Part 1: Founding to the Eve of World War II
2019 marks the centennial of Nantucket’s American Legion post. Organized in July 1919, the quota of 100 members had been exceeded by the end of the year.
The post was named in honor of Nantucket’s Byron Sylvaro, who died of wounds suffered in the battle at Bellau Woods in France in July 1918.
The post met upstairs above Coffin’s Drug Store on the corner of Main Street and Federal Street in the rooms of the Grand Army of the Republic (veterans of the Civil War). Public events were held in other island venues: the Congregational Church, Red Men’s Hall upstairs over the Dreamland Theatre, and the Athletic Club (Nantucket Yacht Club).
A fund-raiser was held “to fit up a congenial meeting place” and to provide sickness benefits for members. Controversy arose about whether the Town should appropriate $750 for a bronze plaque as a lasting commemoration of service in World War I or provide $800 to the American Legion post to furnish its meeting room. Both proposals were placed in the 1920 Town Meeting warrant, and the request for $800 won out over the plaque.
The American Legion took over Nantucket’s Memorial Day observances from the aging G.A.R. members. An early feature of Memorial Day parades was the American Legion Drum Corps. There was also a Post Orchestra.
In August 1919, medals were distributed—bronze for those who served, and silver for those who received wounds—at an evening service with choral music in the Congregational Church.
Delegations of Legion members attended veterans’ funerals. In July 1921, Byron Sylvaro’s remains were returned to Nantucket from France. Post Commander Charles Chadwick, who had been with Sylvaro at Bellau Woods, made final burial arrangements, and members of the Legion served as pallbearers. Legion chaplain Joseph M. Swain died in 1921, and Legion member John M. Levin, who had served in a submarine crew, died in 1923, both from the effects of having been gassed. They received burials with Legion honors.
In April 1921, a Women’s Auxiliary was organized for mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of World War I servicemen. Among the members of the Women’s Auxiliary was Florence Clay Higginbotham, whose young husband, Robert D. Higginbotham, served in the U.S. Navy. The women were active in organizing social events for the Legion.
From the beginning, the Legion put on well-attended dances with music provided by off-island bands. In 1923, the post advertised for a “second-hand piano in good condition.”
Also in 1923, the Legion’s baseball team competed for the first time with other island teams. Members sought permission to show Sunday afternoon movies. Minstrel shows were also part of the Legion’s entertainment.
The American Legion continued to meet in the GAR rooms until 1928, when Mr. and Mrs. Henry Lang offered the large brick building on Washington Street at the head of Commercial Wharf as a gift to the Legion post. Built by Charles and Henry Coffin shortly after the Great Fire of 1846, the building had been known as the French and Coffin Warehouse, the Barney Building, and—since 1924—Sherburne Looms Hall. The Legion members had just enjoyed a supper of oyster stew when the offer of the building was delivered to them. They immediately and unanimously voted to accept it, and the building has been known from that day to the present as Legion Hall.
In 1928, the Legion began to hold amateur boxing matches, pitting members against Coast Guardsmen, steamship crewmembers, and talent from New Bedford. Ladies and the last surviving Civil War veterans were among the spectators as boxers calling themselves Kid Frisco, Battling Barrows, Jumping Joe, and Young Martin took to the ring in “flowing bathrobes and ring trunks.”
From the 1930s up through the 1950s, the Nantucket Sportsmen’s Club, many men’s and women’s competitive teams, and students from Nantucket High School practiced shooting in a rifle range on the third floor of Legion Hall.
In October 1928, a children’s Halloween party was held in Legion Hall, the first of countless parties, receptions, and entertainments there. A 1933 businessmen’s catered banquet with entertainment imported from the mainland was described in the newspaper as a “pure stag” event and was never repeated, but high school dances at Legion Hall are fondly recalled.
During Prohibition (1920–1933) World War I veterans were taken on as special policemen, a position that proved hazardous. Legion member Carlton West nearly met his end in Prospect Hill Cemetery in December 1930, when hooligans hired by a local rumrunner kidnapped him with intent to murder. Thwarted by their lack of knowledge of the island’s geography, they gave up looking for a place to drown him and left him tied, gagged, and stripped to his underwear in the cemetery. Carlton survived the brutal beating he received at their hands and lived for nearly another four decades, serving as taxi driver and tour guide to visiting celebrities. Upon his death in 1969, West, who was of Martha’s Vineyard Wampanoag descent, was laid to rest with honors by the Aquinnah Wampanoags and the Byron L. Sylvaro post of the American Legion, in recognition of his service in World War I.
In 1934, the area in front of Legion Hall was named “Francis Leroy Wilkes Square” to honor the twenty-one-year-old Coast Guardsman from Nantucket who went down with the convoy escort ship Tampa in 1918. Because his body was not recovered, he did not receive a military funeral, but a plaque in his honor was placed at the foot of the flagpole outside Legion Hall and his mother laid a wreath there at the dedication. Wilkes was the descendant of enslaved Africans brought to Nantucket in the 1700s. One of his ancestors served in the Continental Navy during the American Revolution.
Parades traditionally form up in front of Legion Hall in the space around the tall flagpole. Nantucketers notice when the flag is flying at half-mast and are quick to find out who has been lost to the community.
Beginning in 1934, the Nantucket Boy Scouts met in Legion Hall.
Annual Town Meeting was held in Legion Hall in 1934, and the following month the Town of Nantucket leased Legion Hall for $500 a year as a polling place and for other town business.
In June 1934, the American Legion was one of several Nantucket organizations that hosted the 35th annual encampment of the United Spanish War Veterans on Nantucket.
From the mid-1930s forward, Nantucket’s American Legion Auxiliary observed Poppy Day every May to raise funds for disabled veterans and families of veterans in need.
Well Child clinics were held in Legion Hall and children received inoculations against diphtheria there.
In February 1936, the Inquirer and Mirror asked for “A Decent Sidewalk” on Washington Street on the grounds that “The Legion Hall is in use almost every day of the year and serves for many organizations as well as for the town”. By December 1936, a sidewalk was being laid, “a real community improvement that everyone will appreciate, especially when going to the polling place, to attend town meetings, or any of the affairs held in the Legion building.”
For the November 1936 elections (polling place Legion Hall), the Inquirer and Mirror noted that “It was surprising to find eleven of the women voters on hand when the polls opened at 6.00 o’clock Tuesday morning. Several were early-risers, and wanted to show the men-folks that they could get around in the morning. The oldest woman to vote was Mrs. Caroline Smith, who at the age of ninety-two would not miss the opportunity to vote for a President.”
Throughout the Depression years of the 1930s, Legion Hall hosted events to raise funds for relief and to provide clothing and food for Nantucket families in need. Dances continued as did minstrel shows, baseball games, and competitions at the rifle range. Plays and amateur talent nights were staged in Legion Hall. The Girl Scouts joined the Boy Scouts in using Legion Hall as a meeting place. In 1938, boxing returned to Legion Hall along with wrestling. In addition to Memorial Day parades, the Legion organized 4th of July and Armistice Day parades.
At a cottage fire in April and at a garage fire in June 1938, “The special police squad from the American Legion did a good job in keeping the autos moving during the excitement, so that no traffic snarls resulted from the rush of cars to the scene.” In August 1939, the legion’s special police were on hand to maintain order at an air meet at Nantucket’s airport. In August 1940, the Legion police took over responsibility for the town for the evening while the regular police attended the annual Policemen’s Ball in ‘Sconset.
“They’re always on the job when you need them.” That’s what Chief of Police Mooney says about the American Legion Volunteer Fire and Police Patrol, and he means it, too. He can give several examples of this usefulness. For instance, whenever fire breaks out, Legion men are usually the first on the scene to aid firemen, keep traffic properly routed, and to prevent congestion generally; then, too, during holidays, when the regular officers have to parade, the volunteer men take over their duties. During the recent Air Meet, a very large portion of traffic and field patrol was under control of the Legion men unit. Last Saturday evening, when the congestion on Main Street was very bad, the Legionnaires were right there to help.”
In November 1940, at a special meeting of the Byron L. Sylvaro Post, there was an election of members of a committee for “home defense” of Nantucket County. At a January 1941 meeting, the task of the committee was clarified as to watch for airplane activity over the island. Within the month, many citizens volunteered to assist in activities of the Home Defense Program. Members of the Legion made plans for voluntary registration of World War I Veterans (whether or not members of the Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82) at Legion Hall in February. Members would be on hand to assist in the registration, which was voluntary, not compulsory. By April 1941, all Nantucket men and women were urged to register at Legion Hall. In August, Red Cross first aid classes were initiated there.
In November 1941, the Legion Police were merged into the Nantucket Public Safety Committee with divisions of Protection, Medical and Health, and Supplies and Services. Of particular concern was organization of air raid wardens, auxiliary police, and rescue parties. People were instructed to salvage metal and turn it in to the Legion. Threat to Nantucket was anticipated from Hitler’s Germany. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the U.S.A. went to war.
Part 2: World War II through the Korean Conflict
From the day the USA entered World War II, Legion Hall was in constant use with meetings of the Civilian Defense Unit, the Red Cross, many supportive activities of the American Legion Auxiliary, the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts, and the Town of Nantucket. The Town had already been leasing the use of Legion Hall as a polling place, for Town Meetings, and for many meetings having to do with the business of local government. Now these activities increased in number and were held in the evenings straight through the winter, leading to increased bills for heating and lighting. A representative of the Legion Post requested an increased annual lease fee from the annual $500 to $750. Nonetheless, only $500 was appropriated in 1942 and forward through the war years.
Early in 1942 the Coast Guard was ordered to restrict civilian access to the waterfront and to issue ID cards to those whose business required them to enter restricted areas. Setting up in Legion Hall to take applications for ID cards and to check applicants’ documents, representatives of the Coast Guard were overwhelmed by the number of Nantucketers who arrived to file applications. There was concern that civilians would no longer be free to even dig a bucket of quahogs at low tide.
In November 1942, the Inquirer and Mirror listed 275 names of active servicemen from Nantucket and anticipated that by the end of the year 300 local men and women would be serving.
Legion Hall was used throughout World War II for material recovery. There were major drives, mainly organized by the American Legion Auxiliary, to collect steel, iron, rubber, and paper. A notice in the Inquirer and Mirror stated that “Girls are now working on tinfoil at Legion Hall” on Saturday mornings.
Tons of paper were collected, with the women of the Auxiliary stating that they enjoyed doing it and were ready to continue. Of one of their paper drives it was said “the women rushed in where men feared to tread.”
The Legion Auxiliary organized a drive to collect old phonograph records when war cut off the Asian source of shellac used in their manufacture. The record industry sought to reclaim shellac from old records in order to continue to issue new ones.
The number of patriotic parades increased and made wide circuits around town. There were Memorial Day parades in May, Flag Day parades in June, 4th of July parades, Navy Day parades in October, and Armistice Day parades in November. Local servicemen home on furloughs were encouraged to march with the Legion.
The absence of the Legion Drum and Bugle Corps in the 1944 Memorial Day parade was explained as due to “present-day conditions and the fact that members of the Corps are now scattered all over the world.” The Nantucket High School band took over providing music for the parades. For Armistice Day 1944, the Legion sponsored a Nantucket High School band concert on Main Street.
A Servicemen’s Club had been formed, and the American Legion Auxiliary kept it going while appealing for help from more volunteers. The Legion was also among supporters of the initiative to form a Nantucket Boy’s’ Club. An organizational meeting for the Boys’ Club was held at Legion Hall in March 1945.
Over the winter of 1942–43 there was an open public meeting in Legion Hall to describe functions of the Aircraft Warning Service. There were also help sessions for filing income tax returns when heads of households were away in the service.
Through the war years the Legion and the Legion Auxiliary kept up their customary activities with Memorial Day observances and Poppy Day sales to benefit wounded servicemen and families of servicemen.
Due to wartime rationing of meat, suppers at Legion Hall for various organizations featured scallop stew, rabbit, turkey, chicken pie, and on most menus both potatoes and turnips. These meals were often described as “best ever.”
The Legion police continued to assist the Nantucket police and firemen. When fire destroyed a house on West York Lane in May of 1943, the Legion police were on hand to direct traffic, and then they launched a fund to aid the owner in rebuilding. The Legion Auxiliary made a donation to a scholarship fund for young women going into nurse’s training, an early instance of the scholarships supported by the Legion and Legion Auxiliary over the years.
In 1944 the Legion Auxiliary took over the War Loan Campaign and led Nantucket to meet its quota of $129,000. They continued raising money through War Bond sales throughout the war years, with Nantucket always managing to surpass the set quotas.
Dances, holiday parties, and minstrel shows continued at Legion Hall through the war years, but the competitive rifle teams ceased their activities for nearly a decade before being enthusiastically revived in the post-war years.
The Legion turned out to welcome home Nantucket service men by meeting them at Steamboat Wharf and driving them and their families through town. They also increasingly took part in funerals for veterans of previous wars and for young Nantucketers as well. Ralph William “Billy” DeGraw, who had graduated from Nantucket High School in June of 1943 and joined the Navy, died within the year of injuries sustained aboard his ship. His body was returned to Nantucket from Fort Pierce, Florida, with a Naval escort, and members of the Legion and Legion Auxiliary shared in the military honors at his funeral. Not long after, they did the same for airman Lieutenant Frank Hanlon, who had lost his life in European combat.
In February 1945, with the end of World War II still months away, plans got underway for a Victory in Europe Day community service parade from Legion Hall the minute armistice or surrender was announced.
Also in February 1943, in response to ill-treatment of Japanese American servicemen, Legion Commander Edward N. Scheiberling issued the following statement: “The American Legion has always maintained that bigotry and race hatred have no place in American life.”
In March 1945 the first Nantucket conference on post-war planning took place at Legion Hall with a supper provided by members of the Legion Auxiliary.
In April, the Legion Auxiliary collected 4,500 pounds of used clothing “to send to the needy and liberated countries of the world.” The next month the Auxiliary collected sixteen and a half tons of paper for the salvage effort, and in May they initiated yet another War Loan drive.
May 1945 saw the long-awaited arrival of V-E Day. It was greeted with “little of the hilarity” that had marked the Armistice Day end of World War I, because the war in the Pacific continued. But in that month sixteen veterans, men and women, were welcomed home to Nantucket at suppers served in Legion Hall.
Victory over Japan Day arrived in August of 1945, and this time the celebrations were unreserved. As soon as the official broadcast of the end of the war with Japan was announced, pandemonium broke loose. From the Pacific Bank to the Pacific Club the square filled with people celebrating. The Inquirer and Mirror reported: “Main Street has never experienced anything of this kind before. It is a mystery where all those firecrackers came from.” An impromptu parade was started by a Legion member with a bass drum followed by standard bearers with the American flag and the Legion flag, and a large crowd joined it. The Legion police provided assistance in crowd control. The Inquirer and Mirror commented, “It is to be regretted that there was so much alcohol in evidence, but it was to be expected.”
Legion Hall had suffered damage in the hurricane of September 14, 1944, but war efforts had taken precedence. In August 1945 the Legion held a tag sale to finally raise money for repairs to their building.
Returning to peacetime activities, the Legion police directed traffic at a house fire on Orange Street in September 1945 and were called upon at the end of October to put a damper on Halloween pranks that were getting out of hand.
The Legion had planned a victory parade and memorial service in October 1945, but rainy weather canceled the parade and the observance was held indoors at Legion Hall.
In December 1945 the Legion Auxiliary initiated yet another victory clothing drive, and, not for the first time, the Legion provided personal Christmas gifts to the residents of Our Island Home.
With World War II behind, Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 started a drive to double its membership by welcoming every World War II veteran into the Legion with the hope and promise that the new veterans would “take over the Legion lock, stock, and barrel.”
In May 1946 the Legion Auxiliary took on an emergency food drive for overseas relief and shipped off 1,097 cans of food.
Beginning in 1947 the Legion held annual banquets in honor of the Nantucket High School football team.
Legion veterans formed a basketball team to play against visitors and to also to travel off-island to play other teams. The reconstituted American Legion Rifle Club began its competitions. It was noted that, “Before the war the annual rifle tournament was a very popular feature for both men’s and women’s teams.” The Post invited girls and boys of high school age to join competitive teams.
At the 1947 Nantucket High School graduation, the Legion Auxiliary made awards of one-week trips to Massachusetts Girls’ State and Boys’ State to high school students. These continued yearly.
For the first time in 1947 the Legion planned a community 4th of July community carnival in Wilkes Square. The first year suffered from rainy weather, but the following year’s carnival was a success.
In June 1948 the Legion made a request for a Special Town Meeting to address the need for a veterans’ housing project on-island.
In October 1948 a “gala poultry show” took place in Legion Hall and became an annual event.
On November 26, 1948, Mrs. Emma Phoenix Wilkes, mother of Francis L. Wilkes, a Gold Star Mother, and former chaplain of the Legion Auxiliary, died.
The following announcement was made in February 1950: “The ladies of the American Legion Auxiliary made and sold over three hundred dozen doughnuts on Wednesday.”
That month the Red Cross held a Blood Bank at Legion Hall, and blood donation at Legion Hall continued periodically in future years.
In October 1950 the Legion resumed showing movies, two a week, upstairs in Legion Hall.
The Korean Conflict passes unmentioned until December of 1950, when it was announced that thanks to the Legion Auxiliary, Nantucket had more than met its quota of gifts and money for the Veteran’s Administration’s hospital gift shop program. “The need is greater than ever this year because of the incoming veterans of the Korean War now filling these hospitals.”
In the spring of 1951 the Legion Auxiliary began collecting clothing and money to send to Korea.
In November 1951 the Auxiliary solicited gifts for Korean War servicemen from Nantucket. This project sent gifts to Korea in time for Christmas 1951 and was rewarded with letters to the Inquirer and Mirror from grateful recipients. The Legion Auxiliary decided to aim for sending gift packages to Nantucketers serving in Korea every three months.
The program to provide Christmas gifts to residents of Our Island Home continued.
In April 1952 “Plans to make Byron L. Sylvaro Post No. 82 the greatest community service organization in town were announced” with the goal of enrollment of “every eligible local veteran of World War II and the Korean Conflict.”
In 1952 the Nantucket Rotary Club began meeting in Legion Hall, and in January 1953 a Camera Club was organized and began meeting there too.
On Armistice Day in November 1952, as the Korean War continued, a World War II memorial plaque was dedicated. Packages to servicemen in Korea continued.
In April 1953 the Legion held a ceremony to burn worn out and damaged American flags, a custom that continues to the present.
On Memorial Day 1953, thirty seconds of silence were observed in memory of James W. Coffin, “Killed last year in Korea.”
In July 1953 the Korean Conflict was declared over.
Part 3: From the 1950s through Vietnam
As the Korean Conflict came to a close, American Legion Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 and its active Legion Auxiliary settled into a fourth decade of service to the Nantucket community.
The Town of Nantucket continued to lease use of Legion Hall annually for polling, Town Meeting, and many committee meetings and public hearings throughout the year. On South Water Street the brick fire station had been built, but the rest of the block bounded by Broad Street, Federal Street, and Chestnut Street was still occupied by the Sanford House and the Hosier House. There were long-standing plans to demolish the Sanford House and replace it with a Town and County Building.
Legion Hall provided space and facilities to many organizations, among them the Sportsmen’s Club, the Fishermen’s Association, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Boys’ Club, the American Red Cross, the Rotary Club, the Rifle and Pistol Club, and a Camera Club. The Parent Teacher Association, Planned Playtime, and periodic Well-Child Clinics used Legion Hall, as did Red Cross Blood Bank drives. For several summers the Christian Science Reading Room was located in Legion Hall. Later, nondenominational Gospel Meetings were held there on Sunday evenings.
Nowhere on Nantucket have so many dances taken place as in Legion Hall. Moreover, there were frequent talent shows, variety shows, concerts, banquets, and receptions. An annual awards banquet for the Nantucket High School football team evolved into an annual all-sports banquet for high school students. The Boy Scouts welcomed their fathers to annual hot-dog suppers. Yearly through 1961 hundreds of children attended the Legion’s Community Christmas parties.
Significant Nantucket family events took place in Legion Hall. In September 1954 it was the venue of the wedding reception for Norma Cabral and Albert Teixeira, a celebration for Nantucket’s Cape Verdean community. In November 1957 forty-one members of the Paradis family gathered there for a Thanksgiving reunion, the first time in thirteen years that they had all been together.
The Legion Police and Fire Patrol continued to support the town’s Police and Fire Departments. The Legion organized Memorial Day and Armistice Day observances with evening dances and daytime parades. They hosted visiting American Legion delegations from off-island and sponsored scout troops. At Christmas, the Legion provided personal gifts for residents of Our Island Home.
The Legion Auxiliary, relieved of the heavy work of wartime salvage drives, continued with support projects for veterans. They held annual Poppy Days to raise funds for disabled veterans and their families, and they collected each fall for the Veterans Hospital Gift Shop so hospitalized vets could choose free Christmas gifts for their family members. In the interest of good government the Legion and the Auxiliary awarded annual trips to Boys’ State and Girls’ State to Nantucket High School students.
From its beginning, Legion delegations attended funerals of local veterans. By the 1950s, an increasing number of those funerals were for 1919 charter members of Post 82 and for long-serving members of the Auxiliary.
At a Special Town Meeting in Legion Hall in September 1953, a vote was cast for construction of a new Nantucket High School. Once built, its gym/auditorium and cafeteria offered alternatives to Legion Hall for public events.
There were competitive “turkey shoots” that provided winners with Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys. In spite of the invitation: “Everyone welcome. Bring your rifle or pistol. Ammunition and rifles available,” interest had been flagging. At the first meeting of the Rifle and Pistol Club in January 1954, “The chief topic of discussion was how to revive interest in this sport which was at one time very popular on the island.” Island women who used to enjoy the indoor range were urged to once again form competitive rifle teams. Fifteen women showed up for rifle practice the next month.
The Legion took on a peacetime enemy: polio. In January 1954 the Auxiliary sponsored a dance at Legion Hall to kick off the annual March of Dimes. Nantucket had been mercifully spared polio until September 1954 when patrolman Elwyn Francis Jr. was stricken and flown to a mainland hospital. He did not return to the island for over a year and was unable to resume work as a policeman. In January 1956 it was announced that the Byron L. Sylvaro Post and the Auxiliary were cooperating in the national Blue Crutch Day Campaign, with all funds collected to stay local. “With the Salk vaccine and Gamma globulin we can win the polio fight.”
In November 1954 Armistice Day became Veterans Day.
In December 1954 Nantucketers were encouraged to bring outgrown toys in good condition to Legion Hall to be distributed to children who might not otherwise receive any gift at Christmas.
The Island Service Company Christmas party was held at Legion Hall in 1954 and was an annual event for several years.
In January 1955 there was a banquet for Sea Scouts and their fathers, the first of what are expected to be annual affairs. The Sea Scouts were an Explorer Unit of the Boy Scouts. The following year they held a recruiting meeting in Legion Hall, seeking younger members to replace those who were reaching age 18 and would be leaving the unit.
Expanding on their commitment to scholarship aid, the Auxiliary held the first of many events to benefit the Community Scholarship Fund.
In 1955 a detachment of U. S. SeaBees was on-island building the Naval facility at Tom Nevers Head, and In March the Legion hosted a celebratory supper and dance for them in Legion Hall to mark the 13th anniversary of their founding.
In August 1955 back-to-back hurricanes Connie and Diane caused flooding in Connecticut, and the Auxiliary went into action collecting donations of clothing, blankets, and “useful items” for the victims.
December 1955 saw the newly formed Teen Canteen using Legion Hall.
Early in 1956 rehearsals began for “Everybody on Deck,” a variety show featuring many talented Nantucketers. The Legion stage was enhanced with a “new golden-colored curtain” in time for the performances.
The warrant for the 1956 Annual Town Meeting included an article to establish the Historic District Commission, a product of two years of joint planning by nine local organizations including Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 of the American Legion.
In late March of 1956 Nantucket was hit by two heavy storms back to back. In the early morning hours when the first struck, a storm surge flooded the Brant Point/Beachside area all the way to the base of the Cliff and pushed water across Washington Street as far as Union Street. Year-round residents had to leave their homes, some evacuated by boats and others wading through icy water. Evacuees were sheltered at the Ayers Guest Houses on Union Street. As the second storm approached, the Red Cross prepared Legion Hall with cots, bedding, and food. Fortunately, unlike the first storm, the second was not accompanied by flooding.
In 1957 the Legion donated instruments to the newly formed Boys’ Club Drum and Bugle Cadet Corps, and the Rotary Club’s Youth Meeting brought members’ sons and daughters to lunch at Legion Hall and then upstairs to a magic show.
In February 1958 Fire Chief Irving Bartlett announced his intention to abolish the Legion Police and Fire Patrol and hire qualified men directly for the Fire Department. His rationale was that members of the Legion patrol were failing to get sworn in.
450 children attended the Legion’s 1958 Community Children’s Christmas party.
The year 1959 began and ended with threats to the building. On a morning in January 1959 with the temperature in the low teens and a thirty-mile-per-hour wind, fire broke out in a house next door to Legion Hall. Fire Chief Bartlett praised the men of the Fire Department and the volunteers for keeping the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings. Despite a close call, Legion Hall was unscathed.
Events were moving away from Legion Hall. There had been increasing pressure for construction of a Town and County Hall after so many years of the town leasing space for town business in Legion Hall. The 1959 Annual Town Meeting was held in the Nantucket High School auditorium. In March the Legion-sponsored Nantucket High School all-sports night was held in the high school cafeteria. Later that spring a Legion-sponsored talk by an FBI undercover agent about the threat of domestic communism took place in the high school auditorium. Nonetheless, the Navy Wives Club held a Valentine’s Day dance at Legion Hall and a Past Commanders’ Night was held there in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1919 founding of the American Legion.
Participation of veterans at the 1959 Memorial Day observance was disappointing. The Inquirer and Mirror reported, “The veteran’s organizations and their auxiliaries had about the smallest turnout that they have had in recent years.” Just six Legionnaires took part. On the other hand, Nantucket year-round residents and summer residents participated enthusiastically in the round of 300th birthday events that wound up in September with an impressive parade in which the Legion participated.
Since early spring 1959 there had been discussion of placing a memorial plaque for James W. Coffin, the only Nantucket man killed in action in the Korean Conflict. The Legion settled on what was then a grassy triangular traffic island at the intersection of Milestone Road, Lower Orange Street, Old South Road, and Sparks Avenue, and they urged construction of a traffic circle there. Action was deferred until the anticipated visit of a state traffic engineer. In October, the Legion approached the town again about the memorial. They had a plaque and a boulder on which to mount it in readiness, and they wanted a dedication on Veteran’s Day, November 11. The traffic engineer had evaluated the site and was encouraging that the state would pay to construct a rotary. In November the boulder and plaque were in place, the traffic island graded and seeded, and following a parade to the site, the memorial to James Coffin was dedicated. In November 1960, with strong support from the Board of Selectmen, the Legion, and State Representative Robert Mooney, the state awarded a contract for creating a traffic rotary around the memorial.
The second crisis about Legion Hall had its beginning in the summer of 1959 when the building inspector found a weak support beam and closed the second floor to public use. In September new quarters for the Boy Scouts were sought because “rumors tend to point out that the hall is about to be condemned.” In November the building inspector closed the hall completely to public use, explaining that rain seepage had rotted one of the main support timbers holding up the second floor. The building could be repaired at considerable expense, or it could be abandoned. The Girl Scout Association moved to VFW Hall on Main Street, and the Cub Scouts relocated to the Sanford House. The Legion Auxiliary held their Thanksgiving party in the VFW Hall; the Rotary Club moved its meetings to Bennett Hall; the athletic awards banquet was held at Nantucket High School; and the annual Community Children’s Christmas Party took place in the high school auditorium. For the 1960 elections, Young’s Bicycle Shop was the interim polling place, and the 1960 Annual Town Meeting was held in the high school auditorium. On Memorial Day 1960, even though the building was closed, the parade formed up in Wilkes Square.
When the Finance Committee’s pre-Town Meeting budget hearing was held in the Sanford House, only one member of the public was present. It was remarked, “When the hearings were held in Legion Hall, they were well attended.”
A committee was formed to determine whether Legion Hall could be repaired and re-opened. The town had raised the annual amount they paid to lease Legion Hall for town business from $500 to $750, and for 1959 it had been raised to $900. Half had been paid at the beginning of the year, but in view of the closure of the building, the town accountant inquired about payment of the balance of $450 to the Legion. It was decided that the balance was due for 1959, but the question arose whether there would be any town use for the building in the future
A local architect drew up plans for renovation of Legion Hall that would eliminate the front door and place two doors on the south side of the building. The ground and second floor would be opened into a single floor with one large hall and one smaller one. Kitchen facilities, restrooms, and storage would replace the stage, and the exterior walls of the building would be buttressed. This accomplished, Legion Hall could reopen to community activities, polling, and other town business. The architect’s plans were sent to the State Building Inspector for approval.
For renovation of Legion Hall to go forward, it was necessary to clear title. Under the terms of the Langs’ 1928 gift the Nantucket Cottage Hospital and the Old People’s Home held interest in the building. Each accepted $500 from the Legion and signed away their interest. Upon becoming sole owner, the Legion launched a campaign to raise funds for repairs and solicited bids for the work.
Repairs to Legion Hall progressed swiftly. Having taken out a mortgage to cover the cost, the members formed the American Legion Building Fund for fund-raising. In August 1960 they secured a permit and brought a carnival, Colbert’s Fiesta of Westboro, Massachusetts, for a five-day run on the island. Albert Silva provided his vacant lot on North Beach Street gratis, and an estimated 2,000 people came to enjoy the rides, games, and food. This roused the ire of several residents along Hulbert Avenue and nearby who sought to have the carnival shut down, but the Selectmen stood by the Legion. The carnival cleared $1,400 for the Building Fund. In future years the Legion relocated the Fiesta to the Sparks Avenue area, where it continued to generate revenue for the Building Fund through 1971.
Shortly after the carnival closed, the proprietors of the Upper Deck hosted a dinner with all proceeds toward the Building Fund. The Legion assured the town that Legion Hall would reopen in time to be the polling place for the presidential and state elections in November. The Boy Scouts made “I voted” tags to be passed out to every voter leaving Legion Hall.
In December the Auxiliary met for the first time in the renovated Legion Hall. Groups previously housed in Legion Hall returned. The Fishermen’s Association had been meeting in the Sanford House and was anxious to return. The Red Cross scheduled its next blood drive there, and the Civic League scheduled its 1961 annual meeting there too. The VFW, having provided a meeting place for the Legion Auxiliary and the Girl Scout Association during the crisis, now announced that they were leaving their quarters on Main Street and moving to Legion Hall.
At the beginning of 1961 it was learned that the steeple of the Summer Street Baptist Church was in urgent need of restoration, and a “Save the Steeple” fund was created. Even though the American Legion Building Fund was still soliciting donations to pay off its mortgage, the Legion, the Legion Auxiliary, and the VFW were among the donors to this new appeal. Later in 1961 the Legion announced that their public Building Fund appeal was officially over, but they were still hoping for further donations to cover expenses.
In spring 1961, voting and the Annual Town Meeting were once again at Legion Hall, and a three-year lease was drawn up for the town’s use of Legion Hall at $1,200 per year. The following January the Legion requested the annual rate be raised to $1,800, and the new rate was approved.
A letter to the editor of the Inquirer and Mirror remarked that the swift renovation and re-opening of the building showed what community effort can do. The writer went on to press for construction of “the very necessary Town Building” to protect municipal records from the danger of fire.
Ted Kennedy, then U. S. Attorney General, came to the island in September 1961 and spoke at both the high school and Legion Hall.
The 1961 Veterans’ Day parade was described as “one of the best ever witnessed on Nantucket,” and 350 children came to the Legion’s annual Christmas party.
In April 1962 the Legion Auxiliary held an adult membership drive and formed a Junior Auxiliary group.
In May 1962 the first round of the Sabin polio vaccine was administered to preschoolers in Legion Hall. Periodic administration of doses of the vaccine continued there in following years. At the 1964 town elections in Legion Hall, free polio vaccine was offered to all voters, and about half took advantage of the offer.
In 1962 it was voted to discontinue the Legion’s annual Community Children’s Christmas Party on the grounds that there had come to be many holiday parties organized by other organizations and churches. Nonetheless, annual Christmas parties resumed at Legion Hall in 1969 specifically for Cub Scouts, and in 1972 a day-long Community Yuletide Festival took place, concluding with dinner and dancing in the evening, “the first such community affair in a number of years.”
In February 1963 the Boys’ Club staged a wrestling exhibition in Legion Hall, and the next month the Legion made plans to make Legion Hall available rent-free twice a month for high school dances.
In November 1963 the Legion complained to the Board of Selectmen about the “unkempt and deplorable conditions around the Veterans’ plaque” adjacent to the Sanford House, one of the parade stops of the annual Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day parades. After many years of anticipation, plans were final to replace the Sanford House with the long-awaited Town and County Building. The Selectmen excused the neglect on the grounds that it would become a construction site in the near future. A year later, as excavation was underway for the foundation of the building, the veterans’ memorial plaque was in danger being undermined.
Charles Chadwick, who had been in the Battle of Belleau Wood with Byron Sylvaro and had arranged military honors at Sylvaro’s burial when his remains were returned to Nantucket from France, died in July 1965. At his burial, Chadwick received honors from his fellow members of the Legion post named for his World War I buddy.
In August 1965 3,000 people attended the 6th annual Fiesta. The Legion was still paying off its mortgage. In 1966 there was even larger attendance. Each summer the August carnival concluded with fireworks. It had become a staple of Nantucket community life.
The year ended with a Legion membership drive, and 1966 began with life memberships awarded to seven longtime members of Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82. Herbert P. Smith, who would turn 89 in the fall, had served in both the Spanish-American War and World War I. The other six served in World War I. In 1967 ten more members of the post were awarded life memberships. Nine were veterans of World War I, and one was a veteran of World War II.. The presentation of these life memberships was followed by cocktails, dinner, and dancing until midnight.
In 1966 the Nantucket Employment Bureau was located in Legion Hall.
1966 was the first year of the December Delight, a Christmas sale organized by the mothers of graduating seniors from Nantucket High School to raise funds for the Senior trip and graduation. It took place in Legion Hall and continued there through 1982 before moving to the gym at the high school.
Two enterprising young men obtained permission to show vintage silent movies in Legion Hall In the summer of 1965. The next year two other young men with summer connections to Nantucket set up a movie projector, bandstand, and light system in Legion Hall and operated “The Word of Mouth: Nantucket’s Only Psychedelic Light Show.” Featuring movies, bands, and dancing, it was an alcohol-free venue for teens, with two special policemen to keep order.
For Veterans’ Day 1967 there was a special assembly at Academy Hill School. Present at the observance were a World War I veteran, a World War II veteran, a veteran of the Korean Conflict, and a veteran of the conflict in Vietnam.
In 1968 twenty-two more life memberships were awarded to Post members. All in this group were veterans of World War I. In the fall the Legion Auxiliary made another call for increased membership: “If any mother, sister, or daughter of a Legion member would like to join the Auxiliary, we will be glad to accept them, as we could use new members, and young members would bolster this fine organization greatly.”
1969 marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the American Legion. Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 joined with thousands of other posts to celebrate. The Nantucket post held “one of the biggest and best dances of the season.” There was also a Past Commanders Night and the awarding of 50-year certificates to all charter members of the post. Three of the surviving charter members took part in an April observance. An American Legion commemorative stamp went on sale at the post office.
Alban “Kite” Sylvaro, brother of Byron Sylvaro, died in February 1969.
Early in the fall of 1969 the Melville Society held a meeting on Nantucket with sessions in Bennett Hall and a dinner for attendees in Legion Hall.
In February 1970, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, a veteran of two deployments to Vietnam for a total of 16 months spoke to a “small but deeply interested group” gathered in Legion Hall. “He was accorded a warm round of applause at the conclusion of the meeting.” This was followed in March by a talk to a larger audience on narcotics and substance abuse sponsored by the Chamber and the Rotary Club. A letter to the editor of the Inquirer and Mirror thanked the Legion for making Legion Hall available for these presentations. “We feel an obligation to provide speakers who can offer citizens of Nantucket insight into existing political and social problems.”
On April 16, 1970, the 40th anniversary of the dedication of Legion Hall was observed. Later that month, the Legion and the Rotary issued an appeal to Nantucketers to volunteer to complete the unfinished home of a local couple. The husband had begun building but then was hospitalized. Everyone willing to help was called upon to sign in and tell what material and labor could be contributed.
After many years in abeyance, in June 1970 the Nantucket police chief announced the establishment of an auxiliary police unit to be composed of members of the Legion and the VFW to patrol out-of-town properties vulnerable to break-in and theft. He already had a list of men who had signified willingness to serve.
In November the Legion requested a spotlight on the flagpole in Wilkes Square, so the flag could be flown night and day.
In December 1970 a memorial for Nantucketer Antone P. Marks was placed near the Old Mill at the junction of West York Street and Prospect Street. Marks, who had died in Vietnam, was interred in Arlington National cemetery.
The Legion and the Legion Auxiliary had been funding week-long trips to Boys’ State and Girls’ State for Nantucket High School students for many years. They now were sending two students to each event annually. The Legion also had been awarding a scholarship to a graduating senior, and in 1971 this was increased to two scholarships. In November 1972 two hundred Nantucket marksmen took part in an outdoor trap-shooting competition to win turkeys and cash prizes. The money raised went to the Legion’s expanded scholarship fund and to hospital charities the Legion supported.
In January 1972, Herbert P. Smith, veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, life member and Past Commander of Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82, died at the age of 94.
At the May 1972 Memorial Day observance, those present were urged not only to commemorate the war dead, but to bear in mind prisoners of war held in Southeast Asia.
The Nantucket Fishermen’s Association had met for years in Legion Hall but had become inactive. In 1973 it was revived at an organizational meeting in Legion Hall and re-incorporated.
A Special Town Meeting called for January 1973 in Legion Hall had to be moved to the high school because of insufficient seating. When the hall had reached capacity as specified by the fire marshal, there were still people waiting outside to get in and more arriving. There were 3,000 registered voters in 1973, and even the Nantucket High School auditorium was only certified for 600. Nantucket needed a larger venue for future Town Meetings. Plans were discussed for enlarging the high school gym/auditorium.
1973 continued with the Legion’s accustomed activities: visits of the Red Cross Bloodmobile, Boy and Girl Scout activities, dances and dinners, and the usual Christmas activities in Legion Hall. While these community activities had been quietly proceeding on Nantucket, the United States of America had withdrawn from military involvement in Vietnam. The last of the island’s Vietnam veterans would be coming home.
Part 4: From the American Bicentennial to 9/11
In 1928, when the Langs gave their historic brick warehouse to Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 of the American Legion, they believed that World War I had been the war to end all wars. In time, they presumed, the veterans of World War I would all fade away, and for that reason they named successor owners of the building. Instead, World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Operation Desert Shield, Afghanistan, and Iraq have continued to add names to Nantucket’s memorials and the veterans’ plaques adjacent to the Town and County Building and to refresh the ranks of the American Legion. There has been no end to global conflict. In order to be able to carry out repairs to Legion Hall and return it to active use by the community, Nantucket’s American Legion post bought out the other interests in 1960 and became sole owners of Legion Hall.
Just as the building had aged, so had many of the members of the post and Nantucket’s population over all. By 1974 a quarter of the island’s residents were over 60 years old, and a public meeting was held in Legion Hall that January to discuss whether to establish a Nantucket Council on Aging and a Senior Center. A call went out for volunteers to deliver for the newly set-up Meals-on-Wheels program.
The Nantucket High School Juniors showed movies in Legion Hall with proceeds toward their senior class expenses in spring 1974. As ever, there was a carnival in August. In October 1974, the Legion sponsored a Halloween Happening for children, the beginning of a trend away from traditional trick-or-treating. Through the years Halloween Happenings continued at several venues. Legion Hall was often one of the locations. In the 1980s the Fire Department took the lead, and in the 1990s the Happenings moved to the Nantucket Boys and Girls Club.
On April 16, 1975, the 45th anniversary of the dedication of Legion Hall was celebrated with a covered dish supper, birthday cake, and ice cream.
Free blood pressure readings were offered at Legion Hall on May 28, 1975. At Nantucket High School’s 1975 graduation ceremony, the number of scholarships awarded by the Legion rose to three.
1976 was the year of the American Bicentennial. Plans had been underway for a couple of years for a Nantucket 4th of July observance featuring church bells, boat whistles and horns, sirens, and cannons. The Independence Day parade with floats was under the direction of Arnold Patterson. Heavy fog set in late in the day and rendered the evening’s fireworks almost invisible.
At Legion Hall, Arrowhead Productions constructed a three-sided stage and put on performances of all-local talent. At the end of the summer, the Nantucket Arts Council sponsored an acting company from Cambridge, Massachusetts, in performance of “The Whale Show,” a multi-media event using Arrowhead Production’s stage in Legion Hall.
April 1977 brought the Nantucket Garden Club’s daffodil show to Legion Hall, featuring not only blooms, but also the works of eight Nantucket artists. Proceeds from the sale of the art works supported the planting of yet more daffodils for the future. The annual Daffodil Show continued at Legion Hall through 1980. In April 1981 the Daffodil Show moved to the Harbor House because a state primary election was being held in Legion Hall. It did not return to Legion Hall in future years.
During the summer of 1977 the Town Band, which gave Sunday evening concerts in the bandstand on Straight Wharf, held its weekly rehearsals in Legion Hall, sharing space with the Nantucket Puppet Theatre.
The Nantucket Land Council held its 1977 annual meeting in Legion Hall and continued to do so for several years.
1978 marked the 50th anniversary of the Langs’ gift of the building to Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82.
In the summer of 1978 the Puppet Theatre was back for another season, and the Legion sponsored a benefit performance for Our Island Home with many residents of the Home attending.
In October 1978 a special committee of four Massachusetts state representatives and two state senators held a public hearing in Legion Hall seeking citizen input concerning the Steamship Authority. Public meetings about service, scheduling, and reconstruction of Steamboat Wharf continued at Legion Hall in coming years..
At the urging of the Town Clerk, the Historic District Commission approved construction of a ramp at the entrance to Legion Hall to facilitate access to the polls for handicapped voters.
In the summer of 1979 the members of the VFW hosted a carnival for their own building fund. The Veterans of Foreign Wars had been organized in 1899, immediately after the Spanish-American War. When the last surviving Nantucket veterans of the American Civil War could no longer carry out observance of Memorial Day and other patriotic holidays, the VFW and the Legion shared responsibility for them. Until 1960 the VFW had quarters upstairs on Main Street. Since then, the town had been paying to lease meeting space for the VFW in Legion Hall. The VFW members had recently identified land near the airport for a clubhouse of their own with an adjacent sports field. This eventually came about, but not before a detour for the VFW to Tom Nevers Head.
Since 1966 the mothers of the Nantucket High School graduating senior class had been holding an annual fundraiser, December Delight, in Legion Hall, and it continued there through 1982 before moving to the gym at the high school.
In March 1980 the Girl Scouts sponsored a Red Cross First Aid course for adults at Legion Hall. 1980 was a Federal Census year and census drop-off-days in May were scheduled at Legion Hall where census enumerators were on hand to assist anyone with questions about how to fill out the census form. Also in May 1980 Nantucket residents wishing to dispute recent new tax assessments could make appointments to talk with members of the assessing team at Legion Hall.
The American flag flying at the James W. Coffin memorial at the Rotary was stolen from its flagpole just before Memorial Day 1980. On July 4, 1984, the flag at the Coffin memorial was taken down and replaced with a MacDonald’s flag. On Memorial Day weekend 1985 the flag was stolen from the pole at Wilkes Square.
In June 1981 Rafael Osona began conducting auctions in Legion Hall. Over decades the auctions have increased and continue through much of the year, providing a consistent source of income for Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 as other organizations that previously leased space in Legion Hall gradually migrated away to other venues.
In November 1989 an antiques thief broke into Legion Hall and carted off property of awaiting auction to a nearby building. Acting on a tip, police located the stolen goods and apprehended the thief. Unfazed, Osona expanded his business in Legion Hall in 1991.
The VFW moved into its own quarters at Tom Nevers Head and held a dedication ceremony on November 14, 1981. Even though the VFW had vacated its space in Legion Hall, the Legion and the VFW co-sponsored a Sunday breakfast in Legion Hall at the beginning of December. Also in December 1981 the First Congregational Church and the First Baptist Church held a Christmas Festival in Legion Hall.
The 1982 Memorial Day parade featured the 70-piece 215th Army Marching Band from Fall River.
In November 1982 there was a bluegrass concert for children in Legion Hall to benefit the restoration of the Sexton Farm buildings in Wauwinet by the Nantucket Island School of Design and the Arts (NISDA).
There has always been dancing at Legion Hall. In 1980 Adult Education “night club dancing classes” were offered there; in 1982 the Center for Elder Affairs offered square dancing for senior citizens; in 1983 and 1986 there were contra dances. Occasionally there would be a nostalgic sock hop featuring hits of the 1950s. In February 1997 the public was invited to Legion Hall for a combined Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras party to “have a blast dancing to hits of the past” benefitting a fledgling local magazine called WAX, printed by Poets Corner Press. In April 1997 WAX put on a spring prom at Legion Hall.
Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 received a Naval award plaque in February 1983 in appreciation for providing free space for Navy recruiting from 1980 to 1983. In June the Legion put on a dinner for senior midshipmen and officers from a visiting Navy squadron.
Concern about affordable housing was coming to the fore on Nantucket, and in October 1983 there was a public meeting with the Housing Authority Committee in Legion Hall.
Legion Hall was becoming known as an auction venue. Rafael Osona held a winter auction at there in December 1983, the Teen Center held a benefit auction there in June 1984, and the Rotary Club began holding its annual auction in Legion Hall as well. A gallery for the Artists Association of Nantucket had been built next door to Legion Hall. On a rainy day in October 1999 so many people came to an AAN wet paint auction that there was a last minute move of the people and the artworks to Legion Hall in order to accommodate the crowd.
There was no Memorial Day parade in 1986. There was a Memorial Day parade in 1987, but because no band was available that day, it took place the following Saturday, led by the 85-member Spirit of America Marching Band from the Community of Jesus in Orleans. This band continued to lead Nantucket’s Memorial Day parades through 1993.
The 1986 Veterans Day observance, organized by the Legion and the VFW, was held at the Antone Marks memorial on Mill Hill with his mother and his brother present. In November 1987, instead of the usual parade to the wharf cast flowers on the water and then to the veterans’ plaques adjacent to the Town Building, the Veterans Day observance took place indoors at Legion Hall.
In 1988 the Board of Selectmen renewed the annual lease for use of Legion Hall as a polling place. The annual payment was now $3,000. Elections and Town Meeting had been at Legion Hall since 1931, but voting in an August 1989 special election was held at Nantucket High School instead. Thereafter, both the polling place and Town Meeting shifted to the high school. Parking was more convenient at the high school, but the Legion lost the rent it had been receiving each year for town use of Legion Hall, and downtown businesses suffered from the move. The “Here and There” column in October 1992 noted, “In years past when the polls were at the Legion Hall on Washington Street, downtown was unusually busy for that time of year.”
The annual Nantucket High School sports award banquet, begun in 1947 to honor the NHS football team, continued.
The newly-formed Sons and Daughters of Cabo Verde held their first Cape Verde Heritage Festival on Nantucket in 1988 at Knights of Columbus Hall on Cherry Street. They wound up 1988 by sponsoring a benefit dance at Legion Hall. In July 1990 they held the festival in Legion Hall. In July 1991 the festival was at the VFW Hall at Tom Nevers with transportation departing from Legion Hall. Annual festivals continued at Tom Nevers.
Through 1961 the Legion had hosted an annual Community Children’s Christmas Party. In December 1985 the Legion and the VFW co-sponsored a children’s Christmas party in Legion Hall. In 1990 two hundred children attended the first annual Christmas party of the Nantucket Police Charitable Association at Legion Hall. The association’s party in 1993 was joined the following day by a Christmas Bazaar in Legion Hall, and the pair of events continued there together for several years.
Operation Desert Shield, also known as the Gulf War, began in 1990 and stretched into the spring of 1991, creating a new wave of combat veterans. On Memorial Day 1990 the Spirit of America Marching Band enjoyed a military escort by the 25th Marines from Otis Air Force Base. The following year, with the experience of Operation Desert Shield, Memorial Day 1991 enjoyed a renewed relevance. Nantucket enjoyed a large parade with an impressive turnout of people along the route. On the 4th of July 1991 the Legion and a Coast Guard delegation dedicated a Desert Shield veterans’ plaque, which joined the other plaques adjacent to the Town Building. On Veterans Day 1992 a wreath was laid at the plaque for the veterans of Desert Shield.
In April 1990 there was a Palm Sunday ham and egg breakfast in Legion Hall to benefit the Legion. Named for Nantucketer Andy Lowell, it became a popular annual tradition that continues to the present.
The Fishermen’s Association, which had been revived in 1973, had again become inactive and stopped meeting in the late 1980s, ultimately disbanding in 1993 when no longer able to pay for a meeting place in Legion Hall.
In October 1994 the Nantucket Research and Education Foundation together with Nantucket Nectars held a benefit Halloween party at Legion Hall to raise money for a water quality lab on Nantucket.
One of the venues for the 1995–96 Nantucket Dart League was Legion Hall.
There were a Memorial Day parade in May and a Veterans Day observance in November in 1994, but veterans complained that they were noticeably diminished from even very recently. In 1996 the First Congregational Church held a service just before the observance at the veterans’ plaques, and there was a request to all the churches with bells to ring them at 11 am with the hope that this would become an annual tradition. In 1999 the service was in the Unitarian Church followed by a gathering and wreath-laying at the veterans’ plaques. The town’s bells rang at 11 am. The Inquirer and Mirror ran an article in which veterans Patrick Topham and Tony Yates (Vietnam) and James Crecca (Korean Conflict) reflected on their service. The newspaper quotes Yates as saying, “The tie that binds every veteran is the sacrifice few young men who have come of age in the 1980s and 1990s could relate to.”
On December 31, 1999, as grown-ups were poised to greet the new millennium, the Legion put on a ACK/Y2K, family-oriented New Year’s Eve party so children could count down to the New Year with their parents.
In May 2000 the Inquirer and Mirror ran an article about veterans’ monuments around town. The Memorial Day parade was led by the Highland Lights Scottish bagpipe band. For the first time, the ceremony in Prospect Hill Cemetery not only honored those who served in the military, but also past Nantucket police officers. It was said that it was “time to recognize the Nantucket men and women who served as peace officers protecting our island.” The newspaper interviewed Arnold Patterson (Korean Conflict), Maurice Gibbs (career Navy), and Jim Richard (Vietnam). Jim Richard offered the opinion, “I don’t really think America has forgotten. It seem they are teaching more and more about it in the schools. They are very active in teaching about the Vietnam Conflict.”
In November 2000 the American Legion and the VFW offered complimentary Thanksgiving dinners at Legion Hall for seniors and others in the community from noon to 4 pm with no reservations required. Transportation was available as was delivery of dinners to people’s homes. Like the Andy Lowell Palm Sunday breakfast at Legion Hall, the Babe Patterson Thanksgiving dinner there has become a cherished community tradition.
And then, on a beautiful September morning in 2001, everything changed. For the first time since Pearl Harbor rocketed the U.S.A. into World War II, there was an attack on American soil, and the world would never be quite the same again.
Part 5: From 9/11 to the Centenary
2001 dawned on what seemed a peaceful world. Almost a decade had passed since Operation Desert Shield (the Gulf War). The Soviet Union had withdrawn from a doomed engagement in Afghanistan. Worldwide excitement and anxiety over entering a new millennium had settled down. In April Nantucketers gathered in Legion Hall for the 17th annual Palm Sunday breakfast to benefit the Legion’s scholarship fund. That month the charter for the Nantucket Chapter of the Sons of the American Legion was presented at a ceremony at Legion Hall. The national organization had been established back in 1933, but work on a Nantucket chapter had only begun in 2000. Now, as Nantucket’s veterans aged, thirty men with family ties to them brought helping hands to Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82. One of the aims of the Sons was to support even more scholarships for students graduating from Nantucket High School. In May there was a tag sale at Legion Hall to benefit Nantucket’s Big Brothers/Big Sisters. In addition to the traditional Memorial Day parade and outdoor observances, Retired Navy Commander Maurice Gibbs delivered a Memorial Day address at a ceremony at Nantucket High School.
Then from the clear blue sky of a beautiful September morning came a shocking attack on American soil that led to armed conflicts unresolved to this day. To the ranks of World War II, Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Grenada, and Gulf War veterans have come veterans of American actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. An article in the Inquirer and Mirror marking Veterans Day 2001 characterized veterans’ organizations as follows: “Besides being a lodge for veterans, the VFW Hall and the American Legion Hall have long served as sort of working class country clubs, a place for wedding receptions, anniversary parties, charitable benefits, and class reunions.”
While bemoaning the falling membership of these organizations in general, the newspaper observed, “The Nantucket American Legion seems to be the exception to the national trend. They now count 180 members, including many Vietnam men.”
In the changed world in the months after after 9/11, Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 carried on, advertising places Nantucketers could bring their worn-out and damaged American flags for proper retirement, carrying on their accustomed Veterans Day observances, preparing and serving their community Thanksgiving dinner, and hosting the Nantucket Police Charitable Association children’s Christmas party in Legion Hall.
In 2002 various organizations continued to hold their fund-raisers in Legion Hall. Among them, the Improved Order of Odd Fellows put on a Winter Wonderland event in order to send seven Nantucket High School students to New York City to attend a program at the United Nations; there was a Monte Carlo night to benefit the Nantucket Junior Miss competition; and Big Brothers/Big Sisters held another tag sale to support their program. The Legion’s Palm Sunday breakfast took place as ever. Rafael Osona held weekly auctions in Legion Hall all summer and into the off-season.
In February 2002 two women veterans were inducted into Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82. A few years later a woman regretted that she was so often the only woman member of the post present at observances.
Between the Memorial Day parade in May 2002 and the Veterans Day observance in November, there were two additional gatherings. On September 11, 2002, the Legion and the Interfaith Council sponsored a commemoration of the victims of 9/11 at Children’s Beach, and for Veterans Day, there was a short service at the First Congregational Church before people moved on to the traditional 11 p.m. wreath-laying at the memorial plaque, which was attended by representatives from the police force, Coast Guard Station Brant Point, and the island’s scout troops. Refreshments for participants were offered at Legion Hall afterward. For several years thereafter similar morning church services were held at various churches—Congregational, Unitarian, and Methodist.
The Legion’s Thanksgiving dinner was served as ever at Legion Hall. Originally for Nantucketers who would otherwise be alone or unable to prepare a Thanksgiving meal, everyone was now welcome to the community dinner. It remains free to all, but with donations accepted. Dinners are sent out to the police and fire departments, hospital and airport personnel, and others on duty through the holiday.
In December there were twin events in Legion Hall: the children’s Christmas party sponsored by the police and a Christmas Bazaar.
Legion Hall was as heavily utilized as ever. The VFW building at Tom Nevers had been lost to coastal erosion. While awaiting a building of their own on a site near the airport, the members were back to meeting at Legion Hall. In March 2003 the members of Nantucket Community Outrigger held a winter luau there, offering Hawaiian party food and urging everyone to come in outrageous tourist outfits. The annual Big Brothers/Big Sisters tag sale took place in April, as did the Legion’s Palm Sunday breakfast. (By this time, Legion scholarships were up from $350 to $1,500.) In May an auction raised funds to once again send high school students to the U.N.; Dads Against Drugs met in Legion Hall to discuss with representatives of the police department the feasibility of forming neighborhood watch groups and of funding more frequent visits of a drug-sniffing dog from the mainland; and Antioch Associates, a company that facilitated the hiring of foreign workers on H-2B visas sponsored a Meet and Greet for seasonal workers just arrived on Nantucket for the summer season. All of this fit in before the May 2003 Memorial Day parade.
With summer behind, the Nantucket Historical Association hosted a Harvest Social and Square Dance at Legion Hall in October. The Sons of the American Legion, in conjunction with the Legion and the VFW, retired more than 2,000 worn-out American flags at Boy Scout Camp Richard with local Boy Scouts and Boy Scouts from Cape Cod in attendance and a 21-gun salute.
Past State Representative Robert Mooney wrote a letter to the Inquirer and Mirror praising the 2003 Veterans Day observance and urging Nantucketers to “make Memorial Day festivities memorable once again.” Now was the time, Mooney wrote, to begin immediately planning the 2004 Memorial Day parade.
The year wound down with the annual Police Charitable Association’s children’s party in Legion Hall.
In March 2004 Legion member James Crecca (Korean Conflict) was appointed Marshall of American Legion Monuments to officially care for the veterans’ memorials around town, a service he had been providing on his own since moving to the island in 1964. Five years later his comrades were saddened by his passing, and Robert Mooney wrote a moving tribute to Crecca’s devotion to the memory of fellow Americans who died in action.
The 2004 Palm Sunday Breakfast had to be rescheduled to late April. Also in April Jean Hughes, founder of Wee Whalers, was honored at the Spring Fling of the Community Network for Children held in Legion Hall. Hughes was presented with the Network’s Advocate for Children award. Proceeds from the Spring Fling went to providing childcare assistance for working families on Nantucket.
The 2004 Nantucket Film Festival screened some of its films in Legion Hall. In subsequent years Legion Hall became headquarters and box office for the film festival.
In May the Legion made a donation to the Marla Ceely Lamb cancer travel fund.
It was uncomfortable to many Nantucketers that Memorial Day weekend, when townspeople solemnly commemorated the lives and deaths of American servicemen, had become synonymous with the Figawi sailboat races that took place on the same weekend. The annual Memorial Day parade was held as usual, but to divert underage Nantucket students from the nearby Figawi tent where alcohol was served in the afternoon and evening, a live-music event for teens was held in Legion Hall at the same time.
In July the Nantucket Bridge Club was formed with the intention of meeting weekly year round. Meetings began in Legion Hall in the fall and continued there for several years.
The November 2004 Veterans Day observance was once again preceded by a short morning service in the First Congregational Church and followed by refreshments in Legion Hall. November concluded with the Legion’s community Thanksgiving dinner.
Legion Hall was the venue for the 2004 Christmas Bazaar, “a much anticipated extravaganza of gifts by island artists,” but the Police Charitable Association cancelled its Christmas children’s party because of insufficient funds and lack of personnel. This with done, however, with plans to resume in December 2005.
The March 2005 breakfast fundraiser for the Legion scholarship fund was advertised as the 21st annual Andy Lowell Palm Sunday Breakfast.
The 2005 Memorial Day parade featured the Highland Light Scottish bagpipe band. The Inquirer and Mirror published an interview with Vietnam veterans Peter Sylvia and Alan Costa. The article quoted Arnold Patterson as saying, “With World War II and Korean War veterans aging and becoming less active, Vietnam veterans are beginning to dominate veterans organizations. Next it is going to be the folks from Iraq.”
As part of the Rotary Club’s 2005 centennial celebration, local Rotarians, without consulting James Crecca, created an ambitious re-landscaping design for the Rotary at the center of which is the memorial to James Coffin. The members of the Legion were assured that, “A group of Rotarian volunteers will maintain the landscape although the American Legion is welcome to make any changes they would like to the memorial.”
July 2005 was celebrated as the fiftieth anniversary of the Historic District Commission. Among the HDC’s founding organizations was Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 of the American Legion.
The Parks and Recreation Department sponsored the first of several teens-only Halloween pizza parties/dances at Legion Hall in October 2005.
Not many members of the public attended the 2005 Veterans Day observances. The Inquirer and Mirror noted that no members of the Town government and no representatives of the police and fire departments were on hand for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Robert Mooney wrote: “Our country has fought four more foreign conflicts since that war ended, and all these veterans deserve our respect.”
After the Legion’s community Thanksgiving dinner, December 2005 saw two Christmas events in Legion Hall. As promised, the Police Charitable Association resumed its children’s Christmas party, and the Boys and Girls Club held their first-ever Breakfast with Santa at Legion Hall with the proceeds to benefit the club. The long-running Christmas Bazaar had moved to a new venue at Nantucket Ice.
2006 saw the usual line-up of events at Legion Hall: a Paint the Town Red dinner and auction to benefit the Homestead, with proceeds toward painting the exterior of the historic building; the 22nd annual Andy Lowell Palm Sunday Breakfast to benefit the Legion’s scholarship fund; the Nantucket Film Festival in June; another Parks and Recreation Department Halloween dance; the police-sponsored children’s Christmas party; and the Boys and Girls Club Breakfast with Santa benefit.
The Highland Light bagpipers once again led the Memorial Day parade, and the Congregational Church again held a morning service before the Veterans Day gathering at the veterans’ memorial plaque on Federal Street.
2007 saw an enthusiastic welcome home in April to Nantucket High School Class of 1994 graduate and Iraq veteran Duane King. He was met at the airport by the Legion honor guard and a group of friends holding “Welcome Back” signs. King expressed appreciation for life in the USA and was quoted as saying: “Everyone wants to shake my hand and say thank you. People may not support what is going on over there [in Iraq] but everyone is supportive of the troops.”
Between the Memorial Day parade in May and the Veterans Day observance in November, the Sons of the American Legion set up and manned a food tent at the Island Fair in September. This has continued to be a feature of the Island Fair to the present, with proceeds going to the Legion’s scholarship fund.
Plans for the area across Washington Street from Legion Hall that were beginning to be made public in 2008 held potential impact on the Francis L. Wilkes memorial. In early 2009 more of the “Wilkes Square proposal” began to become known. The Board of Selectmen suggested that the entire waterfront development should be named for Wilkes and that the area in front of Legion Hall, where the Wilkes memorial stone and plaque were usually hidden from view by parked cars, should become the gateway to the development. Town-funded planning by Boston-based CBT Architects at a cost of $125,000 went forward despite the fact that the Town of Nantucket does not own the property in question. In October and November 2009 the Wilkes Square plans were shown to the public at an open house in Legion Hall. In January 2010 the final CBT design for Wilkes Square, complete with a miniature model of Nantucket’s downtown was presented to the public in Legion Hall.
In 2009 social media entered the scene when Nantucket High School junior Charley rented Legion Hall to hold dances there for his schoolmates, using FaceBook to get out the word.
Benefits, dances, and the regularly scheduled events took place at Legion Hall throughout 2009. In 2009 the Veterans Day church service took place at the Methodist Church. 400 children eight years old and younger attended the annual Police Charitable Association Christmas party.
In 2010 the Legion began to hold indoor yard sales and flea markets several times a year in Legion Hall for the scholarship fund. 2010 was a federal census year, and testing sessions for 240 census enumerators were held in Legion Hall.
An earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, and the Summer Street Baptist Church sponsored a series of fundraisers in Legion Hall for relief to the earthquake victims. Other benefits at Legion Hall in 2010 supported the Homestead, the Nantucket Field Hockey team trip, and the Rotary Club.
The 2010 Memorial Day parade was cancelled because so few current Legion members could walk the distance and because no band was available. An observance was held in Prospect Hill Cemetery without a parade. Explaining the cancelation, veteran Jim Richard (Vietnam) said, “There are three elements we have been dealing with: Father Time, Mother Nature, and the financial situation of the world today.” In an editorial in the Inquirer and Mirror headed “Memorial Day Parade Must Go On” the editor urged the Nantucket community to come to the aid of the veterans’ organizations to maintain the traditional parade. There was a large public attendance at the observance in Prospect Hill Cemetery. Jim Richard thanked all who attended and reassured Nantuckters that the Legion was already negotiating to bring a band to Nantucket in 2011. He stated: “After hearing the outcry of ‘no parade’ this year, I am confident that we will be able to raise the money. No one likes a good parade more than an old vet like me.”
When Veterans Day came around in 2010, the Inquirer and Mirror conducted interviews with veterans on Nantucket who had served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Desert Shield. Patrick Topham (Gulf War) was quoted as saying: “Veterans Day should serve as a good reminder for a country that sometimes forgets that there are two ongoing wars and thousands of American soldiers and sailors overseas.”
At the 2010 30th annual Babe Patterson Thanksgiving dinner, 120 people were served in Legion Hall and 80 more meals were sent out for delivery. The year 2010 at Legion Hall concluded with the police-sponsored children’s Christmas party.
The choice for the Nantucket Atheneum’s 2011 One Book One Island program was The Postmistress, a novel set during World War II. As part of the activities, a Veterans’ Gam was held at the Whaling Museum followed by a dinner dance and a wreath-laying at the near-by memorial plaque. The Memorial Day parade was back, led once again by the Highland Light bagpipers. An observance of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack was held at the fire station on Pleasant Street. The Legion Auxiliary sought donations to ship boxes of personal items such as toothbrushes, disposable razors, shampoo, and the like, plus food and phone cards to men and women serving overseas via Cape Cod Cares for Our Troops. When Veterans Day rolled around, membership stood at 100 members of Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82; 70 members of the local Sons of the American Legion; and 15 members of the Legion Auxiliary. With a schedule of benefit events as busy as ever, 2011 drew to a close with the Thanksgiving dinner and the police Christmas party.
The former annual visits of the Red Cross bloodmobile to Legion Hall had ceased as the incidence of Lyme Disease on the island rose precipitously, but in 2012 the Legion hosted a recruitment drive for bone marrow donors for treatment of people with leukemia. In April 2012 a Town Volunteer Recognition event sponsored by the Nantucket Civic League took place in Legion Hall to recognize all persons serving on town boards and commissions. Although the days of competitive shooting upstairs in the Legion Hall rifle range were past, the Nantucket Shooters organization presented an exhibition of vintage firearms at Legion Hall in April 2012. The 2012 Memorial Day parade was again led by the Highland Light pipers. In October 2012 the second annual Nantucket Birding festival used Legion Hall as its meeting place for attendees. The year drew to its conclusion with the Veterans Day observance, Thanksgiving Dinner, and the police-sponsored children’s Christmas party.
In May 2013 a call went out for more members for the honor guard of the Legion and the Sons of the American Legion. Both organizations were seeking funds to buy uniforms for additional members. On Memorial Day a veteran and his wife who were being hosted on Nantucket through Holidays for Heroes rode in the parade. In June the first annual Girl Scout bridging ceremony in Legion Hall saw thirty-nine girls move up to next levels in scouting. In September the Sons of the American Legion served food at the Maritime Festival at Children’s Beach as well as at the Island Fair. The Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention and Peers Promoting Action and Awareness jointly sponsored the annual high school Halloween party at Legion Hall. Three hundred people were served at the 2013 Thanksgiving dinner.
April 2014 saw the 30th annual Andy Lowell Palm Sunday breakfast in Legion Hall. Scholarships awarded by the Legion groups at Nantucket High School graduation now totaled $7,500. In May the first annual Nantucket Volunteer Fair was held at Legion Hall. After the traditional Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances, came the 34th annual Babe Patterson Thanksgiving Dinner. In the beginning Patterson had simply advertised the dinner by putting up posters around town, and between fifty and sixty people would come to Legion Hall. By 2014 the Legion and its large crew of volunteers were roasting eighteen turkeys and planning to serve at least 350 meals with food donated by local businesses and private donors. It was estimated that the cost to put on the dinner was approximately $3,000. Volunteers delivered dinners to the homes of people who could not come out and to those on duty around the island. “We are the meals on wheels on Thanksgiving. We try to provide for everyone who needs or wants a Thanksgiving meal.”
In 2015 a new regularly scheduled event joined those long established at Legion Hall: monthly Community Dinners sponsored by Spiritual Heritage. In the spring of 2015, right after the Nantucket Historical Association had hosted a Nepali festival at the Whaling Museum by one of Nantucket’s newest national groups, a devastating earthquake struck Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. The Nantucket Nepali workforce sprang into relief action, holding a food festival in Legion Hall that brought in many hundred Nantucketers and raised thousands of dollars for the Community Foundation for Nantucket’s Nepalese Relief Fund.
The VFW announced the cancellation of the 2015 Memorial Day parade for lack of a band to lead it, but the Legion organized the parade anyway, and at the last minute the Highland Light bagpipe band was able to come to the island to take part. There was another American flag retirement ceremony in June. Nantucketers were reminded that there is a box by the door to Legion hall where worn-out flags may be left off. The 2015 Veterans Day observance was held indoors because of bad weather. The “All are welcome” mat was out for the 34th annual Thanksgiving dinner.
In 2016 the Legion Auxiliary brought craft bazaars back to Legion Hall, holding a Winter Bazaar in February and a Spring Bazaar in April to benefit the Auxiliary’s scholarship fund. In October 2016 there was a “Rock the Dock” event in Legion Hall to benefit Housing Nantucket, and the same month Grassroots Nantucket hosted a clothing giveaway there. A large crowd gathered for the 2016 Veterans Day observance after which the Legion hosted a meal in Legion Hall.
In December 2016 the Nantucket Civic League, together with the Town of Nantucket and the veterans organizations began planning a restoration of the veterans memorial on Federal Street next to the Town and County Building. The original honor roll of Nantucketers serving in World War II had been erected by the Civic League in 1943 and immediately required expansion. Since then, the list of names of Nantucketers serving their country had expanded greatly, and the memorial was suffering from age and the elements. Upon announcement of the Civic League’s initiative, the Legion immediately planned a spaghetti dinner at Legion Hall to get fundraising started.
An annual activity of American Legion members that goes unreported but is deeply appreciated is a Veterans Day visit to residents of Our Island Home. Each year the activities director at Nantucket’s municipal nursing facility prepares a list of the residents who have served and their branches of the military. Veterans in uniform from Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 visit the veterans at Our Island Home, speak with each, thank them, and present each with a personal American Flag. Some of the resident veterans attach their flags to their wheelchairs or walkers. Others display them in their rooms. Every one of them and all their family members are grateful for this recognition.
One hundred years ago Nantucket was very different. When Byron L. Sylvaro Post 82 was formed, there was not yet a Whaling Museum or a Town and County Building on Broad Street. The building that became Legion Hall—the site of countless dances, benefits, receptions, events, and community meals over the last century—was still an underutilized whaling-era warehouse across Washington Street from a gas factory. The year-round population had fallen to under 3,000, and the local economy was struggling. The Nantucket community needed vibrancy, and the returning veterans of World War I and subsequent actions brought that home along with an unmatched record of community service that celebrates its centenary now in 2019.