VFW faces uncertain future

By KATE LUDLOW

Members of the VFW Post 8200 and Ladies Auxiliary offer a blessing before the evening meal during a recent meeting. (Photo by Kate Ludlow)

In the face of nationwide member shortages, Liberty Hill’s VFW Post 8200 faces an uncertain future as active members search for new ways to bring in revenue.

“Currently, we’ve got about 120 members here in Liberty Hill,” says Senior Vice Commander Paul Litfin. “So we’re not doing that bad.”

“But it’s not really that our members are low. It’s that our active members are low. I’m making 15 baked potatoes for tonight’s meeting, and I’m hoping that those get eaten,” says Post Commander Vinton Stanfield.

Six months ago, the VFW had to shut down their bingo nights, which were operated by Texas Charity Bingo, which was leasing the building.

“The economy took a bad turn,” says Stanfield. “You can’t make money at it if you don’t get people in.”

The bingo nights, which had saved the VFW just three years ago, were gone.

“Three years ago, we were ready to turn off the lights and lock the doors,” said Stanfield. “Then they came in, and it was a godsend.”

For a while, the VFW hosted Saturday music festivals that Litfin said raised enough to pay the electric bill.

For years, the VFW also hosted a monthly fish fry, an event that regularly brought in a large crowd, but not a lot of income.

“If we made $100 in a night, we were tickled,” said Stanfield.

The patriotism that is the backbone of the VFW is the exact reason they no longer host the fish fries.

“Well, I went to pick up the catfish from Sam’s Club. I got the box, and right on the side, it said ‘Made in China,’” he said.

The Texas catfish they had been buying had been replaced with imported catfish, and at a higher price. Stanfield had a talk with the manager who assured him the catfish wouldn’t be changing back to the locally raised fish anytime soon. In the end, Stanfield got the catfish for free that day, and they used it to host the last ever fish fry.

In the wake of the loss of their biggest source of income, VFW members have enacted several cost cutting measures.

“We have cut back on our utilities, no more cable, we got a local phone number,” said Litfin.

These days, the VFW makes its money by renting out the hall. It is currently available for weddings, meetings, family reunions and more.

“For no more than $400, you can have a Saturday wedding, and we’ll let you come in on Friday and decorate, maybe you can come back on Sunday and clean up,” says Stanfield.

The VFW also raises money  monthly through its charity pancake suppers.

“We had a lot of organizations come to us asking for a cash donation. Well, we’re kind of poor,” Stanfield said, laughing. “We said, you sell the tickets, we’ll do the work.”

Tickets are $5 each, and no more than $15 for an entire family.

“You can feed your family for $15, and we’ve done it for all sorts of organizations. The cheerleaders, Fellowship Baptist Church, and next is the Methodist church. We are booked with those through April,” says Litfin.

Officially chartered in 1992, the VFW has undergone a number of changes. Charlie Haight, the only charter member who is still active recalls when the group first started gathering.

“We’d meet up downtown at Wanda’s Café. We’d meet in Jerry Casebolt’s office. There was a building we had for a little bit, off Highway 29,” he said.

“We already had the property (the current VFW location). We were using it for Market Days, and having the flea market. We had to use that to show the bank we were making money,” Haight said.

Haight and several other charter members approached Bank of the Hills and got a loan, allowing them to build the VFW Hall. At the time of its construction, it was about half the size it is now.

In 1994, charter member Carl Williams made a request to erect a “Wall of Honor” on the property. It was unanimously approved. Today, more than 900 names are engraved in the granite, Liberty Hill residents, or those with ties to the community, men and women who have served honorably in every branch of the service. One black stone reflects the names of those killed in action.

Though VFWs across the nation are all connected, they all operate independently. Post 8200 is located within Texas District 28. Each post is dedicated to service projects within their community, as well as participating in national projects such as the Buddy Poppy Program, where disabled veterans make small red poppies, which are then purchased by VFW posts nationwide and distributed.

“We choose service projects so that we are in a position to add value to the community,” says Stanfield.

Year round, VFW members work with The Boy Scouts, The Girl Scouts, and more, all the while focusing on their main purpose – providing veterans of foreign wars with education and resources.

The fate of the VFW building is as uncertain as the fate of the VFW itself.

“We’ve talked to the City (of Liberty Hill). I was talking to (former City Councilman Charles) Canady. I talked to the City Manager (former Manager Manuel De La Rosa) and I’ve been talking with Jamie (Williamson, Mayor),” Stanfield said. “We said ‘We’ll give it to you, you pay expenses, and we’ll use it as an organization until we no longer have enough people to be one.’ Jamie said, ‘Well, I think we could do that.’”

Mayor Williamson did not return phones calls to The Independent by press time Wednesday, but the topic was discussed in executive session during a recent city council meeting.

“We got an offer from the Fellowship Baptist Church saying we want to open up a boys and girls center, non-denominational boys and girls center here in Liberty Hill, and your place would be perfect for that. They made us an offer, we could stay here, and when we’re not using the hall, they want it to open up for the boys and girls place, to get together. Non-denominational, they’re not looking at it to be a Fellowship Baptist thing. They’re paying money to the school out here to do exactly the same thing. I said ‘Well, what are you paying money for now anyways? You could have come and asked us, and any night we’re not using this place, there’s no reason why you couldn’t come and use it,’” Stanfield said.

“The third option is that we put the building up for sale. We can’t keep the money, but we have to give it to another VFW that is trying to get going,” says Stanfield. But, that might be hard to find.

“This hall does not really belong to 8200. Even though we raised the money. It’s Texas VFW, then it goes to National VFW. Texas currently has somewhere around 20 halls that they can’t get rid of,” says Litfin.

Nationally, the number of lifetime VFW members declined from 1.45 million in 2010 to 1.2 million in 2011 – a drop of about 17 percent – according to VFW statistics.

“It’s never been for us, this building,” says Litfin. “It’s always been for the community. We host when they give the flu shots, we do voter registration. The Garden Club uses it for their meeting.  We’re not a clique. We’ve never turned anyone down,” says Stanfield.

“We’re really proud of our contribution to the city,” says Litfin. “We keep it clean, we try to keep the grounds as neat and clean as possible.”

“But it’s hard,” added Stanfield. “Younger members are joining, but they got their life. We’re looking for the young guys to come in with energy.”