed another service at the Williamsport Cemetery on Washington Boulevard, where other comrades are buried.

The last living Lycoming County Civil War veteran, Daniel Null, died ironically on December 7, 1941. The last member of the national GAR died in 1956.

As the Reno Post veterans died off, another organization, the Sons of Union Veterans, had the post home, and it was that group that held the daily rummage sales that so many older area residents recall.

By the late 1950s, the old post home had fallen into a state of disrepair and was soon to meet the wrecking ball. There was a repository of precious Civil War artifacts and many caned chairs with the names of each “comrade” and the name of his regiment inscribed on the bottom of the chairs.

Members of Phi Alpha Theta, the Honor History Fraternity at Lycoming College, took charge of moving these precious artifacts to Eveland Hall on the campus of Lycoming around 1958 under the leadership of my uncle, John Hunsinger, who was later a social studies teacher at Montoursville High School for more than 30 years. A museum of sorts was put together at Eveland Hall, in which my uncle served as the voluntary curator. This museum was around until about 1970, when the artifacts were moved to the new Lycoming County Historical Museum.

He said not more than about a dozen of the chairs from the Reno Post are still around; the Taber Museum has a number of them, and several private individuals have a few as well. One of those who had one of the chairs was Alice McBride. She said her late husband, Paul obtained the chair, and interestingly, the chair has the name of Comrade Paul McBride inscribed on the bottom of it. Alice’s husband did some genealogical research on his family but found that the Paul McBride of the chair was not related to him.

The Thomas T. Taber Museum, under the coordination of local architectural historian Robert Kane, has reconstructed on a smaller scale the Reno Post meeting hall. This display gives a good flavor of what that meeting room might have looked like in its heyday, helping to preserve an important and proud part of Lycoming County’s military past and helping to perpetuate the legacy of the important and interesting organization.