|Through arson, delinquent taxes, and missing money, VFW Post 76 has resurrected itself to become a popular hangout for VFW members and the public. Photo by Mark Greenberg|
When the state commander of the Wisconsin Department of the Veterans of Foreign Wars traveled to San Antonio last week for the VFW national convention, he hauled along 200 pounds of Klemmit's Bratwurst to serve to dignitaries at a reception in a downtown hotel.
Commander Al Kochenderfer and his entourage brought the sausage and blocks of Wisconsin cheese along for the trip because it is a popular food in his home state. As the VFW's state Webmaster, Frank R. Wilke, put it recently: "Bratwurst in Wisconsin is like burritos, or tacos, here." But only one obstacle stood in their way of stuffing the bellies of VFW convention dignitaries - they had to find a place to grill the tenth-of-a-ton of bratwurst.
They happened upon VFW Post 76, the oldest one in Texas, at 10 10th St., situated on a bank of the San Antonio River in the city's outer downtown district. "They opened their doors and made us welcome as 'comrades,' which is the operative word in the VFW," Wilke said as he sat at the bar and sipped on a cold Miller Lite in the late August heat, as other members of his post roasted bratwurst on barbecue pits outside the old house that post members call home.
Imagine a place where you can buy a cold longneck for a buck on a Tuesday evening after work, sit at a picnic table under a native pecan tree overlooking the river, and even smoke a cigarette without a horde of pink lungers kicking you in the chest.
Not Dick's Last Resort. Not Polly Esther's. Not Rio Rio Cantina.
VFW Post 76.
Unlike many VFW Posts around town and the nation, the ole' 76 is open to the public, with no key card or membership necessary to kick back on the porch and chat with friends, or lean on the bar inside the air-conditioned old home that is a gathering place for 250 local veterans - most of whom served in Vietnam.
VFW Post 76 was chartered in San Antonio in 1917 by 35 veterans of the Spanish American War of 1898. The group of veterans met for comradeship in a forgotten location somewhere on North Alamo Street, in Irish Flats.
Van Petty, a local lumber yard proprietor, built a solid two-story house with a wraparound porch on nearly an acre of land alongside the river sometime between 1880 and 1900. His son, World War I veteran Scott Petty, sold the house he grew up in to the VFW Post 76 vets for about $45,000.
Everything was hunky-dory until an arsonist torched the rear of the building in the 1990s. The building's kitchen area and the second-floor ballroom were severely damaged.
| VFW POST 76 |
Hours: 4pm to ? Closing varies Mon-Sat, 2-10pm Sun - people gotta work!
• Annual Dues for VFW members and applicants: $20
• Applications available at the bar
• Membership open to veterans who fought in the former Yugoslavia, Gulf War I, Gulf War II, and other conflicts.
• See www.vfw.org
But its members rallied in the late 1990s, and raised the funds to pay the back taxes. They also rolled up their sleeves and began the long process of repairing the fire-damaged old house.
Today, VFW Post 76 has risen from the ashes of disaster, and is once again welcoming local patrons - including civilians from Southwestern Bell Communications and Valero Energy employees - and visitors from other VFWs across the nation.
"We've got people that really care now," explained Danny V. Estrello, past commander and current Post Home Steward. "We've got a great group of members."
Although it has been open for some time, the last bucket of paint has been applied to the exterior of the house, the parking lot is newly paved, and the wrought-iron entry archway has brand new neon lights to illuminate "Oldest Post in Texas." The city's only River Walk-ready VFW - the city has plans to open the river up for barge traffic to the nearby San Antonio Museum of Art and to extend the walk to Brackenridge Park - currently holds a beer and wine license, and provides setups for patrons who bring their own bottle.
Estrello said plans are in the works to celebrate the resurrection of VFW Post 76 with a Halloween dance and costume party. And the custom of feeding homeless and needy people on Thanksgiving Day will continue this year - along with a Christmas breakfast. Local charity organizations are welcome to use the post as headquarters for various fund-raisers. The facility's ballroom is available for private parties and receptions, and an adjacent dance hall will soon be finished. A grand re-opening is planned for December.
The comradeship of VFW Post 76 has endured, and the public is welcome to partake.
Although a veteran can feel at home at any VFW Post in the nation, the feeling at Post 76 is special, said Frank Wilke from Wisconsin. "Everyone here has been so helpful, it's Gemütlickeit."
That's German for "bliss." •