Going up the steps of the American Legion/Youth Center on a bright, silent autumn afternoon, the sounds of children filtered out. All were talking at once. Then one voice rose above the rest before falling into the happy babble of sound, until an adult voice was speaking and all went quiet.
Bethany Ortmann, the town’s recreation director, was at the far end of the wide room of the hall, teaching seven children from kindergarten to 3rd grade how to bake corn muffins.
The hall is a center for almost daily activities, “from Pre-K to senior citizens,” Ms. Ortmann said. On any given day there are craft classes, yoga for all age groups, meditation and zumba sessions, after-school programs and activities organized around the season, such as ornament making.
It hums at night, as well, with the Legion bar and kitchen downstairs as a relaxed place to meet, with servings of beer and spirits. There’s also the crash of bowling pins from the Legion’s two-lane bowling alley, which hosts a mens’ and womens’ league with several teams each.
This Election Day, voting will occur for the first time at the Legion Hall.
A place to meet,
gather and be united
The building facing Wilson Circle, across from the school in the center of town, has always been a place where Islanders have come together for occasions from solemn to joyous, and most emotions in between.
It doesn’t get more solemn, or beautiful, than the five large, sand-colored boulders set in shrubbery that ring the flag pole in front of the building. They hold plaques with names, starting with the boulder closest to Bateman Street, which reads: “Veterans of Shelter Island after 1975 Lebanon/Grenada Panama Gulf War/ War On Terrorism.” The other boulders are dedicated to veterans of the “Vietnam Conflict,” “Korean Conflict,” and “World War II.” Across School Street is a boulder with a plaque that reads: “Dedicated to those from Shelter Island who answered their country’s call to fight for World Wide Liberty 1917 — 1919.”
One of the men listed is Henry Mitchell, the first Islander killed in World War I, and who gave his name to the Post.
When the American Legion Mitchell Post 281 was formed by 15 World War I veterans on February 22, 1922, “the vets would meet at each other’s houses,” and not at the current Legion hall, said Dave Clark, the post’s commander. It wasn’t until the 1930s when the Mitchell Post took over the building, he added.
According to town records, the colonial-style structure was built sometime around 1920 — “c. 1920” — and was originally “built to house the Community Club.”
In August 2008, the town bought the building from the legion for $1 for a youth and recreation center. The Legion was given control of the downstairs bowling alley, bar and kitchen.
The place to be
In the days before the seductions of 200-channel TV and the Internet, Islanders went to the hall to socialize and be entertained. Plays and musical revues were a weekly feature. For example, in May 1951, Islanders were treated to “The Fairy Tale Opera of Hansel and Gretel,” or in May 1956, “Leap Year Follies,” with musical numbers, including “One Drink, One Drunk,” and “The Spirit is Willing.”
Phyllis Power remembers being 4 or 5 years old and part of a play on the founding and history of Shelter Island. Her role wasn’t too strenuous.
“I was a cute blonde little girl with a pony tail sitting at the edge of the stage,” Ms. Power said.
Her mother, Dot Clark, was named historian of the Legion, and kept meticulous scrapbooks. They have recently been given to the Shelter Island Historical Society and are now being sorted and catalogued.
Ms. Power remembers the building as the place for women to meet, and there were card parties. “St. Patrick’s Day was always a big event,” she said, “but all community events were there. Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts. The town firehouses didn’t have big rooms in those days so [the legion] was the place. There were lots of dances. Phil and I had our wedding reception there. “
Lest we forget
One morning recently, Commander Clark pointed to old photos framed on the walls of the downstairs bar of Legionaries and memorabilia, including a framed, boxed display in honor of Lt. Joseph Theinert, who was killed in Afghanistan on June 4, 2010 while warning his fellow Bravo troop members of a roadside bomb.
One framed document showed Shelter Island’s long connection to the country and the sacrifices the Island has made. The document listed simple, stark descriptions of the seven men who left their small, Island home and went south to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. Two died in Confederate prison camps, one died on a Union gunboat, and the rest were killed in action.
Reading the names of the Islanders born between 1840 and 1843, and dead 20 years or less later, the men — just beyond boyhood, really — come alive, preserved in the Legion Hall.
Poet Robert Lowell paid tribute to the boys from his home region in “For the Union Dead,” writing that on a “thousand small town New England greens,
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
Grow slimmer and younger each year —
Wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
And muse through their sideburns . . .”
The Island doesn’t have a statue, but the list of names in the corner of the bar is enough to bring back the youths of Robert J. Congdon, Zebulon B. Glover, Randolph C. Griffing, J. Madison Hempstead, Charles H. Havens, Joseph Howard Hudson and Sylvester Nichol.
Bringing it home
The bar, kitchen and bowling alley were installed on the lower floor in 1961, according to Commander Clark, and the bowling alley installed a year later.
“Some guys heard of a bar that burned down up Island somewhere and they went and brought this back,” he said, laying his hand on the dark, burnished wood of the bar.
He remembers when there was bowling six nights a week, and on weekends the place was packed.
Still, even in the winter, when the bowling leagues are rolling, there’s a fairly brisk business going on in the lower level of the hall.
Passing it on
The late afternoon sun slanted through the open door of the hall as the children prepared in earnest to bake. The quiet of the autumn day outside, and light filling the spacious room, was a perfect place for the chattering children, and anyone else lucky enough to stop by.
Ms. Ortmann was told this must be a special place to work.
“Yes,” she said. “And the community is just as special.”