Veteran’s club preserves historic treasures

Pioneer aviatrix Amelia Earhart’s Broadalbin fly-in to appear at the American Legion Post 337 sponsored Fourth of July celebration wouldn’t have occurred but for the Legion’s commitment to sponsoring community-boosting projects. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

When you think of organizations that house and preserve important history, historical societies, libraries, and museums usually come to mind. Hardly anyone would add veteran’s organizations, but omitting them could be wrong, at least in the case of Broadalbin’s Robert Lee Walsh American Legion Post 337, which preserves a treasure trove of post-related history. It’s also worth mentioning that the American Legion will celebrate its 100th anniversary next April.

The original section of the legion building earlier served as the Colonel James B. McKean Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Post.

The April 4, 1891 Daily Leader noted, “McKean Post 289 G.A.R. moved into their new home on North Street Thursday. They intend to occupy the upper rooms and lease the lower part for town meetings, elections, and other purposes.”

Time passed and by 1921, very few local Civil War veterans remained alive, thus continuing to maintain the building became burdensome to the survivors. There was, however, a sensible solution allowing continued use of the building in a patriotic setting.

On September 19, 1919, local veterans of the recently-concluded “Great War” led by Dr. Byron E. Chapman, voted to apply for a charter for a new veteran’s organization, the Robert Lee Walsh American Legion Post 337, named for the only Broadalbin soldier killed in action. Dr. Chapman became the post’s first commander.

Private Robert Lee Walsh, for whom the Broadalbin Post is named, and his parents were active members of the Methodist Church, in which a memorial window is dedicated to his memory. He enlisted in the war to end all wars. Leaving Fulton County for military training on Oct. 6, 1917, he was shipped to France during April 1918 and was killed in action Oct. 15, 1918.

The Walsh Post received its permanent charter June 14, 1922. Meanwhile, the 26 charter members purchased the Legion building from the few remaining G.A.R. members for $1,500.

Legion member Kathy Erwin, an Air Force and Navy veteran who acts as unofficial post historian, showed me the $1,500 canceled check, preserved behind glass. The legion also inherited and carefully preserved the many years of G.A.R. post meeting minutes, a photocopy of which is available to view. Ms. Erwin is currently digitizing the Walsh post’s own minutes, and has completed them up to 1960.

We’ve all driven past the stately veteran’s monument in downtown Broadalbin uncountable times without much thought about how it got there, not realizing it was built thanks to an early Legion fund drive. It cost $4,238, which doesn’t seem high, but a website inflation calculator informs us that this amount today’s cost would translate into $62,490! It was dedicated May 30, 1923 with appropriate speeches and music by the Broadalbin Citizens Band.

Ms. Erwin states emphatically, “This village was so patriotic then, and still is today!”

As one example of community pride and spirit, she referenced Broadalbin’s 1931 4th of July celebration, described by the Morning Herald as “one of the greatest fun fests in village history.”

It was sponsored by the legion and attended by more than 4,000 people. Probably the day’s most exciting event was the arrival of already-famous woman pilot Amelia Earhart, piloting an auto-gyro, an early type of helicopter.

The Morning Herald described it as, “the most modern type of airplane, with propellers on top to permit greater freedom in landing and taking off.” That same year, Earhart had already set a high-altitude helicopter record in her Pitcairn PCA-2 ‘gyro’ that remained unbroken until 2015.

The rediscovery and resurrection of the post’s historic documents is an encouraging story. For years this archive gathered dust in the attic, but today the legion’s walls proudly display the many historic photographs and documents commemorating both the legion and the former McKean Post, the earliest and most valuable item being a very rare circa 1868 lithograph of Andersonville Prison, found rolled up and water-stained in an attic corner, but since professionally restored and framed at considerable expense.

How did these restorations occur? In 1997, then Post Commander Edward Vickers spearheaded purchase of the property next door to enlarge the post’s building.

Meanwhile, he discovered the historical items languishing in the attic and budgeted for restoration funds to restore them. With the new addition completed in 1999, the many historical documents, all cleaned and framed, were mounted on the walls. What are these documents? A few examples include one depicting the life and military career of David Mulligan, a Broadalbin citizen and the last Civil War veteran in Fulton County, who died in 1931, another is a large portrait of Col. McKean. Robert Walsh’s portrait hangs near it, and another plaque includes a smaller photo and various newspaper clippings about his life. Both the post’s temporary and permanent charters are displayed, as are veteran’s medals and pins, plus colorful ribbons acknowledging attendance at various G.A.R. reunions and conferences, and one of the most arresting displays contains Col. McKean’s own colonel’s uniform, pressed and ready to wear in case his ghost comes calling and doesn’t mind the itchy wool.

These are just a sampling of the rediscovered, restored documents which visitors may view, and visitors are welcome, particularly on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights when dinners are available, catered by the Pasqualli family. If you do decide to dine there, the history of the two posts will be on the walls all around you.

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