American Legion Post 199
700 S Mobile St, Fairhope, AL
The American Legion Post 199 began its storied life over a century ago as the summer retreat and bayfront respite of the Mobile Businesswomen’s Club.
In 1911, the future Club site, known as Magnolia Beach, a deeded subdivision, was being built by George Tonsmeire. It abutted a neighborhood started by Charles Nichols dubbed Fruit and Nut for the names he gave the streets. Seeing the pleasures and profits on the bay, Tonsmeire designed the Magnolia Beach bayfront with beach access and a bathhouse at the end of each street. Today these amenities are small parking lots.
In September of 1912, single taxer and Fairhope founder E.B. Gaston, met with the officers of the Mobile Business and Women’s Club, which welcomed both married and single members. Membership was limited to 200 women and membership dues were 50 cents per month, which may not sound pricey. However, a quart of milk in 1912 cost nine cents and the average annual income was $1,033.
In November 1912, C.C. Lundy, George Tonsmeire, and A.C. Tonsmeire sold a three-acre parcel to Mariam Louisell for construction of the new clubhouse and hired architect George Bigelow Rogers to design the new building. Rogers designed many well-known residences and buildings in Mobile, including the public library, Bellingrath Garden and Home, Government Street Methodist Church, and the Van Antwerp skyscraper.
In 1913, the three-story $6,500 heart pine building was completed. In mid-August, more than 25 women and their guests took part in the opening weekend, a scene perhaps depicted in one of the accompanying undated postcards. The twelve-feet deep, bayfront porches took full advantage of the southern summer breezes from Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The clubhouse quickly became a local landmark. The dormitory-style building also included second-floor sleeping porches, so the women could spend the weekends, chaperoned of course, on the bay.
With the area filling fast with the “summer colonists,” the Magnolia Beach Company formed and developed a pier and ferry service. By the summer months of 1914, ferries brought the good-sized colony of Mobilians to their summer homes and provided passage to Club members.
In the summer of 1919, thousands of Mobile girls spent a week at what was by then referred to as Pine Needles. The summer camp was a partnership between the Businesswomen’s Club, the Young Women’s Christian Alliance, and the Mobile Community Service. Lauded as “commodious and comfortable,” the local paper, The Fairhope Courier professed its enthusiasm for the partnership. They wrote, “The location of the club-house immediately on the bay shore is delightful, and the clubhouse is designed for such use.”
On July 4th 1921, the Mobile Business Women’s Club was the place to be and to be seen. The first Fourth of July of the Roaring Twenties was not to be missed. “Close by Pine Needles, the hospitable home of the Mobile Business Women’s Club, was a rendezvous for the fair sex-not excluding either their gentlemen friends.” The ladies “worked early and late at their new refreshment room alongside the wharf, serving refreshments solid and liquid.”
Magnolia Beach was the mecca of those interested in the boat races, especially since the Eastern Shore Yacht Club was just across the road from the women’s club. Sailors from both sides of the bay called this building home until 1934.
A recreation camp for the summer of 1922 was highly publicized. “Prominent business women engaged in all lines of work” attended from Birmingham, Montgomery, and New Orleans. However, despite the much-ballyhooed event, only 25 women attended, the same number that had attended the grand opening just nine years earlier. The women’s camp turned out to be the peak of activity for the organization and its summer clubhouse.
Unfortunately, the Club’s heyday was short-lived, only lasted a decade. The building was later rented out as residences and offices, and for a few years boxing matches were held in the third-floor room. For several years it was also a bustling night club.
It became the American Legion in 1938 and was named the Eastern Shore Post 1999 in 1962. The building underwent changes over the years, most noticeably the porches were enclosed to enlarge the interior space.
Post 199 currently has approximately 600 active veteran-Legionnaires, 40 Sons of the American Legion, seventy Auxiliary members and twenty-five American Legion Riders. While the post is a military veteran organization, it is open the public. In fact, the building uses proceeds from facility rentals and sales of food and drinks for maintenance. Prior to the hurricanes in the fall of 2020, the outdoor Tiki Bar and beach stage were a source of regular entertainment.
Hurricanes Sally and Zeta damaged the structure and destroyed the pier. However, while construction is underway, the veterans will continue their efforts to do whatever they can to push forward in their mission to help others.
American Legion Post 199 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 16, 2018.
For more information on the storied history of the American Legion, visit https://fairhopelivingmagazine.com/.