The Douglas C. Hatch Legion Branch 624 in Wilberforce is marking its 50th anniversary in style this weekend, with a three-day celebration June 23 to 25 featuring live music, games, food, and prizes.

Hilary Klapow, a member for 32 years, took the lead in organizing the festivities, which she said will honour the Legion’s rich history in the community.

“The Legion here means so much to so many people. It’s been a hugely important part of my life,” she told The Highlander. “Fifty years is a tremendous milestone. When I think back to all the celebrations, all the fundraisers – people have poured huge amounts of their lives into this place. It’s important, I think, to honour that.”

Hilary’s husband, Robert, is one of the longest tenured members at more than 40 years. His dad, Walter, was one of the founding members of the branch when it was chartered in April 1973. The elder Klapow served in the Navy during the Second World War. Stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he worked on boats about to leave for Europe, and those just coming back.

During the early years, members met at the Wilberforce fire hall monthly, with dances and other fundraising events at the Harcourt Hall. The current location, which served as a laundromat and snack bar, was bought and renovated in 1975.

Over the next decade, members raised money for a new drilled well, a lounge complete with console television and satellite, new floor and wall tiles in the washrooms, installation of outdoor lights, extended parking lot, and a new pool table for the bingo room. By 1986, the mortgage had been fully paid, with locals fundraising for a new cenotaph, which was erected outside the Lloyd Watson Centre.

One of the most generous donors during this time was Douglas C. Hatch, whose contributions were recognized by having the local Legion adopt his name. The name change was made official in May 1988.

Hilary said the Legion was in its pomp during the late 80s and early 90s, hosting regular socials during the week and special events on weekends.

“I can remember Halloween parties, murder mysteries, Canada Day celebrations. The Legion was the central hub of the community,” she said.

Klapow is hoping to recreate that spirit this weekend. The celebration begins Friday at 2 p.m. with free pool. Legion-themed posters designed by students from Cardiff and Wilberforce elementary schools will be on display, while chicken wings, nachos and cake will be served between 4 and 8 p.m. Evening entertainment will be provided by Phil O’Reilly.

Local band Half Tuned will perform Saturday from noon to 6 p.m., with a BBQ, games and various prize draws commencing at 1 p.m. MP Jamie Schmale, MPP Laurie Scott and Highlands East mayor Dave Burton will be on hand for poster judging and cake cutting.

Complimentary pancake and sausage breakfast, prepared by the Ladies Auxiliary, will be served Sunday between 9 and 11 a.m.

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Janice Sorensen has been a Legion member for 37 years. Originally signing up in Brampton, she switched allegiances to the Wilberforce branch in 1988 after relocating north. Recently voted in as the branch’s new president, Sorensen said her ties to the Legion organization run deep.

“My grandfather, Jesse Day, served in the First World War. He had a tank posting and lost both his arms. Growing up, I remember he had a hook on his arm and used to mess around with us kids. It was only once I got older that I realized the sacrifices he’d made,” Sorensen said. “My dad, James Day, served and my husband, John, also served… I’ve had a lot of fun as a member of the Legion, but it’s about respect too.”

Past president John Glassey has been a member for around 15 years. He had a couple of close friends who served and did time overseas, joining as a way of commemorating them. He said the Wilberforce branch has around 150 members, though many of them are seasonal residents.

There’s a tight-knit group who still gather for darts on Wednesdays and meat draws on the weekend, which Glassey also tries to attend.

“It’s like another family here,” Glassey said. Theresa and Parry Hiuser were regular attendees when they lived in Wilberforce several years ago. Parry is a retired master corporal, having served in the armed forces, and attended the Legion regularly after being honourably discharged following a tour of Afghanistan in the 2000s.

“We were welcomed like family right from day one. Parry was very broken mentally and physically from his tour, the people in Wilberforce truly embraced us. They look after their own,” said Theresa. “When Parry had a brain bleed and stroke, and was transferred to the Peterborough hospital, members took turns visiting him and making meals for our family. The support was overwhelming. It’s a little Legion with a huge heart.”

Sorensen said there’s been a concerted effort in recent months to attract new members, who she hopes can take the Legion forward into the next generation.

Victor Townsend is one of those new wave members. The 26-year-old jumped at the chance to join the executive last year after “practically growing up” at the local Legion.

“I can remember back to when I was so small I could crawl under the old deck and wait for people to drop loonies and toonies – I used to think I’d won the jackpot,”

“I can remember back to when I was so small I could crawl under the old deck and wait for people to drop loonies and toonies – I used to think I’d won the jackpot,” Townsend said. “I was at the Legion every weekend. It was like a second home to me. “I’m at the point now where I realize if we younger folk don’t get more involved and bolster the numbers, the Legion probably isn’t going to be around much longer. My memories here go back forever, so I want to keep the good times rolling,” he said.

Townsend recently installed a new 12-pit horseshoe set up behind the building and hopes to launch a league this summer. He’s also planning to bring back the fishing derbies he remembers participating in when he was a kid.

For him, it’s all about continuing the legacy that his parent’s generation, and those who came before, established.

“I have everything I have in life today because of the people who fought and died for me back in the wars. I appreciate that every single day,” Townsend said. “Doing my bit here and paying my respects is the least I can do to make sure people remember all the sacrifices. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”