One hundred years ago today, 15 veterans gathered in Ely to discuss forming Iowa’s 555th American Legion Post. And even though the COVID-19 pandemic is changing up the centennial celebration, today’s members are marking the occasion with 17 banners soaring on downtown light posts in the Linn County community.
More events will follow, when it’s safe for groups to gather again. Until then, the Legion is making and selling limited edition military challenge coins, and will be planting trees at the Legion Hall on Main Street and at the rural Rogers Grove Cemetery. The banners hearken to the post’s history, with four designs denoting the unit’s crest, a sailor and soldier, a list of the 45 founding members, and the American Legion logo.
According to Post Historian Rob Smith of Ely, on March 1, 1921, 15 veterans met in downtown Ely, planting the seed for an American Legion post. National level officials signed the charter on Feb. 1, 1922.
Officially known as St. Quentin Post 555, charter membership numbered 45, mostly from World War I, but one or two were Spanish-American War veterans. The post name honors two Ely soldiers, Privates Charles Noska and Joseph Dvorak, who died in the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, waged on Sept. 29, 1918. They were serving in the 30th Infantry Division near the French city of St. Quentin.
Today’s Legion Hall, at 1545 Main St., has been pretty quiet since the pandemic shut so many doors nearly a year ago. But in previous years, it’s been the site not only for member meetings, but also wedding receptions, dances, anniversaries and community events.
Ely’s original Legion Hall was built in 1923 from two repurposed buildings moved to the current site, Smith noted, and in 1954 and 1955, members designed and built a new building at the current location.
The Ely Legion family has grown to about 80 members in Post 555, with another 40 in the Legion Auxiliary and more in the Sons of the Legion squadron.
In years before the pandemic hit, the post typically served 600 or 700 people during an annual April breakfast; held corn hole bags and euchre tournaments; a Valentine’s dinner dance; trivia nights; dances with live bands; and youth activities. Legion members also have supported veterans’ funerals with a color guard and gun salute; honored veterans’ gravesites at five local cemeteries; conducted Memorial Day services at Rogers Grove Cemetery; and held flag retirement ceremonies each Flag Day.
Even though the group couldn’t hold its annual Veterans Day program and soup supper this past November, the Auxiliary held a drive-up soup supper to mark the occasion. The Legionnaires did, however, hold their annual outdoor Memorial Day service, and members have been meeting monthly via Zoom.
Among the youth activities, the Legion Post and Auxiliary send representatives to Boys State and Girls State, an immersive government educational program bringing together young people from across Iowa. The 2020 session also was canceled because of the pandemic. Another popular Ely Post activity is the youth air rifle team.
Aside from the various community projects, the Legion fosters camaraderie among its members.
“Fellowship is critically important, and we offer that to our membership,” said Smith, 57, a veteran of the 1983 Grenada invasion. “We offer the ability to socialize and have social connections within the community.
“During this pandemic, the American Legion has encouraged all members to do buddy checks. We have members who are elderly, living alone (and we) call them periodically, weekly, to see how they’re doing and make that connection. That type of human connection is critically important, I believe, and we offer that much the same way a church would or any other social organization,” he said.
“It also gives an opportunity to reflect on our experiences in the military and the nation’s wars, and to maintain that friendship and relationships — and to do good for the community.”
That hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“The Ely Legion is a key player in our town’s social and civic life,” Mayor Eldy Miller said in a prepared statement. “The city is proud to have partnered with the post on scores of events over the years. We recognize and appreciate the American Legion as an important community anchor institution in Ely. The city congratulates the post on 100 years in Ely and looks forward to the years to come.”