Legion Branch 36 president Jeannie Watson. Kimberley Vlasic/The Free Press

Fernie Legion fights to stay open

Grand reopening after $100k makeover breathes new life into Branch 36

Across the country, Royal Canadian Legion branches are closing their doors as aging members pass away and the veterans’ organization struggles to remain relevant among younger members of the community.

However, Branch 36 in Fernie hopes a nearly $100,000 makeover and rejuvenated events calendar will save it from the same fate.

Renovations at the building on 1st Ave have been underway since November and include new flooring, windows and bathrooms, as well as a long wooden bar inlaid with dozens of donated war medals and old coins.

Story continues after photos:

Old artillery shells found in the basement of Branch 36 have been converted into light shades. Kimberley Vlasic/The Free Press
There is a new shuffleboard at the Legion in Fernie. Kimberley Vlasic/The Free Press
The “war room”. Kimberley Vlasic/The Free Press
The newly renovated lounge. Kimberley Vlasic/The Free Press

Contractor Tim Robillard is putting the final touches to the lounge before the grand reopening on Saturday, which will feature a barbecue, drinks specials, raffles, a 50/50 and the popular meat draw.

The work has been funded by a $20,869 grant from the Federal Government’s New Horizons for Seniors program and the sale of the adjacent hall to Fernie Distillers.

“We said ‘well, we’ve got money, let’s put it to good use’,” said president Jeannie Watson.

“Because unfortunately, for whatever reason, all the Legion branches are failing and closing their doors and we weren’t very far behind that.

“We have to do something, we have to figure out some way to keep this place going because it means so much to all of us.”

The Legion is a not-for-profit organization that supports veterans, seniors and youth, and donates thousands of dollars to local charities each year.

Watson has been a member of Branch 36 for 27 years and for her, the fight to keep its doors open is personal.

“My father was a veteran, we have executive members that were veterans, they’re important and people have to support us so we can support them,” she said.

“If we don’t have the community support, we’re done… we can’t give anything to anybody.”

Branch 36 was established in 1929 with a mission to serve veterans, including serving military, RCMP and first responders.

The facility was in desperate need of a facelift and the sale of the hall, which had fallen into disrepair, provided a welcome injection of funds.

The lounge can hold up to 137 people and is unrecognizable following the renovations.

Near the doorway now stands a wooden bar inlaid with war medals and old coins, and illuminated by lights fashioned from old artillery shells and two large windows, which brighten the once gloomy room.

“Most people’s medals, they just sit in a drawer and now you have these forever… for people to see,” said Watson.

“We had the liquor inspector come and he says he’s seen lots of bars, but he’s never seen one like this.”

Another striking feature of the revamped lounge is the “war room” – two pool tables surrounded by war memorabilia and photographs of ex-servicemen and women.

At the front of the lounge are a shuffleboard, piano and dart boards, with space reserved for visiting entertainment, while outside is a large patio, which can seat 25 people and is popular during the warmer months.

Branch 36 currently has 153 members and hopes to continue growing its membership, but it isn’t a requirement for entry.

“You don’t have to be a member anymore,” said Watson.

“It looks so different now… we’re hoping that this is the kick in the butt that the branch needs to get people in here.

“You’ve got free pool, you’ve got darts, now you’re going to have shuffleboard.

“The cheapest drinks in town, which we’ve always tried to maintain.

“We pay the same price as everybody else but we’re trying to keep our prices down because we want people to come in here and sit, relax and enjoy the place.”

The Legion plans to host more events, including a new Sunday social.

It no longer has a kitchen but patrons can order takeaway from any restaurant in town, with Not Just Pizza crafting a menu just for Legion patrons.

The lounge is open from 3-11 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and from 1-6 p.m. on Sunday, and is available to hire for private functions.

The reopening kicks off at 3 p.m. on Saturday, with the ribbon cutting scheduled for 4 p.m. and a donation to the community at 5 p.m.

Guests are asked to observe Legion tradition, which includes signing the guest book on entry and removing their hat out of respect to veterans.

Minors are not permitted in the lounge or on the patio.

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