Albert Lea’s forgotten veterans’ organization

Published 8:30 am Friday, June 4, 2010

Not long ago Eunice Hatleli obtained a notebook filled with newspaper clippings based on a local veterans’ group of the past from Connie Maxwell (Gunderson). Eunice thought I could use this material for a column, and I assured her the notebook would be passed along to the Freeborn County Historical Museum Library to become a part of their archives.

This notebook confirms that for just over 16 years one of the least known organizations for veterans was a part of local life. This was the Freeborn County Barracks 2643 of the Veterans of World War I and its auxiliary.

As the name implies, eligibility for membership in this organization was for military veterans of World War I (1917-1919), plus their wives, who belonged to the auxiliary.

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The Veterans of World War I of the USA Inc. was organized in 1949 and chartered by Congress in July 1958. Albert Lea’s unit was organized on March 22, 1964, and chartered on May 12, 1964. From the number assigned to the local barracks and the organization’s headquarters in Alexandria, Va., one can easily assume this is a national organization. The use of the present tense word happens to be correct. As I will explain later, this veterans organization may be somewhat active, but certainly not in Albert Lea.

The first officers of this new veterans’ group were: LeRoy Gaarder, commander; Clarence Foley Sr., vice commander; Arthur W. Tews, junior vice commander; Ray B. Gustaveson, chaplain; Frank A. Cafourek, judge advocate; Jens Thorson, quartermaster; and Elmer Rice, trustee.

Serving as the first officers for the auxiliary were: Mrs. Ray Gustaveson, president; Mrs. Clarence Wall, senior vice president; Mrs. Jens Thorson, junior vice president; Mrs. Archie Budlong, chaplain; Mrs. Edwin Amundson, conductress; Mrs. Gunvold S. Olson, guard; Mrs. Carl Tveit, treasurer; and Mrs. J.T. Mathews, secretary.

If I may digress right here, just what the heck is the intended function for the conductress? Also, those officers of the auxiliary were women with first names. Why did the Tribune use their husbands’ first names to identify them? This is a newspaper policy from the past that today looks plain stupid and impedes historical research.

Barracks 2643 and the auxiliary held most of its monthly meetings at the VFW Hall or Clubroom in the building still located at the corner of East Clark Street and North Newton Avenue.

During our nation’s history there have been, and still are, several veterans’ organizations. Some have rather restricted membership eligibility. One of the first was the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) for Union veterans of the Civil War. The GAR existed from 1866 to 1956 when the last veteran of that war died.

Other veterans’ groups with restricted memberships include the Catholic War Veterans, the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, and as the name clearly indicates, the Disabled American Veterans.

However, the Veterans of Foreign Wars was organized after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the American Legion evolved in 1919 just after World War I. Both groups have included veterans of all the wars since that time.

Just why this particular group with its restricted membership based on World War I evolved in Albert Lea could be a slight mystery. Anyway, Barracks 2643 had a membership of mostly senior citizens by the time it was organized in 1964. During the next 16 years the membership understandably started to decline. As a result, this local veterans’ group and its auxiliary disbanded on Sept. 22, 1980.

Just for the heck of it, I did a Google search for Veterans of World War I and found out this organization still exists as of Nov. 11, 2009, with just one member.

Tribune staff writer Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.