The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 28, 2013

Civil War buffs help to preserve Johnstown’s past

Tom Lavis
tlavis@tribdem.com

— With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address being celebrated in just over a week, Randy and Chris Beisel of Richland Township are eager to share their collection of Civil War memorabilia with other enthusiasts.

The couple, along with Bob and Joyce Dowler of Latrobe, purchased Johnstown’s leading landmark that commemorates the War Between the States: the GAR building at Locust Street and Gazebo Place across from Central Park downtown.

The group took an interest in the GAR building for one reason: Its connection to the Civil War.

The building, which opened in 1893 as a gathering spot for Civil War veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic organization, was purchased in hopes of restoring the site.

All four owners are Civil War buffs and re-enactors who have been working to restore the structure’s third floor into a museum honoring GAR Post 30 while upgrading several second-floor rooms to house a growing number of artifacts, memorabilia and displays.

Randy Beisel and Bob Dowler are members of Camp 14 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Their wives are involved with the group’s auxiliary.

“Our long-term goal is to have a museum that shows what happened to Civil War veterans after they returned home from the war,” Chris Beisel said. “Following the 1889 Flood, GAR members were first to man supply lines to get needed items into the flood-ravaged city. The veterans were self-reliant and had already been through the hell and devastation of war.”

The building was constructed solely for Post 30 of the Grand Army of the Republic – a national organization founded for Union veterans of the Civil War.

The local organization, named for veteran Emery Fisher, supposedly was one of the largest GAR posts in Pennsylvania.

Randy Beisel said Fisher, who lived on Haynes Street in Johns­town, served with the 54th Penn­sylvania Volunteer Infan­try before being promoted to a first lieutenant who commanded troops in the United States Colored Troops. They were Civil War regiments of the U.S. Army composed of African-American soldiers.

“For anyone who has seen the movie, ‘Glory,’ Fisher was with the 22nd Colored Infantry Regiment,” Randy Beisel said. “He was killed in the battle of Petersburg (Va.) in 1864.”

The Beisels said that Johns­town was booming near the end of the 19th century as many veterans returned to find work in steel mills and farming.

“At its peak, there were nearly 400 members in the GAR,” Chris Beisel said. “We bought the structure to preserve a piece of history and plan to have several window displays honoring those who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg.”

Several rooms on the second floor house display cases, curios and tables containing a remarkable collection.

Randy Beisel proudly displays his Lorenz rifle and bayonet.

“While most soldiers carried Enfield or Springfield rifles, troopers of the 54th were issued Lorenz rifles,” he said.

The Lorenz was an Austrian rifle used in the mid-19th century. It was used in several European wars and was instrumental in the Civil War.

“We have a wide variety of artifacts and collectibles,” Chris Beisel said. “My pride and joy is a portion of an original Confederate flag, which we have had restored and framed.”

The weathered banner looks as if a soldier had cut out the center section of the hand-stitched flag showing its 13 white stars, blue bars and a red field.

Since the GAR represents veterans, it’s only fitting that documents pertaining to their service would be displayed.

The owners have several vi­brantly colored discharge papers of Civil War veterans. They also possess other rifles, a kepi hat (a flat circular top with visor), military documents, commemoratives, a ceremonial GAR sword, ribbons, medals, dishes, ruby glass and much more.

“We often travel to Civil War shows looking for items that pertain to our building,” Chris Beisel said. “We also have friends around the country who are constantly on the lookout for items associated with our building we can use.”

Such items will be added to the collection, which includes an iron cannonball found on the battlefield of Antietam.

An authentic GAR wool uniform, complete with gold insignia buttons, matching vest and white dress shirt, is displayed on a mannequin.

“It’s the same material used in Union Army uniforms, and al­though it is wool, it’s a breathable material,” Randy Beisel said.

The property owners see the potential and are working diligently to restore the grandeur of the third-floor meeting room with its 13-foot ceilings.

“If these walls could only talk,” Chris Beisel said, as she stood in the midst of what served as a ceremonial chamber for Civil War veterans. “Members had to prove their service and had to be voted into the association.”

An outer parlor served as a cloak room and waiting area. All of the orignal woodwork is intact, and there are portions of flooring that date back to over a century.

A linoleum material, which was patented in 1863, was used on a layer of burlap to cover the building’s stair landings and hallways.

A few gas-supplied light fixtures hang from the ceiling.

“You can see they have been electrified, but we want to return them to their original condition,” Randy Beisel said.

The room’s colored panes of glass have a meaning: Blue for infantry, red for artillery and yellow for cavalry.

There are still peepholes in the wooden doors, which helped members ensure that only their colleagues entered. Raised platforms for the group’s leaders line the walls.

“We have a collection of wooden chairs that we believed were used during metings,” Randy Beisel said. “There are marks where name plates once were, and we think people donated money to buy a chair in the memory of a veteran.”

The GAR is registered as a historic structure.

The two couples want to create a museum dedicated to the lives and stories of the Post 30 members.

“If anyone out there locally knows of artifacts that pertain to this building, we’re very interested,” Chris Beisel said.

While the owners don’t have regular viewing hours at the building, tours can be arranged by calling the Beisels at 262-0075.