Turkey Hunts and Holiday Parcel Post at the La Crosse Armory

The La Crosse Armory, located at 2219 South Avenue (historically part of Mormon Coulee Road) in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is a two story brick Romanesque Revival building that was designed by local architect C.F. Struck and constructed in 1902 as the stables for the John Gund Brewing Company. The Wisconsin Army National Guard occupied the armory from 1921 to 1960.

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PVN prepared the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the La Crosse Armory; the building was listed in the NRHP under Criterion A for its 40 year long association with the Wisconsin Army National Guard. Specifically, the building is significant as a reflection of the reorganization of the National Guard after World War I, of the Guard’s increasing importance in the national defense of the country, and of the Guard’s local contribution and presence within the La Crosse community during that time period. The building reflects regional and national trends in both the development of the National Guard, the establishment of National Guard armories in urban areas across Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin National Guard’s practice of renting armories to local community groups as a means of recruitment and fundraising. The National Guard units stationed at the La Crosse Armory served in both World War I (prior to occupying the Armory) and World War II, as well as in numerous other conflicts. The La Crosse Armory was also a significant gathering place for the community in both military and non-military activities, including balls, National Defense programs, food and clothing drives, holiday parcel post, shooting contests, roller-skating, and other recreational activities.

The 120th Field Artillery of the Wisconsin Army National Guard (WIARNG) began occupying 2219 South Avenue on December 1, 1921. The La Crosse Armory functioned as much more than a home to the WIARNG. By allowing the citizens of La Crosse to use the Armory as a social center, the WIARNG was accomplishing two important goals. First, it garnered community support for the local troops, which, according to historian Robert Fogelson, often translated to fundraising and rental income and, second, it facilitated recruitment[1]. An article in the December 10, 1921 edition of the La Crosse Tribune stated that “the military building will in effect offer a big social center for the south end of the city, and incidentally, will enhance interest in the activities the 120th Field artillery units there…enlistment is invited in any of the four local units, depending on the preference of the individual.”[2]

Armory drill halls were often the largest halls in small communities, which placed them in high demand by “commercial, social, cultural, fraternal, and political groups which wanted to rent the armories for nonmilitary functions.”[3] During the first half of the twentieth century, armories served a variety of functions to local communities. In addition to hosting military balls, they served as concert venues and sites for political conventions. According to Robert Fogelson, “the campaign to turn the armory into a community center was highly successful…[in an effort to keep them off the streets] New York State allowed children to play in its armories. Wisconsin rented them to community groups for social and recreational activities. California turned its armories over to local recreation departments.”[4] The WIARNG typically used the La Crosse Armory for military training and drilling one evening a week, allowing adequate time and space for the building to operate as civic center.

The La Crosse Armory hosted many military speakers, promotion and award ceremonies, and was the site for several National Defense Week programs prior to World War II. Non-military activities ranged from shooting clubs, roller-skating, food and clothing drives, and holiday postal service.

The La Crosse Armory compound had shooting ranges for military and recreational uses. A historic news advertisement announced that the La Crosse Armory was the site of fall turkey shoots, hosted by the Battery B rifle club.[5] Community archery and gun clubs also solicited WIARNG members to join their clubs, since, as Ezra Hartl, head of the La Crosse recreation department stated, “Soldiers are…urged to participate in social center activities.”[6]

During the Christmas holiday season, the La Crosse Armory--like armories throughout the country-- was set up as an annex to handle parcel post from the central post office on State and Fourth Streets. In addition, several army trucks were added to the post office fleet of delivery vehicles. As stated by the postmaster in 1951, “From now until Dec. 31, all incoming parcel post will be handled [at the La Crosse Armory] and all city deliveries of parcels will be made from that point.”[7]

The civilian uses of the La Crosse Armory are equally important in establishing historical significance as the WIARNG’s 40-year use of the facility. This was a unique period in armory and National Guard history—civilians were permitted use of these federally subsidized military buildings. In the process of doing so, they became more knowledgeable about military needs, issues, and affairs, which built a broad public constituency for the National Guard in particularly, and the military in general. The Armory functioned as a unique interface between the public and the National Guard that translated into enhanced recruitment and support for WIARNG’s objectives at home and abroad. When Cold War national security requirements increased in the 1950s, new and more modern facilities began replacing these shared military and civic centers and civilian use of the armories was no longer permitted.

Overflow of holiday packages in Brooklyn, New York, the local armory, 1924. Source: Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Overflow of holiday packages in Brooklyn, New York, the local armory, 1924. Source: Smithsonian National Postal Museum

[1] Robert M. Fogelson, America’s Armories: Architecture, Society, and Public Order (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 209.

[2] “Gund Stables to Furnish Armory for the Military: Handsome Commodious Building Leased by State for Four Units of National Guard,” La Crosse Tribune, 10 December 1921, p. 1.

[3] Fogelson, America’s Armories, 210.

[4] Fogelson, America’s Armories, 210.

[5] La Crosse Tribune, 1 November 1931, 11.

[6] La Crosse Tribune, 28 October 1950, 8.

[7] “Yule Season Means Hard Work At City Office; Early Mailings Requested,” La Crosse Tribune, 2 December 1951, 24. 

PVN Staff