By Margaret O’Hartigan, adapted and expanded from her walking guide, “Walnut Park Revealed”.

In the United States the summer season is traditionally considered to run from Memorial Day until Labor Day. In 1887 Oregon was the first state in the Union to make the first Monday in September an official public holiday.

What we now know as Memorial Day began as early as 1861 with the practice of women decorating the graves of Southern soldiers killed in the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy. Not to be outdone, in 1868 the leading organization of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), established May 30 as Decoration Day, later to be called Memorial Day.

The last surviving Commander-in-Chief of the GAR – Theodore August Penland – was an Oregon resident before his death in 1950. Penland had been just 16 when he’d joined Company A of the 152nd Indiana Volunteer Infantry.

John Green Chambers was another important Oregon member of the GAR. A fellow Hoosier like Penland, J.G. – as he preferred to be called — moved to a house on Mallory Avenue in what is now King neighborhood in 1911, and belonged to the GAR’s General Compson Post No. 22. 

Chambers had been a member of Company I, 40th Indiana Regiment of Volunteers, which served throughout the entire war—including the Battle of Stone’s River (Murfreesboro) that began on December 31, 1862. There were more than 13,000 Union casualties at Stones’ River – including Penland’s father, John, who was also fighting for the Union and who died from wounds received in that battle.

Peninsula Park in North Portland was the site of a 1914 gathering of GAR members at which Chambers was elected treasurer. Four years later, as retiring department commander, Chambers was endorsed for senior vice-commander of the National organization. At that same 1918 meeting, the Oregonian reported: “Colored Chaplain Elected. 

The Grand Army today established what is believed to be a precedent in electing a colored member a department Officer. Daniel Drew, of Portland was unanimously elected chaplain for the ensuing year. It is the first time this has happened in Oregon, and prominent veterans said they do not know of a similar case in any other state.”

The Reverend Drew had been born a slave in Virginia, but when he was 18 was moved to Missouri when his owners moved there. Beaten and shackled for escaping, Drew was rescued by a company of Union militia, and spent the remainder of the war fighting for the Union and freedom. 

The Compson post celebrated the 55th wedding anniversary of Drew and his wife Laura in 1920. He died in 1923 at the age of 78 after living in Portland for many years, and was interred at Columbia Cemetery. Chambers was in charge of the arrangements.

In 1932, the Lincoln-Garfield Woman’s Relief Corps, No. 10, planted a lace-leaf maple in Peninsula Park in Chambers’ honor on February 22. On October 1, 1934 Chambers turned 90 – and was one of only 8,000 remaining Union veterans. That same year Chambers was elected GAR State Association president.

For a number of years Chambers’ daughter and son-in-law lived in the house next door to him on Mallory Avenue – and it was in that home that Chambers died at the age of 92 years. He was buried in Rose City Cemetery located in the Cully neighborhood.