Choteau’s C. James Smith American Legion Post #6 is set to celebrate both its and the national American Legion’s 100th birthdays with happy hour, a complimentary corned beef dinner and birthday cake Sunday, March 17, starting at 4 p.m. at the American Legion Club. Looking back, the post has had a unique history in the past century:
World War I ended Nov. 11, 1918. Just a few weeks later, 20 officers who served in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France formed the “Legion AEF” veterans’ club. One officer, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., proposed to expand the club to all veterans of the Great War to improve morale. They formed a committee, and selected several hundred respected officers to meet in a caucus in Paris on March 15-17, 1919.
Capt. Walter L. Verge, a soldier and attorney from Choteau, was Montana’s sole representative at the Paris Caucus, where the American Legion was officially born.
Meanwhile, Choteau had organized its own “Soldiers and Sailors” club for Great War veterans on March 10, just a week prior, with Capt. C. James Smith as its first president. The members applied to join the American Legion in August of 1919, and received a temporary charter that same month.
Flash back to 1894, one year after Teton County was founded. Smith was a 24-year-old immigrant from Athlone, Ireland, who came to Choteau with his childhood friend, Dan McCormack. The Irishmen were looking for work as ranch hands, and soon found jobs with the Clark Bros. and T.O. Larson operations. Smith had served in the British Army before moving to America, but military service called to him again, and he enlisted into the Montana National Guard Nov. 20, 1913. There, he served with Verge in the Second Infantry’s “M” Company.
Smith’s status in the local community grew, and he was elected as Teton County’s first auditor in 1916. That same year, he and Verge were commissioned into the U.S. Army to fight the Pancho Villa expedition on the Mexican border for five months. After that, Smith returned to Choteau and served as auditor for about four months before being taken up, yet again, by the Army.
He was activated back into federal service on April 1, 1917 — just five days before America’s official entry into World War I. On Nov. 26, 1917, his division was sent to France under the aforementioned AEF with several notable soldiers including Verge, Roosevelt, Jr. and their commander, Gen. John J. Pershing.
Upon arrival at France, Smith was transferred to the 16th Infantry, where he served 13 months before being wounded at Cantigny, the U.S.’s first major offensive battle of the war. He returned to Choteau, where he lived out the rest of his life peacefully, actively serving in law, government and the local American Legion post. At age 71, Smith suffered a paralytic stroke and then died from a second stroke a few days later, on Jan. 31, 1940. On Feb. 6, the Choteau Acantha reported his to be “one of the largest funerals to take place here in some time. … So great was the crowd at the services that but a fifth of the number were able to get into the church. Nearly 100 Legionnaires from all over this section were present to do him honor.” His first Montana employer, T.O. Larson and his childhood friend Dan McCormack were among his pallbearers.
On May 12, 1941, the Choteau American Legion voted to rename their post in honor of C. James Smith, “an outstanding citizen of the community for many years past” who “enjoyed an enviable record for patriotic service.”
Today, the American Legion continues to contribute to the Choteau community in many valuable ways. The volunteerism of Legionnaires is critical to Choteau’s annual fireworks fund and Fourth of July rodeo. The Sons of the American Legion also provide honor guard services to veterans’ funerals and an annual $500 scholarship to a local graduating senior, and the American Legion Auxiliary organizes several events and memorial services and offers medical equipment to anyone who needs it, for as long as they need it. One hundred years later, the ideals of service and patriotism live on in Choteau.