The bean washing started at 7 a.m. Little fires were lit under 50 iron kettles on the lawn outside the Neosho County Courthouse at 10:30, and by mid-afternoon, some 1,500 pounds of navy beans were roiling and tumbling, volunteers working the rows to replenish the oakwood as it burned down. The rule, said Jack McGowen, who has led the American Legion Post 102-coordinated Old Soldiers and Sailors Reunion bean feed for many years, is: “You don’t stir them. If you do, you’ll get excommunicated.”
The fire, water, beans, onions, meat and seasonings stir themselves over about eight hours on the boil. “The shapes of those kettles and the heat, the cool from the outside, the heat from fire on the inside, the rounded portion of the pots – they roll.”
Nature, however, tried its best to stir the pot July 14 on the 150th anniversary of the event that annually draws thousands to the community of about 1,200 in southeastern Kansas.
As the clock ticked toward 6 p.m. – the traditional time when community members have lined up for decades to fill their coolers, kettles and tubs with free beans – American Legion Department of Kansas Commander Randy Frank was studying his smartphone, watching a nasty line of yellow and red radar crossing the state. Major parts of Kansas City had already lost power. He began calling district Legion leaders in affected areas to let them know that the National Emergency Fund of The American Legion may be available to them.
“This is actually the storm that’s going on right now, and it’s about to hit my house,” he said, watching the line of weather move across his screen. “My vice commander, she turned around and went home – 100 mph winds – so, depending on how this turns out, we will be activating NEF if we have to, to get things rolling. I have already called my two area vice commanders, and they are calling all the district commanders. It’s happening right now.”
The Legionnaires were informed that beans would be dipped a half-hour earlier than usual, due to the impending storm. Commander Frank – along with other past Department of Kansas commanders – headed to the rows of kettles to perform the ceremonial first dip. Following that, volunteers began filling containers as fast as they could, as the wind picked up. They went about 15 minutes before the sky fully erupted. That was enough time to get more than half of the folks their beans. After the storm passed, Post 102 alerted the community by Facebook that they could come back, and they did, polishing off most of the remainder.
“This is the 150th year of doing this,” said Post 102 Commander Dale Jeffrey, a Vietnam War Navy veteran. “We’ve kept it going. It didn’t matter if we had rain, storms, pandemics, whatever it is. We would not let it die.” The post has been running the bean feed and much of the reunion week’s events for more than 50 years.
“One year, they had to dip water out of the bean pots it had rained so hard that day,” said McGowen, seven-time post commander and U.S. Navy veteran from Erie, who has been connected with the bean feed since childhood and an active volunteer/leader since he came home from the service in 1966. He also helped launch the American Legion pro rodeo there more than 40 years ago, which this year featured competitors from the International Pro Rodeo Association; McGowen is emcee for that, as well as the big parade the morning after the feed.
A 1973 history of the Annual Old Soldiers and Sailors Reunion explains that the tradition began when “many northern veterans settled in the country around Erie as the government gave them a bonus of land for their service in the war.”
In the earliest days, the reunion and bean feed were conducted outside of town, where veterans would roll up in their wagons and camp for few days “to get together and rehash their Army life and their pioneer problems.” It later grew to become a communitywide event.
“As salt pork and navy beans were a staple food of the soldiers in the Civil War, it was natural for the boys to cook up several kettles of beans, sit around the fire and tell stories and listen to speeches,” the 1973 history states. “The public also gathered to listen to the stories and speeches and joined in the reunion. But only the veterans and their families ate the beans.”
“Kansas was a half and half state – and so after it was over, families said, ‘We need to get together and talk again,’” Frank said. “So, they created this big bean feed. They brought family in on both sides, north and south, and they started doing it, and it’s been going on since then. It was about pulling families together and getting on to a good life.”
That spirit is alive and well today. The entire community celebrated the week of July 10-15, 2023, with an American Legion-sponsored professional rodeo, children’s events at the city park and pool, high school and sorority reunions, the fireworks show, a 5K river run/walk, the big parade (themed “Honoring Veterans Past and Present”), the reading of names at the Veterans Memorial Wall on the courthouse lawn and more. Near the memorial is a 75-gallon iron kettle under a gazebo, in recognition of the long community tradition.
The majority of funding for the bean feed comes from the post’s memorial fund – built on contributions from the families of Legion members who have passed away. That turns the bean feed into a memorial observance to those who have served in the military, as well.
Participating in the event this year was the Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard out of Fort Riley, led by Capt. Jacob Daniels, a native of Erie, whose mother, Laura Daniels, is a member of the post. The color guard, he explained, has 23 horses and two mules and participates in ceremonies and special events throughout the region. Nine soldiers and eight horses were deployed to Erie for the Old Soldiers and Sailors Reunion and were hosted at Post 102 the night before they appeared at the Veterans Memorial Wall for the reading of the names and then riding in the parade.
“It was really awesome to be able to get invited down here and for us to be able to make it,” Daniels said. “We are really privileged and honored.”
District 3 Sergeant-at-Arms Mark Stwalley, of Post 64 in Pittsburg, said reunion comes naturally for veterans, as it did for those who fought in the Civil War. “I do believe this is the oldest military reunion west of the Mississippi,” he said. “The camaraderie that you build in the military – whether you’re fighting a war or not, even people who just served together – you miss it.”
“You develop a bond in the military,” explained Jeffrey, who grew up attending the bean feed and its various festivities, which in earlier years included a circus and carnival. “You depend on each other. You take care of each other. And it’s always good to come back and talk and to listen … that’s the thing about The American Legion. We’re here to serve each other, as well as the community. We help other nonprofit organizations. We help the local youth. We have our youth programs. We’re not just a bunch of old men in here drinking beer.”
The Erie post has about 125 members, and Jeffrey said it’s important that those who put on the bean feed and reunion groom a new generation to keep the tradition alive. “We need to be mentoring people every year to take over the jobs that we have been doing,” he said.
“This reunion, we have enough people to come park cars for two nights of rodeo. We have two people at each gate for the attendance as they come in. The Auxiliary runs the cook shack. We get a lot done at that rodeo – put up all the signs, take down all the signs – it’s very big. But let us not forget, other organizations participate and help us with it, as well. We can’t do it all by ourselves. Other organizations have the things they do. We stay in our lane. Everybody gets along good together, and we get something accomplished that everyone can enjoy.”
Such was the purpose of the bean feed in 1873 – togetherness, even reconciliation, that military veterans today understand just as well as their predecessors.
Stwalley put this way: “It’s history, that keeps going on.”
Thinking about the future, of who will be stoking the fires and dipping from the kettles 25 years from now, he explained, “That’s why membership is our biggest push we’ve got, always.”