Editor's Log Salute to the American Legion

Polkadate: November 2018. The seed for this column was planted when I attended my first American Legion meeting in Schulenburg. Upon entering the meeting hall, there was a group of men who spoke the words across the room to me, "Polka On!” Hmmm, musicians and veterans, there is definitely a relationship. After reading and hearing the term “American Legion Hall” many, many times and not associating the American Legion organization with the actual hall, it became very clear: all the dances, weddings, and other social events that have taken place in those buildings were constructed by this honorable veterans' organization. Further clarity was achieved when digging into this history that the mysteriously named structure in the my hometown of Schulenburg - the Tri-Association Hall - was at one time run by the American Legion McBride Post 143.

Next year, 2019, will be the 100th anniversary of the American Legion. Founded immediately after World War I, the organization's mission was to assist the battle-fatigued military coming home to resume their interrupted lives. The government had little plans to assist the men who survived the horrors of war, or those who weren’t sent to fight but still served in various capacities of the war machine. This private organization lobbied Congress to step up to the plate and be responsible for their actions and succeeded. Two years later, Congress established the Veteran’s Bureau, the forerunner of the Veteran’s Administration.

In the following decades, the American Legion was instrumental in establishing the G.I. Bill, the American Heart Association, the National Association for Mental Health, and the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation by lobbying or cash donations.

The Legion also kept up the public awareness on the fate of prisoners of war in Vietnam and identifying missing troops. The Legion donated $1 million towards the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall in Washington.

Prior to 1989, the V.A. was just another government agency, but thanks to the Legion’s intense lobbying, the V.A. was elevated to a Cabinet-level position and an improvement in adjudication for veteran’s health claims. The Legion filed suit against the government forcing them to recognize Agent Orange as a life-threat to those exposed.

The lengths that the American Legion goes to assist veterans and their families is astounding. If you are a veteran, please look into joining your local post and help your buddies out.

MCBRIDE POST HISTORY

McBride Post 143 was chartered in 1920 with 29 World War I veterans signing up. Two names stand out to this writer - Alex and Charles Sengelmann, owners of Sengelmann’s Dance Hall in downtown Schulenburg. The Post’s namesake was John McBride, who was the first soldier from Schulenburg to die from wounds suffered in a battle. Post 143 decided that it needed another place to meet besides the Woodmen of the World Hall. Charles Ermis, a Legion member offered to rent his dance hall on the west side of Schulenburg for meetings, but a price could not be agreed upon.

The Post began sponsoring dances as a major fundraising source and for several years had been renting the City Auditorium. This building was one of the oldest in Schulenburg as it was located two blocks north of the area when the downtown area burned in 1893. This building was the Turnverein Hall built in either 1877 or 1886 (depending on the source) by the Bohlmann family for general use, including singing societies and dancing.

The hall was sold to R.A. Wolters in 1895 for $1,000. Throughout the early 1900s, the hall saw many cultures dance on its wooden floor - SPJST members, Masons, Germans, Lutherans with their Tom Thumb Wedding, and Schulenburg Bohemians, just to name a few. Depending upon the event, the hall sometimes took on the name Schulenburg Opera House as trains would bring theatrical troupes and vaudeville performers to town.

On one occasion, in 1926, a troupe featuring violins and accordions performed with Spanish dancers and a war veteran telling stories of the Great War. Roller skating, wrestling, and the first motion picture shown in Schulenburg took place in this hall. The small city school was overflowing with students so several classes moved into the Turner Hall (short for Turnverein). Appropriately enough, the high school principal gave dancing classes featuring the Hesitation, the One-Step, the Foxtrot, and Tango.

The World War I Armistice was signed on Nov. 11 and yearly anniversaries of it were held at the hall, some were veteran oriented, and some were citywide all-day events with the Legion and VFW leading the way.

In 1926, the Wolters revamped the hall, which was known as the City Auditorium, “highly polishing” the maple dance floor with Babe Schindler’s Orchestra playing the first dance in the new hall in December of ’26. In the following decade, many a polka, waltz and foxtrot was performed on that maple floor as the stage saw the Orchestras of Baca, Barta, Cornelson, Schindler, Krecmer, Pavlas, Lichnovsky, and Smitty. The Schulenburg Brass Band, along with the Gold Chain Bohemians, also played for the citizens. During this time period, the name City Coliseum was used for the hall.

On Nov. 24, 1935, the American Legion sponsored an all-day celebration. The event kicked off at 9 am in Wolters Park with a turkey shoot giving away 20 turkeys to the best shooters. The crowd then moved up to the City Coliseum for Bingo, lunch, and general entertainment. That night, two dances were held, one in the Coliseum with Bill Cornelson’s Modern Sounds; and one in Sengelmann’s with the old-time sounds of Krecmer’s Orchestra. That evening at 11:30, a drawing was held, with Ed Hajek winning a brand-new Chevrolet car! The Legion boys pulled a master stroke of fundraising during the Depression and raised a tidy sum of cash for their programs.

YET ANOTHER HALL NAME

In 1935, the Wolters family donated some acreage in the southwest corner of Schulenburg to the city to be used as a park, with the stipulation that no for-profit enterprise ever be on the property. The Post and other public entities had been looking for an opportunity to expand their fundraising capabilities. The American Legion, the Schulenburg Dairy Association, and the Volunteer Fire Department joined together in an outfit called the Schulenburg Tri-Association, bought the Turner Hall/City Auditorium, and moved it to the newly named Wolters Park. The total cost was $3,600. The city did the site preparation for free.

The hall, which had been on the corner of Summit (US 90) and Upton Avenue, was moved the first several blocks to the railroad tracks using logs for rollers, the same method used (and same contractor) to move buildings from High Hill to Schulenburg when it was founded. From the tracks to the park more modern methods were used by contractor Frank Bohlmann. The hall was renamed the Tri-Ass’n Hall, at least that is what was painted on the façade.

The public dances, trade conventions, wedding dances, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations were held in the hall in Wolters Park. The public relations person in June of ’36 for the Association really went out on a limb, when advertising in the paper for a dance by the Lichnovsky Orchestra, with the bold letters telling you, “You Will Be a Loser, If You’re Not Here.” Rather cheeky.

On July 12, 1936, the Post held an all-day event to celebrate the hall’s 50th anniversary, which was still referred to as the City Auditorium. The parade was an exciting mix of military music featuring the New Braunfels Drum and Bugle Corps (American Legion) and the American Legion Band from Gonzales dressed in their spiffiest uniforms; and Smitty’s Orchestra from Schulenburg playing old-time music. Numerous floats representing businesses and organizations (the VFD racing team) followed behind. In the afternoon there were the political speeches. According to the local paper, the beer and Bingo stands drew the most attention. That evening a dance was held at the hall.

The years rolled by and soon America found itself in another war, this one much larger. The hall and the newly built American Legion Home next door became an outlet of news of the sons and daughters that were overseas with postings of the wounded and worse. The Post kept sponsoring dances during the conflict to raise money to assist veterans and their families. Holiday dances were observed with the Orchestras of Lee Prause, Licknovsky, Falke, and Adolph (Pavlas) & the Boys. The last band demonstrated the power of the German people in Schulenburg area to support their musicians during war time despite their first name.

BBQ, SAUSAGE, & DANCE

The Tri-Association Hall and surrounding park was an ideal place to hold large celebrations, on the one-year anniversary of VJ Day (Victory over Japan) celebration. Schulenburg went all out with a parade, free BBQ for veterans, a baseball game, concerts, and games all day long with a dance that night in the hall. During the day, the Randolph Field (military) Band and the Schulenburg Girl Scout Band, along with three other bands serenaded the crowds.

Five thousand pounds of BBQ and 2,000 pounds of sausage were prepared. The celebration was a resounding success, grossing over $23,000 (just under $300,000 in 2018 dollars) resulting in a profit of $15,000, of which $11,000 was put in a memorial fund and the rest split between the VFW and the Legion.

Following the post-war economic boom, which included a lot of money for dancing, the hall needed a retro-fit, which was accomplished and re-opened with a dance on Tues., Feb. 22, 1949 with Bill Cornelson’s Orchestra swinging the place. During this time, the VFW and the Legion bought out the Dairy and Poultry Associations' share of the enterprise for $6,000. The word "enterprise" is used for the reason that in addition to a meeting hall, a bowling alley next door had been in operation since the late 1930s and continued until the early 1970s.

The dance floor remained in motion as Orchestras such as Patek, Cornelson, Rhine Winkler, Blume, Jurecka, and touring bands like the Texas Top Hands and Adolph Hofner & His Pearl Wranglers made the hall their destination during the “Korean police action” and the Cold War.

The hall continued to fulfill its role as a “city auditorium” and other organizations such as Hermann Sons, the F.F.A., and the Shriners rented the hall for their dances, as well as weddings and corporate functions. The funds from all this dancing at the hall was put into action when the Legion and the Chamber of Commerce joined together with Oscar Wolters to build a swimming pool in the park dedicated to the men who gave their lives for this country. Between money from the hall and bowling alley, the Legion bought the property to the west of the hall and it became the Little League baseball field that is used today.

In 1965, the VFW and the Legion dissolved the agreement with the VFW keeping the bowling alley and swimming pool and the Legion managing the hall. The official name now was The Legion Hall. The 1960s brought rock-n-roll to the hall with The Triumphs playing there in 1962 and big band orchestras such as Nash Hernandez from Austin. This writer attended both his junior and senior proms in this hall.

In 1973 the hall was air-conditioned at great expense and every year during the Schulenburg Festival, class reunions were held there, however throughout the 1980s the private functions were slowing down in frequency as were the numbers of volunteers to staff the hall.

CURTAIN TELLS A STORY

During the last several decades, insurance, legal, and maintenance costs kept rising to keep the 100-plus-year-old basic structure in operating condition. The fact that the era of folks frequenting public dances was coming to an end, thus curtailing income from these events. In 2004, the Tri-Association Hall, as it was still known, was put up for sale. The newly formed Boys and Girls Club was interested, and a sale was consummated.

Prior to the sale, the large, hand-painted stage curtain advertising local businesses was removed. The curtain was typical of the day with a pastoral scene, in this case possibly the mountains of Austria complete with a waterfall and cottages; and local business advertising, such as “Grasshoff Brothers, Buyers of Cattle and Hogs”, “Willys Knight Whippets, Fine Motor Cars”, and “Frank Bohlmann, Contractor & Builder, House Moving and Floor Finishing”. Bohlmann was the man who moved the Turner Hall/ City Auditorium to Wolters Park.

The Legion recognized the historical importance of this curtain containing a snapshot of 30 businesses in early Schulenburg and donated the curtain to the Schulenburg Historical Museum. Without a place to display such a large important piece of history, serendipity stepped in with Sengelmann’s Hall being restored at the same time, and the curtain fit perfectly behind the stage on the ground floor. The curtain resides in an ideal spot to be seen by thousands of folks that either are tourists or attending the weekly Wednesday music jam by the Pettit Brothers. For the celebration of the 100th birthday of the Legion and McBride Post, the Legionnaires have undertaken the project of getting the curtain restored to its original beauty.

For more than a century, the results of hundreds of thousands of folks enjoying themselves dancing has sustained a wonderful venue, which included the playground (at times, a roller-skating rink and miniature golf course), baseball field, and swimming pool. For the most part, the female part of the Legion, the Women’s Auxiliary, were with the men helping out and running their own fundraising activities.

Schulenburg is not unique, as there are American Legion Posts throughout the country, Legionnaires have given more than just their service time, as they continue to voluntarily serve to provide to all Americans a place to gather and enjoy the freedoms that these men who served in the military have provided them.

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