The History of the Cleveland Gray’s Armory



A Castle Of War: Cleveland Grays Armory

Built In 1893 To Provide Space For The Independent Militia To Practice And To Provide A Space For Clevelanders To Hold Events

The Cleveland Grays Building [Courtesy/Grays Armory]

With many walls as thick as 16 inches, windows fortified with bars, a gate that drops down in case of invasion, and a tower that can see far into Lake Erie, the Cleveland Grays Armory has all the makings of a castle.  As it should - the Cleveland Grays were founded as an independent militia in Cleveland in 1837. 

"Militias were formed because the regular army couldn't handle all the westward expansion," explains Kristin Eskew, Executive Director of the Cleveland Grays Museum.  Eskew goes on to explain that in Cleveland, "the militias were separated by ethnic origin - there was an Irish Militia, a German Militia, and so on."  The Cleveland Grays were a unified militia with multiple ethnic origins.  The name comes from the color of uniform.  "The only rule with militias is they couldn't be the navy blue of the army, so the Grays chose gray, a standard color for militias at the time." 

Besides a help to law enforcement, why else would Cleveland need a militia?  There were the Rebellions of 1837 - armed uprisings in Canada - and in Cleveland there was a real fear the uprisings would spill across Lake Erie.  Therefore, the Grays wanted to act as a first line of defense.  Turns out they weren't needed at that time and the first time they were called to duty was in 1855.  "There was a horse thief that was to be hung in the morning and a bunch of his buddies were drinking and boasting about how they were going to break him out," Eskew explains, so the County called the Grays in to stand guard for the execution.

Vintage Post with Writing [Courtesy/Grays Armory]

After that first call, the Grays have served in every war since, though they have officially stopped being a militia after World War 1, when all American militias were disbanded.  Instead of becoming National Guard, the Grays became a private group, which it still is today.  They also escorted Presidents and other dignitaries, most notably escorting Abraham Lincoln's funeral train back to Illinois. 

The building, the Armory, was built in 1893.  It is in the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture, castle-like architecture popular in the late 1800s.  One of the reasons why the building is still standing is that the front half of the building was built with electric, instead of the common practice of gas.  "Everyone knows gun powder and gas don't mix too well, but it was the only option and a lot of the old armories burnt down as a result," Eskew explains.  In fact the back half, which was gas, did burn, but due to the fortified nature of the build as well as gas lines not going into the front half, the building stayed upright. 

Besides the striking architecture, the most famous and used part of the building is the drill hall.  The original purpose was twofold: to provide space for the Grays to practice and to provide a space for Clevelanders to hold events.  In both, it succeeded wonderfully and still provides an event space for the public.  "When the Cleveland Orchestra, a world famous orchestra, first started in 1918, the performed at the Armory," Eskew says.  They also hosted the first auto show in Cleveland.  Now, they host weddings, parties, galas and other events. 

Bride On Steps [Courtesy/Grays Armory]

The museum itself formed in the 1950s.  "A lot of Clevelanders though and still think to an extent that the Grays are associated with the National Guard," Eskew says.  There is, what possibly was a "bowling alley" in the basement and when the back half of the building burned, the government helped rebuild it on the condition that the National Guard could lease the basement as a shooting range.  The lease ended in the 50s, and since then it became a museum. 

The museum has artifacts from all the wars the Grays have participated in.  There are a lot of firearms such as the Chautchat Machine Gun.  "The Chautchat was a French machine gun that really killed more French then Germans," Eskew says, "the Germans would just wait as the huge magazine would invariably jam and backfire on the French."  Many Grays served on D-Day in Normandy and the museum has the flag they flew.  There is a helmet from World War 1 that still has the shipping label on it.  "Grays were conscious of preserving artifacts from the beginning and one in World War 2 grabbed a helmet and sent it to the Armory," explains Eskew.  A most prized piece is a cannon from the Civil War that was captured from the South. 

As for Eskew, her association with the Grays goes much deeper than her job.  “My grandfather and my dad were Grays, so I am too,” Eskew says.  She says she has been “running around the building” since she was a little girl.  The present-day Grays are the “reason we are still standing,” Eskew says.  Every month the Grays come and take care of the century-old building.  “They reglazed the windows, clean and fix things regularly, put AC in the museum, and more,” Eskew says.  With such a rich history and an active charter to preserve military history and American ideals in Cleveland, nothing less would be expected from the Cleveland Grays. 

Andrew Malo

A graduate of Northeastern Illinois University in Education, Andrew has taught for the past decade in Chicago, New Mexico, and Japan.  He  enjoys tinkering with trucks and motorcycles, woodworking, reading and computer programming. 

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