Rising from the Dust Bowl

It was born in a time so desperate that Edmond boys unloaded trucks in return for day-old bread and a third of Oklahoma families depended on federal relief for the most basic food and clothing. Its variegated sandstone walls were raised by drought-busted farmers lucky to qualify for $23 a month in Works Progress Administration (WPA) wages, and paid for, in part, with money raised at a barbecue, a bridge tournament and a benefit football game.

Today, this American Legion meeting hall feels like a place where, if you listen in the hallowed quiet of a steamy July afternoon, you might detect the ghostly voices of Frank E. Buell, Harold M. Paas, William Bryan Oakes and the other veterans of the Great War, pillars of the business community and professors at Central State Teachers College; they worked and waited nearly two decades to find a permanent home for Post 111 in Edmond, Okla.

“This is like being in Independence Hall or visiting a historic Civil War battlefield,” says Post 111 Commander Rob Willis, who is on a mission to write the biography of this place as a tribute to the founders, the building’s namesake and nearly a century of service to central Oklahoma veterans. “It gives me goose bumps.”

Frank H. Collings Post 111 is named for the first resident of Edmond killed in combat in World War I. Cpl. Collings died July 1, 1918, at 23 and is buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France. Three of Collings’ brothers also served in the Army during World War I. Two of them, Harry and Leslie Collings, were founding members of the post.

Sixty-four World War I veterans, some of whom also served in the Spanish-American War, created Post 111 in December 1919. Their names are listed on a framed charter, yellowed by time and locked away in a file cabinet most of the time. It is brought out only for special occasions. Fourteen of the post founders are pictured in the commander’s photo gallery that lines the 18-inch-thick stone wall at the front of the meeting hall.

The first post commander was Dr. Thomas H. Flesher, an Army physician who came back to Edmond to open a medical practice after the war. His civic résumé resembles that of many of the inaugural members. Bender was the Buick agent and Crawford Spearman had the theater. Buell ran a lumberyard in town and Lloyd McMinimy owned a hardware store. Oakes and Paul Marks were among several professors at what is now the University of Central Oklahoma. The streets of Edmond bear many of the Legionnaires’ family names.

Post meetings were held in Edmond City Hall in the early years, Willis says. That came with a requirement that the Legionnaires furnish the meeting room with “good substantial fixtures,” according to a stack of terse meeting minutes from the ‘20s and ‘early ‘30s that Willis has unearthed.

Edmond was one of the first towns founded when central Oklahoma was opened to settlement in 1889. It depended on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad and agriculture. Indeed, Legionnaire Earl Rodke milled flour and Post 111 member E.H. Van Antwerp ran Van’s Bakery. It was the quintessential small town of about 6,000, complete with slights, suspicions and quarrels. Van Antwerp would not buy Rodke’s flour. That prompted Rodke to make an unsuccessful attempt at his own bakery, says Oren Lee Peters, whose great-grandfather, grandfather, great-aunt and great-uncle claimed land in what would later become Edmond in 1889.

Nevertheless, Legionnaires and members of the Auxiliary pulled together to form a stalwart group worthy of consideration when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the WPA in 1935, six weary years into the Great Depression.

Edmond had been devastated by drought, crop failures and the economic calamity that descended on much of the nation at that time. A small oil boom came and went in the early 1930s, according to background materials that would ultimately put Post 111 on the National Register of Historic Places. The schools, libraries, armories, community halls, parks and public works projects the WPA built were a lifeline for this community and more than 90,000 who were unemployed across Oklahoma, according to historical records.

WPA funding was competitive. Projects had to meet well-defined community needs and required a city, county or other public agency sponsor willing to cover between 10 and 25 percent of the cost with cash, building materials or both. Ninety percent of the people hired for WPA projects had to be on relief.

The resulting buildings were inauspicious, the “architecture of the poor … mute reminders of the emotional distress and physical pain many Oklahomans suffered during the 1930s,” historian David Baird wrote. The American Legion “hut,” as it was called, would reflect that ethos: irregular reddish stones taken straight from a quarry to the building site at Fifth and Littler in Edmond, where they were anchored in thick bands of gray mortar.

The Edmond City Council asked the WPA for a community building, college stadium, National Guard armory, street paving and library book repair services before proposing construction of an American Legion hut that would serve as both a community meeting hall and home to Post 111. Fundraising began in the fall of 1935, and Edmond responded. Over the next year, the Legion and Auxiliary scratched together $2,000, Willis says. At least half of that came from a Halloween masquerade party that drew more than 200 local residents. A barbecue, a benefit bridge party and a fundraising football game between Edmond High School and Foster City High in Oklahoma City also helped, according to National Historic Register documents. That $2,000 is the equivalent of more than $34,000 in 2015 dollars.

WPA workers started clearing the site for the new 1,800-square-foot post in September 1936. A dozen men got six months of full-time work building it. Other men on the WPA payroll quarried the stone for the Legion, the armory and similar buildings that rose around Edmond, the collective effort a boon to the community.

The price tag for the Legion hut was $8,000, including the cash the Legion and Auxiliary raised and the land and materials the City of Edmond contributed. The building was completed in time to host the Legion’s and Auxiliary’s 5th District Convention in April 1937.

Post 111 welcomed Oren Lee Peters when he returned home in June 1945 after logging 511 active-duty days with the 45th Infantry Division, including amphibious landings in Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and southern France. He was there for the liberation of Rome and once had an audience with the Pope. “When I got back, the first thing that happened is one of the American Legion guys came and said, ‘You need to belong. We’re having a meeting. I’ll come by and pick you up.’” The camaraderie has kept him going back for 70 of his 94 years.

Peters, a World War II veteran, opted to finish two years of high school and became both head football coach and senior class president. By 1947, he was Post 111 commander and a student at Central State. That combination was fortuitous, he says. “Some of the (Legion) members were professors. One of them taught English literature. I never would have made it if he had not tutored me a little, told me what I should be doing.” Other notable Legionnaires included the late Brown Hudson, an Army veteran who drew the maps that guided the planes that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Post 111 was a vibrant force in the community with its blend of World War I veterans, the most active Legion members, and an infusion of men and women who had just returned from World War II. “In the late ‘40s and ‘50s, The American Legion was the place to go,” Peters says. The oak floor in the spacious meeting hall was ideal for dances before termites forced its replacement with concrete. “You had to go to the college to find something bigger,” he says. At least one of the monthly Legion meetings was Family Night.

Today, Post 111 is the only remaining WPA building in Edmond that is virtually unaltered, a monument to “enlightened effort by the federal government that alleviated much of the suffering” during the Depression, Baird wrote. The Legion still fulfills part of its contract with the city by making the post available to other groups. It’s regularly rented for everything from church services to family reunions. (The building is owned by the city and leased to Post 111 for $1 a year.) Under Willis’ leadership, Wi-Fi was added with the idea that post-9/11 veterans attending college in Edmond can use the space when they need a quiet place to study.

Willis joined in 2003, a few years after retiring from the Air Force and taking a job with an aircraft renovation firm in nearby Oklahoma City. He’s worked to strengthen Post 111’s ties to the community, initiating a high school oratorical contest and establishing annual awards for the outstanding ROTC cadets at two high schools and the college.

But the past has the greatest pull. “Holding that original charter is like picking up the Constitution,” he says. “There’s a lot of history here. I find it really intriguing.”

That set him searching through old handwritten census rolls, looking up names on Ancestry.com and digging through city records as he pieces together Post 111’s story. The research is difficult because member names are often misspelled, making them difficult to find in official records.

“Back in the day, everybody did cursive writing and the letters have faded,” Willis says. “Or the person taking the census spelled the name the way they heard it.” Indeed, a roster of Edmond residents who served in World War II, displayed on one wall of Post 111, misidentifies Oren Lee Peters as Ann Peters.

Yet, Willis is thrilled to come across a snippet of information about one of the post’s founding members, particularly those whose family name appears on a street sign or other Edmond landmark. That speaks to Post 111’s deep ties to central Oklahoma veterans. “As far as I know, the lights have never gone out here in almost 100 years,” he says. “That’s impressive.”

In the course of his research, Willis has also discovered two families in which both father and son were commanders – William P. Thompson and his son Lowell, who were commanders from 1935-37 and 1956-57 respectively, as well as Paul H. Coyner and his son Ray, who were commanders in 1930-31 and 1953-54 respectively. Willis’ own son, James, is a post-9/11 Army veteran and a member of Post 111. “Maybe …” Willis starts reverently surveying the inside of the stone meeting hall as if he’s addressing one of the founders. “Maybe he will step up and be commander.”

Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.

Researching a post’s past

Here are some resources for finding out more about the founders of your American Legion post. These include:

  • The American Legion Digital Archive offers full-text search capabilities for versions of the Legion’s national magazine, from 1919 to 2012. archive.legion.org

  • “Soldiers of the Great War” – available online, this multivolume set lists World War I casualties by state. archive.org/details/soldiersgreatwa02doylgoog

  • The 1920 U.S. Census is available online. www.archives.gov/research/census/publications-microfilm-catalogs-census/...

  • If a post is on the National Register of Historic Places, search for a copy of the nominating materials, rich in post history, at this website. hwww.nps.gov/nr/research

  • City, county and state historical archives may contain overlooked details and historic photographs.Genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com can be useful for finding details about early members of a post or a post namesake.