Had the British invaded Cleveland with an armed force as it was feared in the mid-19th century, militiamen with loaded guns would have met them at the Lake Erie shoreline. Of course, after the war of 1812, where the United States fought the British a second time following the Revolutionary War, the British and the Americans never fought each other again.
Still, had England soldiers invaded out of Canada and across Lake Erie, the men of the Cleveland Grays would have been ready with gunfire. "They just wanted to be prepared if there was any retribution from England," said Kristin Roediger, executive director of the Cleveland Grays Armory Museum. The Grays, which was a militia organized to defend the city, still exists today, although not as a military unit, but as a social and military interest group. Its headquarters is Gray's Armory on Bolivar Avenue where it intersects with Prospect.
The Armory, a castle-like fortress, is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Although it is no longer is headquarters for a defensive unit, its social group members have kept alive the story of the Cleveland Grays. The unit was formed in 1837 as a crime-fighting group the city needed.
"In 1835, Cleveland had seven burglaries in one year and there was nobody to handle that," said Kristin Roediger. "So some of the elite stepped up and said, 'We will protect Cleveland,'" added Roediger. Initially, the unite was called the Cleveland City Guards, but later changed the name to the Grays to reflect the color of its uniforms.
Kristin Roediger is a third-generation member of the Grays organization. Both her father and late grandfather have been affiliated with the Grays. Bill Roediger, president of the unit, has come to the Armory since the 1980s when his father, a veteran of the U.S. Army in the 1937, brought him to the building. Bill is steeped in the history of the unit and speaks passionately about the photographs, documents, and memorabilia in the building.
"When President Lincoln asked, the Cleveland Grays were the first ones to volunteer [for the Union in the Civil War], " said Bill. "The Grays were in the Battle of Manassas," he added.
That story is part of a saga which is chronicled in the building, which was constructed in 1893. Its huge stone archway seems out of place and out of step with the 21st Century which has grown around it. But inside, uniforms of the present-day Grays are housed. The unite marches in parades and special programs.
Among its mission is to keep alive the story of the militia and importance of the nation supporting today's members of the armed services. The old building, opened for public tours the first Wednesday of every month from noon to 4 p.m., is filled with photographs and memorabilia. Among the items are from the days when the Grays no longer existed as a militia, but its members became service members in World War I and wars since.
In 1903, with the U.S. government's establishment of National Guard units, militias were disbanded. So the Grays took more of a social and historical role.
However, the armory was also a place of social gatherings with men in tuxedos and women in long flowing dresses. It was a Cleveland civic center long before venues now used were built. Photographs show hundreds of couples on the dance floor which was used as a place for military drills by the Grays. "There was no Severance Hall, no Q arena, no Music Hall," said Mary Beth Rauzi, outreach coordinator for Grays Armory Museum. "So the drill hall became the civic center," she added.
The old armory is within sight of Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. With its distinctive circular watchtower, the armory stands in stark comparison to the baseball park which opened 101 years after the debut of the home of the Grays. Still, the old armory holds on as it helps tell the story of part of Cleveland's military history.
However, Grays Armory has been given a new roll. For the Republican National Convention which will be in Cleveland in July, the armory will be a headquarters for some events of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party.
"Oh, I just love this place," said Rauzi. "She's a great old dame."
Grays Armory and Museum can be contacted for more information on tours at (216) 621-5938 or online at www.graysarmory.com.