Nancy Edmonds Hanson
The big headlines next week will be all about the American Legion – the veterans who have served their country since it was chartered by Congress as a patriotic veterans’ organization 100 years ago. Moorhead’s Melvin E. Hearl Post 21 joins 12,000 posts and 2 million members across the nation and around the world in celebrating the Legion’s centennial June 21, 22 and 23.
Not to be forgotten, though, are the women who organized around the Legion’s war-weary vets to provide support and service to the men, their spouses and their children – the American Legion Auxiliary. Moorhead Auxiliary Post 21 has been working for the same causes – support of veterans, families and the community – since shortly after Melvin E. Hearl Post 21’s founding. At the venerable age of 97, it’s still going strong.
Moorhead’s Legion Post 21 was established in 1919. Members voted to create an auxiliary a year later, and in 1922 the group of 59 women elected Alice Murray their first president. They received their official charter from the Minnesota Department of the American Legion in 1923.
Today the 200-some members of the Moorhead auxiliary still hold to the mission that brought their grandmothers and great-grandmothers together, says executive committee member Carolyn Albertson of Moorhead: to help the Legion in whatever ways it requests, and to serve the area’s veterans and their families.
Carolyn – who received a certificate of appreciation last month for her “tremendous work on behalf of our veterans and never-ending support of our unit” – has been part of the auxiliary’s history since she joined 47 years ago. Like all members, her membership is through a veteran. In her case, it was her late husband, Edwin Albertson, who spent most of his years of Army service stationed in Germany.
“We learned so much from the older members about what they’d done for the troops over the years,” Carolyn recalls, citing the years of peak patriotism surrounding World War II and afterward. “They used to tell us, ‘You guys think you work so hard now … well, let us tell you about work.’”
Then the senior members, who’d been active during the peak membership years surrounding World War II and the Korean conflict, would recount the volunteerism that engaged their 400 members from Moorhead and the surrounding territory. “When troop trains came through Fargo, they’d serve them a hot breakfast,” Carolyn reports. “The men would walk across the bridge from the Great Northern Depot to our post (then in the historic WPA building at 700 First Ave. N.). The ladies would serve them a big home-cooked meal – pancakes, eggs, bacon, ham, the works.”
Much of the food for those breakfasts was donated by area farmers and businesses. The auxiliary raised money for the provisions they had to purchase by making and selling doughnuts in the Legion kitchen. Moorhead and Fargo customers would line the sidewalk outside every Friday to acquire the delectable treats, which built quite a reputation around town.
When trainloads of troops came through Fargo later in the day, the women themselves would walk across the bridge to feed them right on the rails. They brought sack lunches – thick slabs of meat on slices of homemade bread. “It was quite a little hike,” the veteran auxilian surmises.
The ladies fed each other’s families, too, when tragedy struck. She says, “When a spouse died, we’d bring a whole meal to the member’s house. Later we went to a canned ham and buns. The auxiliary is like a family.”
During the 1940s, the auxiliary was supplemented by an active junior group made up of girls under 18. They pitched in with their elders, especially on Poppy Day, when they went door to door trading the little red mementos – handmade by hospitalized veterans – for donations to support their charities. The tradition goes on today during May, Poppy Month, though the numbers of lapel flowers have diminished. Most members have participated over the years, along with many family members; Carolyn’s troop of five children, five granddaughters and four great-grands have all taken their turn.
The funds they raise are used for projects to help vets, families and the community. Veterans hospitalized at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Fargo have long received Christmas gifts from the auxiliary for themselves and their loved ones. Sixty years ago, members presented them with hand-knit hats, scarves and socks produced by the auxiliary’s own quartet of sewing circles. As participation waned, they were replaced with a “store” of purchased clothing items. “Now we give each of them a $20 Walmart gift certificate to pick out what they want themselves,” Carolyn notes. Vets’ spouses each receive a box of candy. The group also assists with recreation programs at the hospital.
The Legion Auxiliary sponsors four Moorhead High School girls to attend Minnesota Girls State, along with the Dilworth Lions and Lionesses. They also award two $250 scholarships to MHS students. Other projects include preparing and hosting the post’s annual spring membership dinner, paying dues for members of 50 years’ duration or more, and support of Legion events and campaigns when their help is requested – including the festivities June 21-23.
Carolyn, who was awarded an honorary life membership in 1990, has held nearly every office during her tenure, including service as District 9 president that year. But her very fondest memories are of the days when Legionnaires and auxiliary members marched miles and miles in parades all over the area.
“I was one of the women who marched with the Legion color guard,” she recalls. “We put on many, many miles in our white skirts, white shirts and white high heels.” She remembers one summer day in particular during the period when many Red River Valley towns were celebrating centennials. “We marched every Saturday that summer. One day, we started out in Hickson way outside town on a dusty gravel road, then led the parade in Halstad, then did it all over again in Stephen. And hot ….
“That was my very favorite thing, I think,” she goes on. “We marched at district conventions, state conventions, and even at the national, where we’d mass all the color guards together. Minnesota was famous for having 150 flags.”
Today, though, their activities are more modest. “The Legion doesn’t go to parades anymore,” she says regretfully, but then laughs: “The ones who marched have just gotten too darn old.”
Legion Auxiliary – born of patriotism, nourished by desire to serve
Nancy Edmonds Hanson