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Legion posts face declining membership

WILLMAR -- Twenty years ago the American Legion Post 167 here in Willmar had more than 1,600 members, said general manager Dave Mohs. Today, it's just over half of that.

The World War II and Korean War veterans who for decades formed the core of the post's membership are dwindling fast, he said, and younger generations aren't taking their place quickly enough to keep up.

They'll need to, said Mohs, who took over as club manager in September, or the post and its traditions of community service and camaraderie among veterans will dwindle just as fast.

"We need that young blood or service clubs like this will indeed go away someday, and that would be a real shame," he said.

Legion posts are seeing a decline in membership across the state, said Lyle Foltz, adjutant of the American Legion Department of Minnesota. From a peak of around 137,000 in 1994, membership is now down to about 100,000 statewide.

A few posts have even been forced to close down, said Foltz.

That's a problem, he said, because in addition to providing service to veterans and charitable donations, Legion halls are often the focal point of many communities -- where scouts, baseball teams, and community groups gather, and where potlucks, weddings and funerals are held.

"In a lot of towns, the Legion hall is the center of activity," he said.

Marsha Olson, kitchen manager at the American Legion Post 104 in Litchfield, said that if it wasn't for people transferring in from struggling posts nearby, the post would be losing Legionnaires as well.

The problem, as elsewhere, is that the last of the old guard who took the post through decades of operation are now dying off.

"There aren't a lot of them around anymore," she said.

Foltz noted, though, that the loss of Legionnaires cannot be attributed to fewer military veterans. There are more now than ever, he said.

"We have more people in the service now than 20 years ago, but yet young people still aren't joining," he said.

Changing that, said Mohs, will mean ridding the Legion of its reputation as being a bit of a geriatric institution.

To attract a younger set, Mohs said he wants to bring in more live music acts like the Smoking Guns, who played recently and are popular with a more middle-aged crowd. Among that age group are veterans from the Vietnam era that Mohs hopes will become more involved with the post.

"They need to come out here a bit more," he said.

As the former bassist of the Doc Holliday Band, Mohs has plenty of musician friends willing to come out to the club and play.

Already, Jake Jacobsen of Fat Freddy's Music Shop in Willmar has seen a slight resurgence in the local music scene.

"It kind of died down for a while, but it's kind of picked up," he said. "A lot of that goes back to what Dave is doing over there."

Livening up the post can be a balancing act, said Mohs. Though they all have a common background, older and younger Legionnaires come from different times and have different interests, he said. He doesn't want the club, though, to cater to one group at the expense of the other.

While he tries to attract bands with a more youthful appeal on the weekends, on weeknights he books a lot of old-time bands like Ancient Age, who played to a mostly elderly audience on a recent Wednesday night.

Mohs said that with new vitality, the post could continue doing what it does best, providing a place for military veterans to sit and reminisce together.

It's those stories, he said, that form the heart and soul of veterans clubs like the Legion.

"That's what it's all about," he said.