Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Fascinating history behind Beloit's Grinnell Hall

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Greg Peck
Monday, April 28, 2014

I spoke Friday about my book, “Death Beyond the Willows,” to a small but enthusiastic group at Grinnell Hall. Beloit's senior center, at 631 Bluff St., is a few blocks from downtown. Before my presentation, I asked Executive Director Paula Schutt about whether the building—which sits next to a church—once served as a church or school. She started telling me the history of the place, and then offered to copy several aging newspaper stories posted on the walls. Most or all of these came from the Beloit Daily News.

It seemed fitting that I would be talking about my book of nonfiction history—one surrounding a 1927 wedding-day tragedy—in a place so full of rich history.

Beloit's senior center was built on the site of what once held one of the finest houses in the city. Known as the Lee home, it featured seven archways across its sprawling first floor, a second story in its midsection and a cupola atop that.

Nellie Clark, wife of George Clark, a dry goods merchant in Beloit, had lived in the home since childhood. She was an animal lover who had pets and birds. She was particularly fond of a canary named Dick. When her feathered friend died in 1886, she carefully placed it in a tin marshmallow box, on a blue satin ribbon with its head on a tiny white silk pillow. She buried it in one of the home's 18-inch-thick limestone walls.

The home must have fallen into disrepair by the mid-1930s because it was torn down to make way for Grinnell Memorial Hall, completed in 1937. The hall was built after Emma E. Grinnell, who was active in patriotic organizations, bequeathed $100,000 to build a memorial for her husband, William, who died in 1925. The hall was to be used by all of Beloit's patriotic organizations. William H. Grinnell was a civil War veteran who was once a department commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. He also was one of four young men who organized the Beloit Iron Works (Beloit Corp.) in the 1880s.

While demolishing the Lee home 50 years after Nellie Clark laid to rest her little canary, workers discovered the tiny box with “Dick” scratched on it. Besides the well-preserved bird inside, they found two notes.

One read: “If in the years to come any one should find this box, please bury it again just as you find it. It holds the oldest and most knowing bird in America. I loved him and shall miss him for years. N.C.”

The second, according to a story written by Pat Casucci, was a tribute to her “dear little bird,” written in hopes Dick would someday find wings in a land ever green and ever summer, where old age never comes, where the bird could sing glad songs with many others.

Paul B. Kennedy, construction superintendent for Grinnell Memorial Hall, carried out Nellie's wishes. A 1936 photo shows him, with top hat, sport coat and tie, while blue-collar construction workers observed, placing the little tin box containing the bird in a new concrete wall of Grinnell Memorial Hall.

Unfortunately, veterans organizations struggled to operate the hall due to lack of funds. In 1975, the city acquired it with “consideration of mutual agreements.” In 1977, the city acquired federal money to create Grinnell Senior Center.

Also unfortunately, Grinnell Hall is looking rather aged. The senior center could use sprucing up and new furnishings.

Schutt, who previously worked at The Gathering Place in Milton, pointed out one more intriguing nugget of Grinnell Hall history that isn't chronicled on the walls. She says a Beloit Daily News story years ago suggested the place is haunted, that several people have encountered a ghost. She hasn't witnessed any apparitions during her time on the job, but she would like to research that phenomena when she gets time.

Maybe, she suggested, the senior center could organize a Halloween tour touting the building as haunted. Maybe, I'm thinking, that could raise money for needed updates.

Maybe the spirit of Nellie Clark is waiting for her beloved little bird to sing once again.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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