10 Bars for 2020: James Ballentine VFW

For veteran members of post 246, reopening means returning home to their community 

The James Ballentine VFW Bar in Uptown // Photo by Tj Turner

This article is part of our “10 Bars for 2020” feature. Read more stories of bars that are defining this moment in drinking. 

If you spent any amount of your 20s in or around Minneapolis, the odds are high that you’ve haunted one of the three bars within the James Ballentine VFW in Lyn-Lake. Although the recent additions of the front bar and venue space (also with its own bar) gave it a facelift, Post 246 has existed in some form or fashion in that spot for over 100 years—the original post was founded in 1919 and named in honor of James Balentine, a native of Minneapolis who served as a lieutenant in WWI. The back karaoke bar, left intact with the new additions, has been there since the 1950s. 

Pre-COVID, a visit to the James Ballentine VFW on any given Friday or Saturday night would make it appear, for all intents and purposes, as any regular Uptown bar packed wall-to-wall with blurry-eyed 20- or 30-somethings. But it remains an outpost of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a nonprofit organization that brings in much of its revenue through its posts nationwide. Much of the unique success of Post 246 can be credited to its heavy events programming, led by event planner and booking agent Joe Holland. The post has hosted everything from concerts to decade-themed dance nights to charitable, community-oriented events like clothing drives, blood drives, and 5Ks. And of course, similar to its small-town kin, the post has held onto its pull-tabs, bingo, and regular karaoke nights. Post 246 has also been heralded by several of its members as uniquely inclusive in its veteran membership.

“If you see a person on site who is over the age of 50, they are probably in the building to attend one of the various monthly and weekly meetings that we host,” says Holland. “Our VFW post has a large and active membership committee, an auxiliary membership committee, and various other smaller groups that provide community services and charity. Most of our walk-up bar-going crowd is in the 21–50 age group—you would rarely see people over 50 unless they are a VFW member or friend or family of a VFW member.”

Like most bars and clubs in the time of COVID, the James Ballentine VFW has been hit hard, especially on the events side. Though the bar has reopened for the time being, the only event they’re currently hosting is VINGO, music video bingo, every Thursday. Holland says that, if bars and restaurants can remain open, they hope to bring back some DJs and stand-up comedy to the venue stage, but it won’t be returning to normal anytime soon. “Our capacity is greatly diminished—it just comes down to how many tables you can fit in the room with them spaced six feet apart,” Holland says. “There’s no dancing or ‘table hopping’ allowed.”

In June, veteran members of Post 246 got the call to assist in reopening efforts. Several members excitedly answered the call, eager to restore the community and camaraderie that had been lost for so many months. Among the post’s membership, Holland says they’ve seen older generations start to pass the torch down to younger vets. “The real true old-timers from Vietnam and earlier are fading out of active VFW service and passing the torch to vets of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other more recent conflicts.”

Although there are countless bars that lean on a devoted community rooting for their success, the charitable mission and drive from the members and staff of VFW Post 246 to provide a space and give back to the veteran community set it apart. “There is most definitely a mutual respect between VFW members and VFW employees like myself,” says Holland. “We appreciate each other and depend on each other.”