Local American Legion halls are known to the general public as venues for banquets and family gatherings, tasty omelets on Sunday mornings and frosty tap beverages on hot summer nights.
True, the halls are designed for public gatherings and Legion fundraisers, and people who are feeling lucky may stop by to purchase a gambling ticket. However, the buildings’ purpose is much more than the sale of beer and pull tabs.
“We are not here to be a town bar, we are here for those who served,” St. Peter’s Post 37 member and Air Force veteran Bob Jones said.
“My personal view of the American Legion is it’s about the fellowship,” Army veteran Herb Brunner of New Ulm said.
The American Legion is turning 100 this year.
Brunner, 89, is a member of New Ulm’s Post 132. He was stationed in Texas during the Korean War era.
“If we have been there, in the service, whether we went across (the ocean) or not, it’s the idea of getting together and talking about what it was like.
“It’s the things we’ve been and the things we’ve seen. And that we are glad to enjoy life as it is now.”
The American Legion is a national organization that serves veterans and their communities.
Throughout its 100-year history, it’s had a strong representation throughout the region — Blue Earth County alone is home to eight posts.
“There are close to 900 active members in the county,” Blue Earth County Historical Society’s curator/archivist Shelley Harrison said during a recent presentation that elaborated on items’ displayed in an exhibit at the society’s history center in Mankato.
BECHS Historical Society History Center’s American Legion exhibit “A 100 Years and a Million Stories: A History of the American Legion” has been extended through Aug. 30. Operations Manager Danelle Erickson estimates about 500 visitors have stopped by the center’s main floor to view memorabilia and military uniforms and to read stories about local posts, Legionnaires, Auxiliaries and Sons of the American Legion members.
A large mural commands attention from the exhibit’s viewers. Mary Orchard painted the work in 1984 to represent the Americans who served their country, starting with World War I soldiers. The painting had been displayed for decades in the Lorentz Post 11 building at 222 E. Walnut St., which was sold about two years ago. Post members now meet in Mankato’s Veterans of Foreign Wars building on Riverfront Drive.
Costly upkeep of properties and the busy schedule of young military families are challenges faced by posts throughout the country, several local members said.
Ramona Dahms, who served as president of Winnebago’s auxiliary for many years, talked to The Free Press in 2016 about her organization’s declining numbers.
She joked about her desperate search to find a replacement for the auxiliary’s local leadership position.
“... young women are so busy working and raising children and taking their kids to sports and other activities. They get worn out.”
Minnesota American Legion spokesman Al Zdon estimates 100 Legion bars closed between 2006 and 2016.
“It’s been a struggle for us to overcome our image as a series of bars across the state. More than half of Legion posts do not have bars, but operate strictly as a service organization in their communities, helping veterans, kids and families. Boys State, Girls State, Legionville Safety Patrol Camp, and baseball are just some of the programs we do. That is the soul of the organization, not the bar.”
Statewide, Legion membership has dropped from 127,000 to 80,000 in the last two decades. Zdon attributed the decline in member numbers to attrition.
“Many of our World War II and Korean War veterans are gone, and now we are starting to lose our Vietnam vets.”
Membership criteria for veterans’ clubs have been relaxed in recent years. Formerly, people had to be involved in armed conflicts. Now, anyone who has served in the armed forces since 1991 can join the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The American Legion continues as a very visible part of the local landscape.
Post 37 members led St. Peter’s Fourth of July Parade Thursday and a color guard from Post 518 will head up the North Mankato Fun Days Parade Saturday.
The Minnesota American Legion will celebrate the organization’s 100 years by participating in this year’s Minneapolis Aquatennial Torchlight Parade July 24.
Several Legion posts in the area were chartered in 1919 and 1920.
Some celebrated their anniversaries earlier this year, while others are planning future events.
Waseca American Legion Post 228 will mark its 100th-year observance Oct. 1-6.
“We have something planned every day,” Adjutant Gary Bohm said.
The post’s 320 members, along with its auxiliary’s 237 and S.A.L.’s 127 members are organizing an open house, a memorial service to honor deceased members and a formal event for past commanders and officers.
“We always have Trivia Nights but that week we are going to dedicate it to all-things Legion,” Bohm said.
Post 518 Commander Jeff Frye said the North Mankato post’s membership is at an all time high. In 2018, the post had 204 Legion members and another 150 in the Ladies Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion.
Each month, the post conducts a solemn flag ceremony to honor deceased veterans. Honorees are selected from a list of veterans submitted by family members. “The only requirement is that they are an honorably discharged, deceased veteran. They don’t have to belong to our club or even have lived in the state.”
“It’s always good to remember those who have gone before. It’s a very moving service and ceremony and people come away from it enthused and thankful for it,” 518 member Mark Conrad said last July on the 10th anniversary of the ceremony.
Posts also look to the future and for ways to help their communities. Legion events help support youth baseball tournaments and provide scholarships through Girls and Boys State programs.
Auxiliary members continue the annual fundraising tradition of selling red poppies made out of paper. All of the proceeds from the handmade flowers are used to support veteran and military personnel.
American Legion Post 108 has been an integral part of the Le Center Community for decades. The post building is used as a location for blood drives, public meetings and school functions.
American Legion posts also look for opportunities to have fun together.
Post, Auxiliary and S.A.L. members who enjoy hitting the road on motorcyles founded the fourth entity of the American Legion Family about 25 years ago.
St. Peter’s chapter of American Legion Riders’ first official meeting was Jan. 29.
“It was blizzarding and 14 people showed up. We knew were were going to have a good group,” Secretary Kelli Wells said.
American Legion Riders on motorcycles had a visual presence at a recent D-Day 75th anniversary program at the high school in St. Peter.
“Our focus is to be seen...and we are willing to volunteer our support,” Wells said, describing the organized rides.
Frye said the importance of the American Legion is also felt at a national level. Representatives of the organization are sent to Washington as advocates for veterans.
“The Legion gives us a voice in Congress,” Frye said.
Persistent lobbying by the American Legion resulted in the Veterans Preference Hiring Act.
Veterans issues, such as suicide rates, will be discussed at the 101st American Legion National Convention Aug. 23-29 in Indianapolis. Legion centennial events are planned in conjunction with the convention.