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This island, owned and operated by J. D. McAuliffe from 1872, was hailed as “a shady retreat for pleasure seekers … with a fine collection of animals and a museum of rare specimens.” In 1897, Eaton Rapids bought it for a city park. The island was much larger in the earlier days; it extended almost to the bridge on State Street and you could take carriage rides around the perimeter of the island. The zoo on the island held animals native to Michigan: bears, deer, raccoons, etc.
In 1908, the Eaton Rapids James B. Brainerd Post 111 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) requested City Council that the Island be made in suitable condition for the annual encampment of the Eaton County Battalion of the GAR. The Eaton County Battalion was composed of 10 GAR Posts in Eaton County and 1 GAR Post in Calhoun County and was headquartered in Eaton Rapids at the James B. Brainerd GAR Post #111. In 1909, the city agreed, named the island GAR Island Park, and the GAR Battalion erected a tent city on the Island for one week every August until 1929 when there were too few veterans to carry on and the encampment was discontinued. The GAR was a fraternal veterans’ organization of Union Civil War veterans that existed from 1866 – 1956. Over 10,000 GAR Posts existed in the country (461 in Michigan alone) with a membership of just under 500,000. The Battalion and the Brainerd Post existed from 1883 – 1929.
Two Civil War era cannons, which had been donated by the U.S. Government to the Brainerd GAR Post for placement in Eaton Rapids’ Rose Hill Cemetery, were moved to the island and dedicated to serve as “Silent Sentinels” in tribute to all those who served in the Civil War. The cannons were manufactured at the West Point Foundry in West Point, New York. The large cannon on the south end of the Island was cast in 1862; has a 6.4-inch bore and is a 100-pounder Parrett Rifle. The cannon on the north end is a 4.2-inch bore Parrett Rifle that fired a 30-pound solid shot. In 1915, the GAR Monument to “Our Fallen Heroes 1861-1865” was moved to GAR Island Park from its former place in Rose Hill Cemetery. The monument was cut from Vermont granite and was purchased in 1893 by the James B. Brainerd Women’s Relief Corps #38 at a cost of $400.
Summer concerts, reunions, and picnics brought many to GAR Island Park over the years. A group formed in 1973 to save the island from erosion served to refocus attention on this spot. Many weddings are held on GAR Island Park and it becomes the “Island of Lights” at Christmas time.