Contrary to popular thought, the American Legion is not only about supporting youth baseball. There’s a rich history behind the military-born organization. That was evident the day 32 members of the Ferdinand Branstetter American Legion Post No. 1 of Van Tassell celebrated 100 years in June, as had three other posts around the country.
Supporting the celebration on June 29, Col. David Herder, vice commander of the 153rd Air Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard, in Cheyenne, spoke at the event in his hometown, at the Niobrara County Fair Grounds.
“Communities help each other. If you look around, a lot of those folks are service members,” Herder said in his remarks at the ceremony. “They never stop serving. So, I love that legacy.”
As a part of history behind the centennial celebration, World War I veterans who met at the YMCA in Cirque de Paris, France, on March 17, 1919, took steps to form the American Legion, “an organization devoted to God, country and the widows and orphans of the fallen.”
The Wyoming post in Van Tassell was established June 28, 1919. Three other posts in Denver, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., share the distinction of being the nation’s first. However, this group of Wyoming veterans contend they have the paper to prove their unique heritage as the first of the four. Van Tassell’s 32 charter members include the post’s former commander Don Heckert’s uncle Harry. The post has about the same number today, which triples the population of the town to 50 – if all 32 members attend a monthly meeting at the Branstetter post.
The post’s namesake, Branstetter, a Van Tassell resident, died in World War I. The building which housed the post has since been demolished and the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. An interpretive sign erected in 2009 marks the site.
“I’m pretty proud to belong to our post,” said Adjutant Ed Tirado. Tirado who is a native of Long Island, but bit at membership because of its claim to being the first one in the nation. He has since compiled a patchwork history of the post.
Commenting on what the post means to him, member Bill Matthews said, “What frustrates me is that we have 20 guys a day committing suicide. There’s no reason for that. I can honestly say I’ve been down that road, if it hadn’t been for another vet who understood me, it was a tough deal. Having the bonds opens up the doors.”
Post member Richard Ladwig said, “Putting on this celebration was quite a process. It took that camaraderie, it took that effort, to do that. I think because of our backgrounds of all the members, and the camaraderie, it makes it worthwhile, you bet.”
Tirado said, “When Dale (Miller) first approached me and said it’s the first post in the country. I was hooked. All the little history. In fact, between World War I and World War II, this post thought about actually dissolving because there were only a few members. My God, I’m glad they didn’t because it’s something really special.”
Miller, the post commander, said, “I met Denise Rohan, who was the first female national commander. She said the Legion is a family. That kind of give me the prod, and we were getting to be 100 years old, and it just took off from there. And these guys worked their tails off. I’m gratified with the way things turned out, and I think we’ll remember this for the rest of our lives.”