Warm weather didn’t dampen the enthusiasm shown by visitors to the Erie, Kansas 146th Old Soldiers & Sailors Reunion. The reunion features a free bean feed and usually serves enough beans to feed over 2,500 people. Paula Sellens, president of The Kansas American Legion Auxiliary and Charles Sellens, The American Legion’s department master-at-arms attended the ceremonies.
The Sellens arrived in Erie early in the afternoon on July 19, 2019. They bypassed the historic reenactments by Union and Confederate soldiers in the city park and went directly to the bean preparation area. Erie Post 102 Commander Chris Ellis welcomed Paula and Charlie when they arrived.
Charlie explained that he was chairman of the public relations committee and was there to record the history of the event and learn the secrets of cooking the beans. “You came to the right place and you’re here at the right time,” Ellis said. “The event began in 1873 when Civil War Union veterans organized a reunion to commemorate their successful service to nation. They ate a lot of beans in the war, so they ate beans at their reunion. We’ve served beans at every reunion since.”
Ellis and the Sellens chatted a bit then Ellis excused himself. “I’ve got to get back to the post,” he said. “An Abraham Lincoln reenactor is entertaining veterans with Lincoln’s humor, wit, and the Gettysburg Address. You can mingle and ask questions. You’ll get all the details.” When Commander Ellis left, the Sellens introduced themselves to Eric Klein who had recently returned to Erie from Seattle. “This is the first time we’ve been to one of these bean feeds,” Paula said. “We didn’t think to bring any bowls.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Klein said. “The American Legion will have beans and chicken for you at the post later in the day.”
“Very few people eat on the grounds,” Craig Locke added. “Most participants bring pots, pans, and coolers to collect the free beans. They take them to other locations to eat.” Charlie and Paula visited with Eric and Craig a bit then moved to another group of men. Dusty Locke reported that he had worked at the bean feeds for twenty years. “What time do you start cooking the beans?” Charlie asked.
“We start washing beans at 8:30 in the morning,” Dusty answered. “We buy our supplies with donations. We bought 1,400 pounds of navy beans this year.” “We also bought 250 pounds of bacon, lots of onions, and salt and pepper, Ralph Brown added. “We use firewood that we cut last fall and winter. We light the fires at 11:00 and bring the beans to a boil. They cook until we are ready to start serving at 6:00 p.m.”
Ralph told me he had worked at the bean feeds every year for the last thirty years. Mark Brown, Ralph’s son, pointed toward another worker holding what could have been a walking stick. “I’ll introduce you to Jack McGovern,” Mark said. “Jack’s in charge of stirring the beans. Ask him how often he stirs the beans.”
We walked over to Jack and exchanged introductions and veteran statuses. “Mark wanted me to ask you how often you stir the beans,” Paula said. “How often do you stir the beans?” Jack feigned anger. “You don’t stir beans!” he said. “Stirring makes their skins fall off and makes them soft! The natural boiling keeps them stirred. This stick is for tending the fires.” The Sellens visited with Jack for some time then moved on to speak with Anthony Throne. Anthony had also worked at the bean feeds for the last twenty years. “Where did you get all of the big kettles?” Charlie asked.
“You’re looking at fifty-two, antique lard-rendering kettles,” Anthony said. “Most of them were donated by local families. If we get a chance to buy one at an auction at a good price, we buy it.”
“How big are they?” Paula asked.
“They’re all about 36 inches in diameter and 20 inches in depth.”
As serving time approached, guests from various cities and states began forming lines while reminiscing about previous reunions. As Eric Klein had predicted, Commander Ellis had returned and invited the Sellens to Post 102 for beans and chicken. The dining area was filled with Legion family members. There were seven past American Legion department commanders present, two past American Legion Auxiliary presidents, two past Sons of American Legion detachment commanders, the current department adjutant, and five current department officers. There were also scores of legion family members who held various offices in their respective posts and districts. Many attendees wore Legion Rider vests. Reunion traditions continued to be discussed during the evening’s activities. “How do you treat the antiques kettles to keep them from rusting?” Charlie asked Zale Yockey.
“Tomorrow morning, we’ll have Mid America Sanitation come in and pump out what’s left in the kettles,” Zale said. “Later in the day, we’ll power wash them then cover them with vegetable oil. Then, we’ll put them away until next year. They keep just fine.” As Zale said, Mid America Sanitation was there pumping what remained in the kettles Saturday morning. Saturday’s events included the Reunion River Run/Walk, an Arts and Crafts Show, Reading of the Names at Memorial Wall, Reunion Golf Classic, Car & Truck Show and the Big Parade. The parade showcased Legionnaires from many posts throughout the state. “This was a great two days,” Paula said. “Everyone made me feel welcome. I want to come again.”