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Johnny Vardeman: Legion briefly got into politics when it began
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

If you saw Monday’s Memorial Day parade in Gainesville, you might have seen a group carrying a banner proclaiming the American Legion’s 100th anniversary.

Post 7 American Legion organizes the annual parade down Green Street.

The American Legion had its beginning in the aftermath of World War I. A group called the First American Expeditionary Force began a discussion of such an organization in France. Veterans of the war came together later in St. Louis, Missouri, to formally organize and adopt the name “American Legion.”

Congress officially chartered the American Legion in 1919 as a “patriotic veterans organization.” Paul E. Bolding Post 7, named after the second Hall Countian to die in World War I, officially organized Saturday, Aug. 16, 1919, at Hall County’s courthouse.

The American Legion charter declared itself as “strictly non-political.”

Yet Post 7 strayed temporarily from that noble principle during the heated 1920 Georgia governor’s race

Thomas W. Hardwick was the Democratic candidate supported by his friend, Tom Watson, an influential populist politician who had served in the U.S. House and Senate.

The American Legion claimed both politicians had made unkind remarks about the organization and that Hardwick had been against American involvement in World War I. Post 7, as well as other Legion posts across the state, passed a resolution opposing Hardwick and criticized Watson for supporting him.

Watson and Hardwick were supposed to make campaign stops in Gainesville. The Legion appealed to local residents to treat them with respect despite its opposition to Hardwick’s gubernatorial campaign. But it hoped people wouldn’t turn out to see them.

Despite the Legion’s opposition, Hardwick won the governor’s office and proved to be mostly progressive compared to most politicians of that era. He served from 1921-23, losing re-election to Cliff Walker, who was supported by the Ku Klux Klan. Hardwick had denounced the KKK in no uncertain terms.

Hardwick also was the target of a terrorist attack because of an Immigration Act he had passed. A bomb was mailed to his home, and it exploded when a servant began to open it, blowing off her hands and injuring Hardwick’s wife.

While still in the governor’s office, he appointed the first woman to the U.S. Senate, Rebecca Felton, who symbolically served only one day after Watson died in office.

Hardwick and Watson had been friends, but became enemies in their later political lives.

The first crew

When Post 7 American Legion organized, it had 17 charter members, some of whom became prominent Hall County citizens: Edgar Dunlap, Leonard Cinciolo, Heyward Pearce, John Pearce, Thomas Pearce, William Longstreet and Claud Barrett.

Dunlap was its first commander, but served temporarily until W.P. Whelchel was officially elected.

After the political commotion in the 1920 governor’s race, Post 7 adhered to its non-political principles. During a state gathering in Athens, Dunlap declared that the Legion would not get into partisan politics again.

Shortly after its founding, Post 7 opened a “community building” on East Spring Street in Gainesville and allowed other local organizations to use it for its activities.

In the mid-1950s, Post 7 bought its present property at the end of Riverside Drive for $13,000, plus another 4 acres on Lake Lanier for $7,000. It had purchased the post home from Riverside Military Academy in 1946. That building, which had been the home of a country club overlooking a golf course, burned in 1985. Post 7 rebuilt on the same site overlooking Lake Lanier.

The American Legion Park started out as Chattahoochee Park in 1901 when Dunlap Dam formed Lake Warner on the Chattahoochee River. North Georgia Electric Co., which operated the dam and park, used it as a camp for employees, as did Georgia Power Co. for many years after it acquired North Georgia Electric.

The park continues as a recreation area, and the Legion rents a restored pavilion for parties, reunions and other activities.

Getting busy early

The very next year after it organized, Post 7 sponsored a Fourth of July celebration on July 5 because the Fourth was on a Sunday. None had been held the year before, and the Legion planned a big event, including a dance, speakers, barbecue and baseball games. Veterans of both the Civil War and World War I were special guests. Homes along Green Street and downtown businesses decorated with flags and banners.

Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE. 770-532-2326; vardeman1956@att.net.

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