Times are changing for some veterans clubs: Many surprised by Bemidji American Legion Club closure

By Kevin Bonham / Grand Forks Herald CROOKSTON, Minn. - The recent closing of the American Legion Club in Bemidji surprised some veterans in the area, even though they also are experiencing the struggle to keep their clubs open in communities thr...

By Kevin Bonham / Grand Forks Herald

CROOKSTON, Minn. – The recent closing of the American Legion Club in Bemidji surprised some veterans in the area, even though they also are experiencing the struggle to keep their clubs open in communities throughout the region.

They’re trying special events, shortened or expanded hours, menu changes, community outreach and sometimes combined forces with other separate organizations in their efforts to remain viable.

“We were surprised to hear about Bemidji closing,” said Paul Dubuque, commander of

American Legion Post 20 in Crookston. “We’re trying all we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen here.”


The organization is increasing the number of fundraising events it holds to support operations. It also is expanding kitchen hours and its menus in an effort to attract a lunch and dinner crowd, as well as new members, he said.

The Crookston Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1902 is facing similar challenges. It actually closed its club doors for about a month last summer because of financial problems.

At the time, it was around $40,000 in debt, about half of it accumulated from unpaid taxes attributed to previous management, and the other half from regular business operations, according to Ron DeLage, commander.

The club reopened after a few fundraising events and the use of some volunteer help.

“We’re holding our own right now,” he said. “We’re gaining a little bit. Hopefully we’ll keep gaining. It just seems to be running a little bit better, little bit smoother right now.”

Universal problem The problems facing veterans organizations in Crookston and Bemidji are similar to those throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and beyond.

As older members die, there are fewer younger veterans to take their place.

Currently, the Crookston Legion has about 250 paid members, according to Dubuque. That’s down from 288 a year ago.


“Most of the active ones seem to be in their 60s,” he said. “The younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re just getting back and starting careers or raising families.”

Following are the estimated numbers of U.S. service members serving during wartime since World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: World War II, 16 million; Korea, 5.7 million; Vietnam, 8.7 million serving, but 3.4 million deployed; Desert Storm, 2.3 million serving, but 700,000 deployed; Iraq-Afghanistan, 2.2 million served.

As of this past fall, the Minnesota VFW reported that its statewide membership was about 41,300, or slightly more than 40 percent of the 101,000 eligible members.

Legion membership in Minnesota has decreased by about one-third during the past two decades, to an estimated 83,000.

“The American Legion is as vibrant today as it ever has been. We may not have the numbers, but it’s still vibrant,” said Randy Tesdahl, adjutant of the Minnesota American Legion.

When the American Legion was founded in 1919, he said, it established four guiding missions, or pillars for its local posts. Those pillars are: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism, and children and youth.

Clubs, with bars or restaurants started a few years later, but really began expanding after World War II and in the 1950s as a place for veterans to socialize.

Times are changing When the Bemidji Legion decided to close its club and sell the building, it did not spell the end of Post 14.


“We encourage them to keep their post alive,” Tesdahl said. “You still have an American Legion in town. Maybe you do like the Lions do, you meet somewhere else. It’s not about the building, not about the bar and grill. It’s really about the post and the four pillars.”

North Dakota currently has 215 Legion posts, but the number decreases by about one or two each year, according to David Johnson, adjutant of the North Dakota American Legion.

“The posts still carry on their functions, such as memorial services for veterans at their funerals. That’s an important distinction,” he said.

But that happens, especially in the smaller communities, where there may not be enough members to carry on the traditions.

The Crookston VFW currently has about 190 paid-up members. That’s down from about 400 just 15 or 20 years ago, according to DeLage.

Both the Crookston VFW and Legion have bars and kitchens. But while the Legion’s restaurant is open for lunch and in the evenings for members and the public, the VFW’s kitchen is used only for special events or rented out for other functions.

One roof? In some communities, American Legion and VFW posts have combined club operations in an effort to save money.

It’s been that way in Hillsboro, N.D., for example, since the 1970s. In 1998, the Hillsboro Vets Club moved into a new building, a former cafe across the street from the Traill County Courthouse.


Each post has four members on the board of directors, according to Neil Nelson, club manager and publisher of the Hillsboro Banner, the local newspaper.

“It’s not easy keeping these clubs open,” he said. “We’ve got four bars downtown and less than 2,000 people.”

Each post has roughly 100 members.

The club opens at 4 p.m. each day. It’s operated with a combination of paid help and volunteers.

Meals are served for special occasions, such as fundraisers for the organizations.

It’s not just the smaller cities that are combining operations.

A new American Legion Post 308, which just organized in West Fargo, and the West Fargo Amvets operate from a building owned by the West Fargo VFW, according to Johnson.

“Post 308 just started and it’s already at about 50 members,” he said. “Now, instead of 50 guys trying to support one club, you have 250 families between the posts. And you’ve only got the overhead of one building.”


Officials at Crookston’s American Legion and VFW posts have talked informally about working together from a single club.

“We’re trying to work on some of the young members,” DeLage said of the VFW. “Combining clubs - that’s probably something we’re going to have to work on, too. It’s hard to sell these buildings. Our club is a pretty old building. Nobody wants these old buildings.”

Dubuque remains hopeful.

“We’re seeing how each club is going to do over the next few months,” Dubuque said. “I’m sure it could be better if we were combined. But for now, we’re trying to get things going on our own. We’re pretty upbeat about it now.”

What To Read Next
Get Local