When Vincennes American Legion Post No. 73 was formed in 1919, receiving their charter in September of that year, the organization had no permanent home. It wasn’t until April 1931, 90 years ago this month, that Legion members acquired their own building.
After the local Legion was organized, the post struggled to maintain a meeting place, sometimes simply renting rooms. They started out meeting at 306½ Main St. From 1924-1926, they met above the Williams Battery Co. at 11½ South Fourth St. For a time, they gathered at the Ben Hur Hall at 209½ Busseron St.
In the spring of 1931, there was even discussion of the city purchasing the Harmony Society’s building on North Second Street for the American Legion, but, at the April 13 city council meeting, the ordinance to appropriate the money was killed. The cost would have been $15,000.
The following day, with the Harmony purchase no longer a possibility, American Legion members voted to exercise their option to buy the James P. L. Weems property near Fourth and Buntin streets at a cost of $4,500 (more than $77,000 in today’s money). They paid $2,000 down and Legion directors signed notes for the remainder. Plans were to remodel the house. Dr. Myron L. Curtner, a veteran of the World War I Battle of Chateau-Thierry, and first commander of the local post, headed the committee that acquired the home.
The Weems home was a historic building. The site of the house had been the location of the first courthouse in the Indiana Territory. That building project was approved in 1807 and the courthouse was ready for use in 1813. In late 1830, the county contracted for a new building on the site of the present-day courthouse. The old building was sold in 1834 and was finally torn down in 1863. A new house was constructed on the lot, with some of the original courthouse bricks used in that structure. This was the building purchased by the American Legion. It was long the residence of William E. Niblack, who became a Congressman and Indiana Supreme Court Justice. Sigma Pi Fraternity at one time made it their home.
At their April 28 meeting, some 200 American Legion members pledged $2 a month for the next five months in order to pay down the debt. The post then had 540 dues paying members. The public also pledged money that would be used to assist with remodeling.
Although the American Legion would not take possession of the home until May 18, members were allowed to begin cleaning up the grounds, removing an old fence and sheds. In 1821, the property had been the starting point for the survey fixing the boundary line between the states of Indiana and Illinois and while work on the grounds was underway, it was briefly thought that the original surveyor’s stone marker had been discovered. Local engineer Harry Watts then dashed those hopes when he confirmed that the marker would have been sandstone, which the stone that was found was not.
With ownership finally assumed, on May 21, remodeling of the building’s interior got underway, including painting, repair work, and installation of a furnace. A two-story columned porch was later built. Local architect Lester Routt, a Legion member, oversaw remodeling. The Legion held their first meeting in their new home on the evening of June 9.
That fall, over a three-day period., from Oct. 16-18, events related to the building’s dedication were held, with the dedication ceremony itself taking place that Sunday the 18th. American Legion State Commander Ralph Gates, a World War I veteran and future Indiana governor, spoke. Otis Gootee was then the post’s commander.
Less than two years later, in March 1933, the Legion paid off the building and the note was burned in a special ceremony.
On March 20, 1936, the Legion let the contracts for the first addition to the building, the general construction contract going to Paul Kirchoff and Edward DeLuryea for $3,100.
After the Second World War, plans were made for an even larger addition to accommodate all of the new veterans. The plans were completed in February 1946, at which time Legion membership stood at approximately 700. The $40,000 addition, to the rear of the building, featured a large auditorium. It was dedicated on June 19, 1948.
In late 1966, the entire building got a much-needed refurbishment.
In 1969, the Vincennes Historical & Antiquarian Society erected a marker on the grounds, designating the building as the Niblack Mansion, and explaining its historical significance.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.