Legion growing into new building

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STEWARDSON, Ill. (WCIA) — American Legion posts around the country have been struggling to gain members, but one in Central Illinois has the opposite problem.

Wilbur Braughton Post 611 in Stewardson is growing — and now, they’re getting a new building.

Joe Vonderheide took over as commander a few years ago. At the time, there were about 30 members.

“Membership was way down … Our funds were almost depleted and there was just no enthusiasm to our post … Some of the members told us we should just go ahead and close it up and I told them — no, we’re not,” says Vonderheide.

The post is set to reach 50 people by the end of the year and because of that, Vonderheide decided he needed something big to continue the growth.

His plan landed him at the empty lots that sit just north of the Stewardson Banking Center, a branch of First National Bank of Waterloo. The bank agreed to donate the land so the legion could build a new home.

“We’re trying to get a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter as a landmark so when people come down Main Street, they’re gonna come down here and see a landmark. They’ll know it’s gonna be a legion post,” says Vonderheide.

Bank employees say giving away the land wasn’t a hard sell.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s really what small towns are all about,” says Brian Flach, a loan officer.

“I’m always looking for a way to support the community, add growth, increase awareness for the area, I would love to see any new buildings, new opportunities to bring people into town,” says Assistant VP and Center Manager, Jessica Howe.

The goal was for the legion post to stay close to downtown, and they won’t be moving far … just a couple of blocks from their current spot, which Vonderheide says isn’t the “freshest of buildings to walk into.”

“It’s got a lot of age to it. Sadly it’s got a lot of history too that we’re gonna lose,” says Vonderheide. Despite losing some history, Vonderheide is confident he can make the new building a destination — as the post celebrates its centennial next year.

“Right now everybody’s really excited about it. When I first started talking about it, we had that — ‘you can’t do that’ type attitude — which that motivated me even more,” he says. 

The project will be a community effort and a chance to build a new legacy. Vonderheide hopes the post lasts for another 100 years.

The goal is to have construction done in three years, but that date is not set in stone. They have an initial fundraising goal of $100,000. Right now, they’re at about $14,000.

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