LAKE TWP.: For John Gurnish, fascination with the Civil War began in 1961.
He was a fifth-grader, and the country was marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict.
“I began to study it and find out all I could,” said Gurnish, now 61. A retired Ellet High School history teacher, Gurnish has spent his life digging into the subject and getting to know the people from the Akron area who fought in the Civil War.
In his home, artifacts, documents and photographs of local men who served line the walls of a first-floor library and a museum-style room in his basement.
“It is because they were from here and they were local people — ordinary people — who served in these big events you read about in history,” Gurnish said as he showed a small portion of his enormous collection of historical memorabilia to two guests.
Gurnish, a 1969 Springfield High School graduate who received his undergraduate degree in education from the University of Akron and his master’s degree from Kent State University, believes he has collected items and stories of nearly 70 area Civil War veterans. Many of those people are buried in graveyards in Summit County.
“I can hold a photograph of someone who lived back then,” he said, and know parts of their story and even visit their grave.
“Here lies that person,” is what he says he thinks when he takes a photograph of a Civil War veteran and finds his grave.
Gurnish will share his Civil War story and show some of his collection at a meeting tonight of the Cuyahoga Valley Civil War Round Table. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Peninsula Library, 6105 Riverview Road.
He can rattle off the name and unit of soldiers in his collection as if he is talking about a relative or his best friend.
His collection got started in the 1970s when he realized he possessed a Civil War photograph of Gurley Crane, a veteran buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Cuyahoga Falls. An unknown disease killed Crane in his early 20s in April 1865.
When Gurnish discovered there was no marker above Crane’s grave, he secured one from the government and had it installed. His passion, obsession and love of learning about local Civil War veterans took off from there.
It led to him becoming a re-enactor, first with a Revolutionary War group and later with various Civil War groups.
In late June, he and more than a dozen local men will join thousands of re-enactors near Gettysburg, Pa., as America remembers the 150th anniversary of that key battle.
Recently, he has expanded his collecting to include World War I items, which he said are cheaper and more available to purchase than Civil War items, but he is still always on the lookout for more Civil War material.
His collection includes a sword used by Civil War soldier Rollin Jones and a photograph of the soldier holding the sword. His research found that the soldier in his later days had mental health issues related to his war service and died at Massillon State Hospital.
Gurnish owns an original, small photograph showing the mustering of the 164th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in downtown Akron on East Market Street from May 2, 1864. The recruits were about to leave for war duty.
He recently traveled to Nashville for a Civil War show in his quest for more items. His goal, he said, is to compile stories from his collection into a book.
Rebecca Gurnish, a retired Spanish teacher at Ellet, said she has tried to be supportive of her husband’s intense collecting. She wants to get him a T-shirt that reads: “I’m a history person. I’m not interested in you until you’re dead!”
Gurnish said his ultimate hope is simple: preserve what he collects for future generations. He said his son Nathanael will be in charge of his collection when his days are over.
His advice to young people who might catch the same bug he did a half-century ago is to “read, read, read, read and visit places like Gettysburg and museums.”
His entire collection was made possible “because somebody cared enough to preserve it. And that is my mission.”
To contact Gurnish about a speaking engagement or to ask a question about the Civil War, email him at jgurnish001 @neo.rr.com.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.