John Henry Grate served in the 6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry during the American Civil War and served as the commander of Ohio’s and eventually the national Grand Army of the Republic near the end of his life.
John Henry Grate was born in Edinburg, Portage County, Ohio on August 1, 1845. His father was a buggy-maker. At eighteen years of age, Grate joined the 6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, enlisting at Newton Falls, Ohio in October 1863. He served for the duration of the Civil War and purportedly was present at Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia in April 1865. Grate spent his entire military service in the Eastern Theater, participating most notably in Grant’s Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. The 6th Ohio mustered out of service in August 1865 at Cleveland, Ohio.
Following the war, Grate returned to Portage County and became a buggy-maker, working for a significant period of time at the Heiser Buggy Works at Yale, Ohio. He also purchased a small farm, which was located to the northeast of Atwater, Ohio. With the advent of the automobile in the early twentieth century, the Heiser Buggy Works ceased production, and Grate earned a living by selling dried corn. To dry the corn, Grate utilized an evaporator system, which was destroyed in a fire in 1918.
The destruction of the evaporator system led to Grate selling his farm and to his retiring in Atwater. In his retirement, Grate volunteered his time with Ohio’s Grand Army of the Republic organization. He also became a staple of Atwater’s Memorial Day celebrations. In 1945, at one hundred years of age, Grate was elected commander of the Ohio Grand Army of the Republic. During the following year, he won election as the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. At this time, the Grand Army of the Republic was a declining organization. Consisting of only Union veterans of the Civil War, when Grate assumed command of the organization, only one dozen members generally attended the group’s national encampments.
On January 31, 1947, residents of Atwater hosted “John Grate Day” to thank this man for his military and community service. Veterans from the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II honored their fellow comrade in arms. Grate addressed those in attendance, thanking them for honoring him. The local newspaper reported that “The gentlemanly commander took the celebration in stride, wisecracking his pleasure upon being the central figure in ‘all the fuss.’” The paper concluded its report with, “It was a ‘Grate’ Day for Atwater.”
When Grate was one hundred years old, the local court called him for jury duty, but the veteran was excused from service due to his elderly age. He died on June 7, 1949. Grate was buried in the Atwater Cemetery with members of the Sons of Union Veterans officiating the service. The local newspaper reported that “Taps sounded today throughout Heaven’s camps as John Henry Grate of Atwater, one of three remaining Ohioans who fought for the Union Army in the Civil War, reported for final orders to the first-ranking Commanding General.” Just prior to Grate’s death, he had begun the process to dissolve the Ohio chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic.
In 1950, Atwater residents constructed a memorial to “John Grate and 71 other men” who had served in the Union military from this community during the Civil War. The monument was located off of State Route 183, near the cemetery. Unfortunately, in March 2009, an uninsured motorist crashed his automobile into the memorial, destroying it. The memorial has not been reconstructed.