Wheeling American Legion Post 1 Marks 100 Years

Photo by Alex Meyer A plaque on the Market Street side of the Laconia Building downtown, the site where American Legion Post 1 was founded March 1, 1919. The post, the oldest in the U.S., is celebrating its 100th Anniversary on Saturday with a military ball.

WHEELING — Commander John Powell maintains that Wheeling’s American Legion Post 1 is the oldest in the U.S., and he has the document to prove it.

The local organization got its start on March 1, 1919, when several World War I veterans met at the Laconia Building downtown and founded the post.

Veteran and Wheeling lawyer Edmund Lee Jones held the meeting in his office, a week before another “pioneer” post was formed in Washington, D.C., according to a document he signed that Powell now owns.

“We met first. This is what’s unique,” Powell said. “I have the original document. The last page has (Jones’) original signature in blue ink.”

Now a century old, the organization is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a military ball set for Saturday evening at The Highlands.

“It’s nice to celebrate our history,” Powell said. “I don’t think it’s a milestone that you want to sleep through and let go by because you’re never going to be able to capture that opportunity again.”

The five veterans who founded the post at the Laconia Building, on the corner of Market Street and 12th Street, were Jones, Joe Reass, Tom Cummins, George Houston and P. J. McGinley.

“It was really Joe Reass’ idea to meet and form World War Veterans of America, which later became Post 1,” Jones explained in a 1969 Wheeling Intelligencer article. “He had been to New York, joined an organization there and came back all fired up about the need for an organization for World War I veterans. Of course then it wasn’t World War I, but just the World War.”

The national American Legion was founded on March 15, 1919, Powell said, meaning that the local group, formed two weeks prior, actually predates the national organization. The organization’s four founding “pillars” include veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism, and children and youth.

“The history of the American legion itself is how influential it is in helping American veteran,” Powell said, noting the organization’s role in advocating for the creation of the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department and passage of the G.I. Bill.

Powell said those four principles still remain a guiding force for Post 1 and its efforts today.

“The American Legion continues to do a lot of great things, providing money to veterans in times of emergency,” he said. “One of things I’m most passionate about with Post 1 is veterans helping veterans. And veterans’ families, we always want to make sure that they’re being looked out for.”

Most recently, the American Legion provided more than $1 million to families of Coast Guard personnel who weren’t being paid during the federal government shutdown this winter, according to its website.

“When you talk about the American Legion as far as our veterans, when one mission ends, another begins,” said Powell, who served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years. “The members of the American Legion today are fighting for our veterans who are serving today. Just like the veterans of the 70s and 80s were fighting for my benefits when I started to serve, I think it’s my job to stick up for their benefits now that I’m done serving.”

Post 1 will hold its 100th Anniversary Ball starting at 5 p.m. Saturday at The Highlands Event Center. Powell said he anticipates about 150 to 175 veterans and their families will attend the event.

“It’s going to be as close to a military ball as you’re ever going to see, with a military band and military honors,” he said.

Veterans from all over West Virginia are set to attend, Powell added, and West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner will be the event’s guest speaker.

“This is the only 100th anniversary that I’ll be at. I don’t plan to be around for the 200th,” Powell said. “But we’re going to do what we can to make it great.”

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