The following history of Columbia American Legion Post No. 581 was written by C. F. Weilbacher, then Post Historian, for a booklet entitled “A Brief History of Monroe County in the Great World War”, and distributed with the compliments of the American Legion Post No. 581, Columbia. The history, which covers the years from 1920 to 1958, follows:
Columbia Post No. 581, American Legion was organized on March 23, 1920. The organization work was conducted by Joseph McGlynn of E. St. Louis, district organizer. The first meeting, held at Post Headquarters, Turner Hall, was a decided success, twenty-four charter members being enrolled.
The following officers were elected at the first meeting:
- Commander, R. C. Kunz
- Vice Commander, Ira J. Mund
- Adjutant, W. F. Schuck
- Finance Officer, C. W. Breidecker
- Chaplain, Henry Haberlah
- Historian, C. F. Weilbacher
- Service Officer, A. G. Klein
- Employment Officer, C. L. Volkert
- Athletic Officer, E. Parrott
- Bugler, A. C. Metter
- Sergeant-at-Arms, G. Stemler
In 1921 the same officers were re-elected. During the first year there were 56 members enrolled, bringing the total membership to 80. The Charter members of the American Legion were:
C. Kunz, Henry Haberlah, A. G. Klein, Albert Hofstetter, Alpha C. Smith, Walter F. Schuck, Henry Thiele, Ira F. Mund, Mike Klohr, C. W. Breidecker, George Kutterer, John W. Thomas, Henry D. Mehrtens, Earl G. Parrott, Charles Steinsieck, Frank D. Buncher, August Welsch, Leo F. Kipping, Herman F. Taake and Louis Habermehl.
Mr. Weilbacher, in commenting on the war efforts of Columbians says: “Columbia’s success in every war activity was due to her splendid community spirit, the spirit that is the pride and design of Southern Illinois. Both individually and as a whole Columbia strove to “carry on” and succeeded as she always does when she so desires. Liberty Loans were all over-subscribed as were all the drives, and Columbia was generally the first precinct to go “Over the Top”, Monroe County’s Red Cross had its inception in Columbia immediately after the declaration of war, enrolling members and contributions months before Illinois was districted. Lodges, clubs, churches and individuals worked as a harmonious whole for humanity’s sake, that Columbia’s sons and daughters who served the colors and who were absent in the flesh, but present in the spirit, would remain away for as brief a time as possible.
Some of the organizations which worked at home and in the camps were: Red Cross, Knights of Columbus, the Council of Defense, headed by Louis Dehn and Mrs. Wm. Hills investigated all claims; the Liberty Loan organization headed by H. N. Kunz; Publicity, Ernst A. Weinel and George W. Smith; Food Administration; fuel administration headed by Emil Brucker; the War Chest, the Y. M. C. A. and the Salvation Army all with local directors.”
Immediately upon the return of World War I Veterans, the post began the fitting celebration of Armistice Day and Memorial Day. The first Memorial Day, after some had returned, was in 1919. There were 125 veterans in the parade that day, the school children, many organizations, the officials of the City of Columbia, and two bands. There were also aching hearts for those who did not return.
In 1922 a committee was appointed to raise funds for a Memorial to our soldier dead in all wars. It is a bronze statue, “The Spirit of the American Doughboy.” The inscription on the monument reads:
“Columbia American Legion Post No. 581 1775-1918, Memorial in honor of our sons and daughters who served their nation in Freedom’s cause and in memory of those of our number who gave that last full measure of devotion in the Six Great Wars: Revolutionary War, 1775-1781; War of 1812-14; Mexican War, 1846-47; the Civil War, 1861-65; Spanish-American War, 1898; The Great World War, 1917-1918. Columbia American Legion Post No. 581. Greater Love Hath No Man Than This. By the Community of Columbia, Illinois.”
Money was raised for the monument by the sale of tickets which enabled purchasers to designate where the Memorial would be placed. The vote showed that the place would be at Main and Legion Avenue. Accordingly it was placed there and impressive ceremonies were conducted on May 30, 1924 when it was dedicated. The American Legion Auxiliary had a flag pole erected there, and a flag given by the Sons of Union Veterans Auxiliary were also dedicated on this day.
The Post, with Albert C. Metter as commander, sponsored the first Community Christmas celebration early in its history. C. L. Volkert and Robert C. Kunz appeared before the Columbia Commercial Club and asked for their cooperation. This was forthcoming, and with the additional help of the merchants in Columbia, candy and peanuts and oranges for Santa’s visit miraculously appeared. Santa in person, appeared at the Doughboy monument and gave young Columbians a community Christmas gift. Carols were sung by the assemblage, and all Columbia joined in the celebration. This custom has continued to this day, although the location has been changed to the Municipal Building.
Another event sponsored by the Legion was the Fourth of July picnic and dance, with fireworks over the pond then, where the tennis court now is situated. Yet another was the annual Turkey Day, which is still held.
In January of 1926 Columbia Post was appointed trustee of the Palmier Cemetery. This cemetery is one of the oldest in the county, having been established in 1783. Veterans as far back as the Revolutionary War are buried there. It was so neglected that instead of using mowers, Post members came to work with axes to cut down the trees that all but hid the monuments. The Post also took charge of the City Cemetery for several years.
As time passed the organization felt the need of a Post home of their own and in 1934 the committee was appointed to find a site. The City of Columbia agreed to have the building placed on city property and this eliminated purchasing a lot. It also assured adequate grounds, since it is in the municipal recreational area at the corner of Metter Street and Legion Avenue. In July of 1940 the dream of the American Legion – a Post home – became a reality with the letting of the contract.
The home is a modern frame structure with ample space for meetings, entertainment, and Post activities on the first floor and a large basement where kitchen and dining facilities are provided. It is tastefully furnished throughout. The Legion Auxiliary donated the furnishings. The home was dedicated on December 1, 1940.
Shortly thereafter when our country was plunged into World War II the Post was asked to help with Civilian Defense. They responded to a man and under Civilian Defense Director C. L. Volkert, a Past Commander of the Post, they used their war-acquired knowledge so well that Columbia was the envy of other cities for their Defense work. They responded to calls for help in other communities, and were of great help in 1943 when Dupo was evacuated, and flood refugees in inundated areas were quartered in the City Hall. Federal troops came to help hold the levees along the Mississippi and the Legion helped there too. The Post helped with all wartime drives and activities to help the boys in the service of their country.
In May of 1945 VE Day (Victory in Europe) was celebrated and in August VJ Day (Victory in Japan) was celebrated and World War II was over. The Post welcomed World War II veterans to the American Legion and later the veterans of the Korean conflict. After a period of adjustment, the veterans of all three wars emerged as a strong and vital force in the community.
The Legion stands by in emergencies of all kinds, and is now asked to “Stand By” when tornado warnings are broadcast. A Ground and Air Observer Corps was organized and the Legion served for several years in conjunction with the U. S. Air Force.
A Columbia Legion Post No. 581 Drill team was organized with squad Commander Maurice Schneider the leader. This is a well-disciplined drill team, snappily dressed, and has placed high at Veterans Day at the Springfield State Fair in competition with drill teams all over Illinois.
The Legion backs all good measures for the advancement of Columbia. They have annual picnics and parades and other entertainments and use proceeds to develop their new Columbia American Legion Memorial Park, the site being purchased from Elmer Oerter for $22,000. This park was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1958. They have obligated themselves for $28,506 so far.
The American Legion sponsored Boy Scout Troop 19 early in the 1920’s and from 1948 to 1958 they have continuously been the sponsoring organization for Boy Scout Troop 319. They are Big Brothers to Columbia lads in their formative years.
This Legion Park was purchased so that Columbia youth could have a well-equipped recreation center where they could gather and take part in competitive sports under supervision. It met with instant appeal and on summer nights and in vacation time the park is alive with young people happily engaged in Khoury League baseball. There are fourteen teams, and four diamonds, and most of the time games are in progress on all the diamonds. In fact, there were seventy softball games in 1958. One of the diamonds is equipped with lights, courtesy of the Columbia Rotary Club.
This project, and others which the Legion has sponsored proves that Legionnaires live up to their solemn American Legion obligation “To inculcate a sense of individual obligation to community, state and nation” and to “foster and perpetuate a 100% Americanism.”