For 54 years – the amount of time Richard “Jack” McGowen has been a member of The American Legion – George L. Hendricks Post 102 in Erie, Kan., has been one of the primary sponsors of the annual Old Soldiers and Sailors Reunion. But the post’s involvement with the event, now in its 145th year, goes even further back than that.

“(The post) has hosted it most of the time,” said McGowen, who has served as post commander six times and helps chair several events surrounding the reunion. “It’s tradition. It was started way back, and it’s just continued. I don’t know exactly when The American Legion got involved in it, but I’m assuming around 1925 – shortly after the post was organized. But that’s just a guess.”

The reunion is in its 145th consecutive year. And once again, Post 102 will provide a free bean supper on July 13 to the thousands of visitors who come into town for the event.

According to the Parsons Sun, the reunion started when northern veterans of the Civil War settled in the Erie area after being offered land and in 1873 decided to start a reunion among soldiers and sailors in the area. To celebrate the reunion, they served beans.

In a history of the event written by Post 102, the idea for the bean supper came from the soldiers’ and sailors’ military experience. “To the old soldiers, beans meant the Army,” Post 102 said. “As salt pork and navy beans were a staple food of the soldiers in the Civil War, it was natural for the boys to cook up several kettles of beans, sit around the fire and tell stories and listen to speeches.”

The reunion has expanded from the bean feed to now include, among other activities, a scavenger hunt on July 9; an American Legion-sponsored rodeo on July 10-11; a kids game night July 12; live music July 13; and a run/walk, a golf outing, a car and truck show, a parade and a youth rodeo on July 14.

McGowan said that the post usually starts planning for the festival in early August of each year. “It’s in the back of everyone’s minds,” he said. “We go out and get donations from local business and individuals for the beans that we give away. And we go out and sell ads in a book to support our rodeo, which is one of the longest-running rodeos in Kansas.”

This year the post will cook 1,400 pounds of beans. “We start washing beans at about 7 o’clock in the morning, and start putting them in pots and putting water on them to soak,” McGowen said. “At around 10:35 or 10:45 (a.m.) we start lighting the fires. We have 52 kettles we have to build a fire under. We keep them burning all day and keep the beans cooking until they’re soft.

“We serve beans at 6 o’clock sharp. They’ll be probably 2,500-3,000 people there. They bring pots and pans, kettles, coolers, and we just dip them out. We have approximately seven to eight serving lines, and we will serve those 1,400 pounds of beans in approximately 30 minutes.”