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Landmarks: WWI veterans built Rockford’s American Legion Post

When they returned home to their farms and families after fighting in World War I – the Great War, the war that began 100 years ago this summer – one of the things the young men from Rockford did was establish an American Legion Post.

They named it for Edward Leehan, who died on a battlefield in France, the first soldier from Rockford to die in the war. After meeting for a year with Grand Army of the Republic veterans of the Civil War at a church in town, the Edward Leehan American Legion Post 165 decided it needed a home of its own, so the members cut trees from the Mica Peak area and dragged the logs on horse-drawn bobsleds to a spot on Emma Street, by the west side of Rockford Creek, where they built what became known as the Log Cabin Post in 1921.

Although there is only one other known log cabin American Legion post (built in San Anselmo, California, in 1939), Rockford’s is likely the first one, according to Paul Gillespie, a member of the Rockford Area Museum and Historical Society. Most of the materials for the cabin were donated, but fundraising efforts to complete the building included dances held in the Odd Fellows Hall and a raffle.

One funny story emerged from the raffle of a brand-new Hudson automobile at the dedication of the cabin in 1923, Gillespie said. A blacksmith won the car, which he found bittersweet and was quoted as lamenting how cars were going to run him out of business. So he sold it.

The cabin was heated by the large interior fireplace that had been built from local basalt rock and decorated with photos and memorabilia from the war. Meetings continued to be held there and the cabin was also used for other community events, including an annual smelt feed. An annex was added at the back to include a kitchen and restroom after World War II, and Stanley Pimmer, 88, a WWII veteran who has been a member for 68 years, recalls that some 30 or more years ago the structure was raised up and placed on a firm foundation. “We each put in $100 to do it,” he said.

It was also after WWII that the Edward Leehan American Legion Post 165 erected a memorial to fallen soldiers in City Park, a few blocks from the post. Names of soldiers from Rockford who died in wars from WWI to Vietnam have been added over the years.

Veterans of the Korean War, WWII and Vietnam also joined the post, but membership has declined over the years as those individuals have died, and the post is now largely inactive. Pimmer said there’s probably just 13 or so of them left now.

The Rockford Area Museum and Historical Society acquired the building in 1999 and updated it with drywall, handicap access, new lights and ceiling fans, and a gas insert in the fireplace. The society also operates Rockford’s nearby Pioneer Museum and Farm Museum and works to maintain the buildings and their operations to preserve Rockford history.

In exploring aspects of the area’s history, Gillespie has researched the Log Cabin Post’s namesake, Edward Leehan, but has not been able to find much. Leehan was born on a farm in Minnesota in 1895 and came with his family to a farm southeast of Rockford just after 1900. While records show that the young Edward attended school in Rockford, there are no records of his graduation or WWI draft registration or even his branch of service, where he served or precisely where he was killed. It is known that by 1920 his parents had returned to Minnesota. Pimmer recalls that in the 1930s his family farmed the land that had belonged to the Leehans.

Among the WWI Springfield rifles and other artifacts at the museum are other treasures, such as a panoramic photo of the Rhine River, above which is shown the citadel that served as German headquarters during WWI. “We found it rolled up in the garbage last year and were so glad to have rescued it,” Gillespie said.

Another insightful view of the times and the young men who went off to serve their country is kept in an album in the museum – excerpts of the letters from soldiers printed in the Rockford Register. One Rockford hometown writer was Ivan L. Morefield. In 1917 he wrote with enthusiasm of his training at American Lake, “which will provide for the largest muster since the Civil War.” In 1918, before engaging in battle, he wrote of the wonders of Paris and mused at structures he imagined might have housed Robespierre.

And then, as published in the Nov. 1, 1918, issue of the newspaper, Morefield wrote: “You read much about sunny France, but do not be beguiled. Stay right there in Rock Creek valley, even though the snow falls up to your waist. I have seen quite a bit of ‘God’s Footstool’ [likely meaning the earth], but none that I would trade good old Washington for.”

Like soldiers before and after him, Morefield longed to come home. And he did; he died in 1952 and was buried in his hometown’s Fairview Cemetery.

Places like this old log cabin, the Edward Leehan American Legion Post 165, pay tribute to the soldiers from all the wars – but in this centennial year of that war’s beginning, special recognition is given to those who built the cabin, the hometown soldiers from WWI.