Photograph by Carrie Marie Burr
My earliest memories of the local American Legion—Post 1619 in West Plattsburgh, less than a mile from our house—were of watching slow–pitch softball under bug–swarmed lights on muggy summer nights. My father belonged to a league that played on the post’s fields, and in later years my brother and future husband took their turns at bat. I never spent much time thinking about the building behind the bleachers, or if I did, I imagined a dimly lit space where veterans swapped stories and sipped beer from juice glasses.
That changed after I bought my parents’ house. Thanks to our home’s convenient walking-distance-to-the-Legion location, I’ve become a regular at the post as a guest of my husband, now a member of the Sons of the American Legion. It’s the kind of neighborhood hangout where the bartenders have your favorite beer cracked and waiting even before you make it to your barstool. It turns out the place is a dimly lit space for veterans to swap stories and sip beer from juice glasses. But it’s so much more.
Legion volunteers place flags on veterans’ graves at our local cemeteries every Memorial Day and remove them again on Veterans’ Day—a practice that’s repeated throughout the Adirondacks. My family has observed Memorial and Veterans’ Day ceremonies at our post, and we’ve wrapped toys for the Legion Auxiliary’s Christmas parties. The post hosts Friday night fish fries during Lent, horseshoes and softball tournaments in the summertime, funeral and wedding receptions, retirement and anniversary parties, fundraising auctions and dinners year-round. It’s rare to walk out of a Legion without contributing to something more than just your bar bill—and even those profits go to programs for veterans and local kids.
The American Legion was founded in 1919 as a veterans’ organization dedicated to serving other veterans, as well as active service members and their communities in the spirit of “mutual helpfulness.” North Country towns were some of the first to answer the call—posts in Au Sable Forks and Ticonderoga were founded almost before the ink on the national charter was dry. Three years later, the American Legion Camp was established on Tupper Lake, tasked with giving sick and disabled veterans “a haven of rest.” (The camp was also available to vacationing members for a nominal fee, but after years of declining use, the property was sold in 1981.) Currently, there are about two dozen posts operating within the Adirondack Park.
Despite the common misconception, not all American Legions double as bars. Those that do serve alcohol are open to members (active or honorably discharged servicemen and -women) or members of the Legion’s sister organizations, the Sons of the American Legion (male descendants of those eligible for American Legion membership), and the American Legion Auxiliary (spouses and male and female descendants of American Legion members), as well as guests of any of the above. Banquet space can also be rented out to nonmembers.
But happy hours and pull-tabs—pocket-sized games of chance that you’ll find in Legion barrooms—are just a means to an end. “It supports a lot of our activities,” said Glenn Trackey, a former commander of the Lake Luzerne Legion. “But the post isn’t about the bar.”
Every year American Legions around the North Country, along with Auxiliaries and Sons, give away thousands of dollars in scholarships, donate to food banks and other support programs and sponsor kids’ sports leagues. Vets get help with medical bills, loans of wheelchairs and medical equipment, even rides to doctors’ appointments. And over our frigid, budget-busting winters, veterans and community members in a pinch can count on contributions toward fuel oil or loads of wood—“the little things in life that’ll help them out,” said 65-year-old Jerry Pelkey, second vice commander of Post 1618, in Saranac.
Pelkey also heads Saranac’s American Legion Riders, a club-within-a-club for motorcycle enthusiasts. Several times a year the Riders—along with local police, border patrol and other motorcycle crews—escort area veterans to the old Air Force Base in Plattsburgh for North Country Honor Flight, an outfit that shuttles combat vets to Washington DC for tours of national monuments. “It makes me tear up every time,” Pelkey said of the send-off ceremonies. “It’s so touching. And where else can you see 200 motorcycles chasing a cop?”After rolling out of his driveway before dawn for September’s Honor Flight, Pelkey joined half a dozen other vets to perform honor guard duties at a local funeral, then returned to the post to prep for an afternoon wedding. “We work hard,” he said.
The month before, West Plattsburgh’s Legion Riders hosted their annual Ride to Remember fundraiser for the Third Age Adult Day Center, which supports memory-impaired community members. In 15 years, the event has raised more than $225,000, enough to buy a bus for the organization—and then some. “We do as much as we can,” said Riders member Jim Brown, who doubles as the commander of the post’s Sons of the American Legion. West Plattsburgh’s Riders also maintain the flag that flies on the Northway near North Hudson; the group installed a new pole and light at the site a few years ago.
Brown, whose grandfather was killed in Korea, said he’s working to bridge the gap he sees widening between generations. “Many younger people don’t understand the meaning of what we’re all about,” he said. “What all those men and women sacrificed to give us what we have today.… We need to get back to those roots.”
Down in Indian Lake, Post 1392 throws its annual Flag Day celebration for the same reason. Every June 14, flag-waving elementary school students wearing red-white-and-blue hats file a few hundred feet from their classrooms to the lawn of the Legion, where they learn the history of the American flag and sing patriotic tunes to the gathered veterans. Afterwards, clusters of kids shake hands with the vets and thank them for their service. Despite the youthful skew in the event’s demographics, Commander Ken Cannan said that his organization is fading, with only 40 members remaining. “Young men don’t have the time,” he said. And, since its building was donated with the stipulation that no alcohol be sold on the premises, the post can’t count on barroom income to underwrite its good works, which are largely funded by volunteer bottle drives.
Lake Placid’s Post 326 does have a barroom and banquet rentals to help support its outreach. But the building does more than subsidize programs—it has served as an “undeclared community center” since the place opened in the 1940s, according to 79-year-old Zay Curtis. It’s a spot for family gatherings and fundraisers, for folks to unwind with a beer after work or catch up on the latest gossip. Lifetime member and Vietnam veteran John “Bumper” Chapple, who now lives in Alaska, stops in whenever he’s in town. “Every time I come back,” he said, “it’s like old home days.”
Even so, Commander Doug Hoffman said that its “membership is in steady decline, with older vets aging out.” And within that dwindling membership, only a “core group” of about a dozen mostly baby boomers stay actively involved—though Kimball Daby, who plays “Taps” at the post’s ceremonies, is a relatively young 51.
Au Sable Forks’ Legion saw the same decline in membership—down to 115 members from more than 400 a couple of decades ago—along with a lack of participation. So much so that the post recently put its building up for sale, shuttering a local landmark that dates from the 1940s. “People died off,” said Geoff Hewston, adjutant commander and member for 30 years. “I just sort of found myself there by myself.” Cindy Douglas and a few other volunteers helped out, while Hewston handled bouncer duties and maintenance—shoveling snow, plunging toilets, “a million things.” But he said at 75, he can’t keep up any longer. For now, the post is holding on to its charter and plans to continue funding scholarships. Hewston hopes the place will be sold to someone who will continue to use it for the good of the community. But, he said, “people don’t step up like they used to. It’s just different times.”
What’s lost when a post closes is more than a physical structure—the absence can put another chip in the mortar of a small town. Ticonderoga’s adjutant commander, 80-year-old Craig Cassidy, said of his fellow members, “If I’m in the hospital and need help, they’d be there, or at my funeral, they’d be there to fire the rounds and fold the flag. We call ourselves a Legion Family, and at this post we are a family. How long that family will survive, I can’t tell you.”
There is some new growth on the family tree: 34-year-old Shane Stevens joined the Saranac Legion Riders to honor his grandfather, who fought in World War II. “It meant a lot to me to carry on the legacy, to help as much as I can,” he said. “A lot of people look at the Legion as a place to come and drink. They don’t understand. But the people who are affected, they love what we do. People we help will turn around and help others. Doing good seems to spread the good.”