If you stop at the new Caribou coffee shop in downtown Anoka, it would be fitting to raise a cup of joe to the memory of Aaron Greenwald, an Anoka man believed to be the first Minnesotan to volunteer for the Union Army in the Civil War.

Records indicate that Greenwald, who was killed in action at Gettysburg, was in a courtroom on the northwest corner now occupied by Caribou at Ferry and Main streets when a telegram from the governor was read asking for men to join the Army. Greenwald was the first to do so, said Vickie Wendel, program manager for the Anoka County Historical Society.

She researched and wrote the text on four picture boards displayed outside Caribou that relate the site’s history. The signs, which cost $5,000, were a joint effort of the city, the Historical Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

There is another link of sorts: A lot of coffee was consumed in the 1860s, said Todd Mahon, the society’s executive director. Of course, there were no mocha, decaf or latte varieties, let alone a Caribou. More on coffee later.

Back to 1861

On the morning of April 15, 1861, Greenwald was in the Schuler building, which leased space for county courtrooms, when a rider on horseback arrived from St. Paul with a telegram from Gov. Alexander Ramsey. Ramsey was in Washington, D.C., where he heard that Confederate forces had fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, touching off the Civil War. Ramsey made Minnesota the first state to offer volunteers by promising 1,000 men for the Union Army, Wendel said.

Greenwald, 29, was sitting listening to the Anoka trial of a man accused of stealing 10 bushels of cranberries and bed ticking, Wendel said. The rider handed the telegram to attorney Willis Gorman, a friend of Ramsey’s. Gorman asked for a court recess while he read aloud the news about Fort Sumter and the governor’s request for men, Wendel said. Greenwald promptly volunteered, followed by six other men, all of whom signed an enlistment sheet.

A historic debate has developed about who was really the first volunteer, because that same day in St. Paul, Josias King also volunteered and signed an enlistment document. Wendel said a St. Cloud Journal reporter, Alvah Eastman, wrote in 1911 that his research showed Greenwald was the first to volunteer. But the Anoka enlistment sheet disappeared, leaving St. Paul officials to claim King was the first to officially sign up for the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first unit offered to President Abraham Lincoln. Greenwald signed that list later when he reached Fort Snelling.

The Anoka sheet has never been found, although Wendel said she has searched state history records and those of several area counties. King survived the war and lived to see a statue erected in his honor in 1906. Greenwald, who migrated from Pennsylvania in 1855 to the frontier town of Anoka, perished at Gettysburg in 1863, leaving behind a wife and two young sons in Anoka.

Coffee on the front

Coffee was the life blood of an infantry unit, especially in winter, Mahon said. Soldiers poured whatever water could be found, often foul tasting, over coffee grounds to boil in pots over campfires, all with no baristas or flavoring in sight.

“They had a lot of coffee,” Mahon said. “Many letters tell of Civil War soldiers remarking about coffee. It was such a big part of camp life, something to put your hands around to warm up. … It was a very much appreciated gift from the home front.”

Caribou, a Minnesota firm that turned 21 last month, chose the Anoka site because of its high traffic volume (on Hwy. 169) and partly for its historic setting, said Margaret Jordan, senior real estate manager for Caribou.

She said the company worked with the city to incorporate historic elements. The reddish brick and stucco building has a patio and old-style trellises with native plants. The shop has big transom windows, a long community table and old-fashioned chandelier-style lighting, she said.

“We wanted to blend into downtown,” Jordan said.

Shop manager Brandi Schack said a lot of people stopped to read the four trellis-sheltered signs when the store opened Oct. 25. She said the only vintage coffee Caribou offers is that made from aged Sumatra beans.

As for the Greenwald debate, Wendel said we may never know for sure who was first unless more old documents surface. She noted that Anoka honored Greenwald by naming a small triangular park after him. The park sits across Main Street west of the Caribou sign bearing his picture.

Greenwald’s son, Louis, said after King’s statue went up that, although he believed his father was the first volunteer, he wouldn’t quibble with King. Louis Greenwald was quoted in an Anoka newspaper:

“Father was dead and the honor could do him no good. When other soldiers claimed [it], I refused to say anything. I knew what it meant to those old soldiers.”