ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — Veterans Memorial Hall has stood guard at 211 North Main Street in Rockford for more than a century. Inside its museum are memories of soldiers–past and present.
“We try to have our exhibits reflect stories of actual veterans and their service,” explained Scott Lewandowski, the museum director for Veterans Memorial Hall.
Since 1903, the hall has been a place of honor for area service members. Display cases full of artifacts tell a story with each piece.
“Right behind us is an exhibit about James Owens, who was a helicopter pilot during Vietnam shot down, killed in action, and his family had all of his stuff that they donated here. So, we created an exhibit trying to tell his story and keep his memory alive,” Lewandowski explained.
Civil War veterans created the memorial and museum almost 120 years ago.
“Winnebago County had a large number. Over 3,000 veterans marched from Rockford all the way down to Tennessee to begin and fight for the end of slavery and for the Union cause,” Lewandowski said.
President Theodore Roosevelt came to the Forest City to preside over its dedication.
“[It was the] first time a sitting president had come to Rockford. He came through the east side doors and walked out to a crowd of some 40 or 50,000 people. It was this huge thing in Rockford,” Lewandowski added.
Lewandowski says the hall is the first memorial in the state that was funded by taxpayers. However, the hall almost didn’t survive.
“So, the veterans had to maintain it. They had to pay gas and electric and all that upkeep. Well, when the original group of Civil War veterans, the Grant army and the republic veterans, as they started to pass away, there were less and less of them and so the building fell into disrepair. There was talk about tearing it down,” he explained.
Veterans groups have used the hall as a place to meet throughout its lifetime. Scott Haugh, the commander for Blackhawk Life Chapter 20 of the Disabled American Veterans, says they have met there for almost 85 years.
“We’re not a brick and mortar organization. We have them that pay for the bills and stuff like that, so…the money that comes in to us, we can actually get out to help those veterans,” explained Haugh.
Haugh also has a personal connection with one of the exhibits.
“Dad was in the lead B-17 that bombed Berlin for the very first time,” he explained. “With my dad’s uniform, and a lot of the other veterans who are members of our chapter, or even the other organizations, can come in here and see them and feel at home.”
Haugh followed in his father’s footsteps, enlisting in the US Army. He donated his dad’s military uniforms and medals to the memorial, explaining that it isn’t just a testament to him, but to all the veterans in those eras.
From floor to ceiling, Veterans Memorial Hall shares the stories of local service men and women.
“It’s a living monument, memorial. It’s not a static thing like a statue that depicts some scene or some person,” Lewandowski added.
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