- Barrie Barber Staff Writer
Two years after the end of the Civil War, former soldiers were housed on hundreds of acres filled with ornate gardens in Dayton at what would become the largest home for veterans in the nation.
That place began as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, the genesis of the Dayton VA Medical Center, which this year marks its 150th anniversary with a year-long roster of ceremonies and events.
“This entire concept that a country would spend its time, effort and money to care for veterans like this was a social experiment that had never been done in the history of the world,” said Tessa Kalman, Dayton VA historian.
To mark the Dayton VA sesquicentennial, organizers have arranged public activities and ceremonies in 2017.
“One of our big pushes with the 150th (anniversary) was to bring in the community,” said Ryan Pleasants, Dayton VA chief of voluntary services.
Concerts, chapel ceremonies, five “warrior hikes” on different trails totaling 150 kilometers, a USO Hangar Dance, a Patriot Freedom Festival and burying a time capsule filled with modern-day artifacts are among a broad range of what’s planned.
For a full list of activities, log onto www.daytonva150.com.
Replete with historic buildings on the sprawling campus of nearly 400 acres, the Dayton VA will become the home of the $20 million National VA History Center. A mixture of public dollars and private fund raising over the next several years is needed for the project.
The National Home in Dayton was one of the first three in the nation under authorization signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The others opened in Togas, Maine and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “(Lincoln) did not live to see this great work that grew into the VA system,” said Mark Conrad, a member of the American Veterans Heritage Center at the Dayton VA.
The ‘mother home’
The Soldiers Home, known as the Central Home because of its location in the United States, would grow to house 7,000 veterans in West Dayton. The campus gained the nickname “the mother home” as the largest in the nation, historians said.
“It wasn’t just merely to give them shelter, food and the basics, they really wanted this to be a home for them to live a quality life because in previous wars in other countries veterans did not fare well after the war,” Kalman said.
“They looked at what they were doing in Europe and that was unsatisfactory and a lot of the veterans there basically ended up as beggars on the street which they weren’t going to have that for the people who had saved the union,” Conrad said. The medical campus shares the grounds with a national cemetery with more than 50,000 burials.
When the home opened in Dayton, there was no racial segregation among veterans, as could be found in other parts of 19th century America, said Ted Froats, a Dayton VA spokesman.
“From the moment we opened back in 1867, we were fully racially integrated,” he said. “Whatever race you were, you ate together … you lived together, you received your medical care together (and) worked together.”
Veterans learned skills such as stone masonry, wood working, telegraphing, and calligraphy — one of about 30 trades — so they would have a skill to earn a living in the outside world if they were able to rejoin society, historians said.
“If you’re missing an arm or a leg you can’t do heavy stone masonry and woodwork and things like that,” Conrad said. “But if you could sit at a table, you could knit socks, bind books, you could roll cigars, you could learn calligraphy.”
Civil War veterans built the Protestant Chapel with limestone quarried on the grounds. The first hospital opened the same year as the chapel in 1870.
Sea lions and bears at the garden party
Veterans tended a mini-zoo with bears, an aviary, sea lions and a deer park and the grounds had a pond with alligators in the early 1900s, Conrad said.
The Grotto Gardens, reborn in recent years, and greenhouses filled with ornate floral arrangements became a tourist draw bringing hundreds of thousands to Dayton, reaching its peak in 1910 with 669,059 in that year, according to VA statistics.
“Because we were the largest facility in the nation at the time, I think we attracted a lot of people who just wanted to come and see the veterans and show their appreciation and interact with them,” Kalman said. The number of veterans living on the grounds dwindled after World War II, but the medical mission grew to serve tens of thousands of former service members.
Today, the Dayton VA employs more than 2,000 people and provides medical care at its main campus and four outpatient clinics to nearly 40,000 patients yearly.
“…From Day One 150 years ago when we first opened our gates since that moment and time until this very moment in time, we have had the exact same mission and have never stopped, 24-7, every day,” Kalman said. “For 150 years to be doing the same thing in the same spot to me that’s the cool factor.”