Linwood's Legion Hall has been getting a lot of space in The Press lately, and much of its history has been distorted.
The building deserves to be recognized as one of the most significant structures of 20th century Linwood. Most of the original building is still there, as can be seen in a circa-1906 photograph taken by Pleasantville photographer Max Kirscht. It was a very impressive structure for most of its life there on Elm Avenue.
The hall was built around 1906 by William Lear for the local Junior Order of United American Mechanics, known as JOAUM, and it was named Mechanics Hall. Lear was also the builder of the Belhaven Avenue School in 1908. The JOAUM freely offered the hall for community activities. Photographs from around 1910 show large crowds and participants in patriotic programs. One old Kirscht postcard labeled the building "Town Hall" and another labeled it "JOAUM Hall."
When the Linwood Borough was established in 1889, council meetings were held at the Leedsville School on Poplar Avenue, which became Linwood's first official town hall in 1910. During the years in between, the borough rented space at the Masonic Lodge and at the Linwood Hotel to conduct daily business such as tax collection. When Mechanics Hall opened, the borough safe was moved there from the Masonic Hall, and a jail cell was placed in the basement. The borough paid for heat and electric if the cell was occupied.
We can only assume that borough business was conducted at Mechanics Hall during the years between its opening until the town hall was established in 1910. The Max Kirscht postcard labeled "Town Hall" adds credence to this assumption.
On June 15, 1946, Linwood's American Legion Post 353 purchased Mechanics Hall from the N.J. State Council of the JOAUM for $1, and the hall was renamed the American Legion Hall. The Legion post was as generous with the building as the JOAUM had always been, so community groups and organizations continued to hold meetings, parties and public events there. By 1949, the Legion had built a new kitchen, and on Feb. 3, 1949, the first of many oyster dinners by Clarence Potter was held there.
Potter's oyster dinners were so popular that people came from around the county to enjoy the event. Other dinners continued to be held there into at least the 1980s. The Linwood Youth Organization held weekly meetings and dances there in the late 1940s. Families could rent the hall for birthday parties and other events. Anyone who grew up in Linwood during most of the 20th century attended at least one function a year at Mechanics Hall or the Legion Hall. In the 1990s, weekly dance classes for some of Linwood's children were still held there.
The hall could be considered the third most historic of Linwood's buildings, second only to the old Leedsville School and the original Belhaven School for the role it played in the lives of its citizens.
No one from the generations of the last century would have believed that this wonderful building would be allowed to deteriorate as it has done over the past two decades. As the Greatest Generation leaves us, it is apparently taking the Legion Hall with it. Detective Jim Norris expressed it best during a recent inspection by the Police Department when he noted how sad it was that the members of the Legion post appear to have "just walked out and never came back."
I can't imagine that surviving members of the post would have been ignored if they had asked for help in those last years. Today's difficult economic times did not exist 20 years ago. There was plenty of time to secure the future of this perfect piece of Linwood's history. It could have been made useful again to serve a community that no longer has such a facility.
How sad indeed. How shameful, too.
Carolyn Patterson is the city historian in Linwood.