ST. PETERSBURG — From turning what was once a Prohibition-era speakeasy frequented by Al Capone's associates into a children's hospital to providing community on an average Friday karaoke night, American Legion's Post 14 has done many things for both veterans and the public in a century.
The post celebrated its 100th anniversary recently with an estimated 150 people enjoying bingo, pool, music and food with its walls adorned in red, white and blue bunting. Everyone in the post, from Vietnam veterans to a star-spangled sign call it the "fun post," a community for veterans and the public to socialize and give back.
"It's a fun place," said World War II veteran Bill Horner, who has been coming to the post for 30 years. "It's a refuge for people."
His wife, Melinda Brett, was initially reluctant to go to the post, but now he says she "can't get out of here." The post is one of the few in the state open to non-veterans because it was chartered before September 1919, when Congress sanctioned American Legion, according to Vietnam veteran Ray Decker, commander of the post.
The post offers "the best Cuban in town" and hosts $5 lunches and $8 dinners several times per week, Decker says, which is one of their ways of giving back to its 360 members and the community. It also hosts karaoke and themed parties, from a Prohibition Ball to a 1950's-themed sock hop it plans to host in the fall.
"We consider ourselves to be a neighborhood bar," said Dan Williams, senior vice commander of the post and Marine Corps sergeant from 1978 to 1982. "One of the benefits of it being a veteran's post is that there's no shenanigans, no riff raff. It's all good people."
The proceeds from the events go back to the post or to charities, primarily supporting Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, which the post originally founded as The American Legion Hospital for Crippled Children in 1926.
At the peak of the polio crisis, two Legion members went to Orlando and "basically kidnapped two or three crippled kids," bought a house for them in St. Petersburg and started the hospital, said Horner, who served on the hospital's board for 25 years. It began to help children with polio and "other crippling disorders."
Brettonce served as a nurse at the hospital and said it has helped many children with injuries that "don't fall in any specific category" and who couldn't get help elsewhere.
The hospital's original building on 22nd Avenue S used to be a popular Prohibition speakeasy known as the Green Cabin, according to mob historian Scott Deitche. Al Capone associate Johnny Torrio was often seen there, Deitche said. It also used to be a citrus packing plant.
The American Legion Hospital for Crippled Children expanded over the years before moving to its new location on Sixth Avenue S. It originally had 15 beds but now has 259.
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This year, the post has donated roughly $7,500 to the hospital and has a seat on its board of directors "for perpetuity." Up until a few years ago, the post donated upwards of $30,000 per year by participating in the hospital's telethon — which it no longer hosts, Decker said. Renovations to the building have also cut into its charity budget, he said.
Outside of its charity donations, the post provides financial assistance to veterans who need it, visits sick veterans and helps them with things like repairs around the home, Decker said.
"We just work within the community quietly," Decker said. "We do things for veterans. A lot of times, we do things for people that aren't veterans. It's giving back to the community. That's the best part of the thing—giving back."
Contact Ben Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 893-8421. Follow @Ben___Leonard.