In the spring of 1918, residents were shocked by the murders of five people at the hands of Herman Wittig. The incident, subsequent arrest, and conviction of Herman Wittig went down in Gratiot County’s history as one of its quickest murder trials.
The Gratiot County Herald quickly deemed the Wittig murders an “affair to be one of the most gruesome in Gratiot County’s history.” The killing of a husband, wife, and three children took place in a dispute over money.
The crime centered aroundHerman Wittig, born in 1881 in Lafayette Township, the youngest of six children. His parents, Robert and Theresa Wittig, came from Germany, settling as farmers in Lafayette Township. After Theresa Wittig died, Herman purchased forty acres of land from his father in 1906 for $1400. When Robert died, the Wittig children appeared in probate court in 1914 to deal with their father’s estate. After an Ithaca teacher translated Robert’s letters, Herman Wittig emerged as the administrator by the court’s decision.
Soon after the hearing for his father’s estate, Herman Wittig farmed in Lafayette Township. Wittig’s name appeared in the news again in 1915 when he tracked down a neighboring chicken thief, Bard Seeley, who raided his chicken coop. Wittig followed the tracks of the robber, uncovered the remains of his butchered chickens, and then reported the incident to the Gratiot County undersheriff.
By one record in 1917, he owned 120 acres, three horses, and a cow. It also was a time where one’s German background could be suspect due to Germany’s role in the World War. Herman Wittig’s relative, Henry Wittig, operated the “Wittig Race Track” in that part of the county. In this place, horse races, wagering, food, and moonshine took place on a Sunday afternoon.
The Kimball Family
One couple, Willard and Cora Kimball, encountered hard times, needed work and a place to live. Despite his money and property, Herman Wittig needed help on his farm. The Kimballs and their three children lived in Port Huron, Michigan, before arriving in Gratiot County. Willard, age 28, had a generally good reputation there while operating a window cleaning business. However, after the United States entered the war, the Port Huron Draft Board wanted him to answer questions about possible induction into service. Despite all of this, the Kimballs made their way west and ended up in Gratiot County.
Life was not easy for the Kimballs. Once they arrived, they ended up on the farm working for, and staying with, Wittig. Local farm families, such as the Federspiels, brought food to the Kimballs to have enough to eat. A newspaper reported that the Kimball family “lived off the bounty of their neighbors,” allowing the Kimball children to visit neighbors regularly for food. Later, news appeared that Gratiot County officers investigated Mr. Kimball for not supporting his family financially. While staying with Herman Wittig, Cora Kimball kept house for him, and her husband did odd jobs such as fixing Wittig’s car.
Soon, Wittig -the bachelor- owed his visitors money, and the Kimballs wanted to be paid. It was then that a conflict erupted.
Five Murders on a Sunday Morning in Lafayette Township
On Saturday, April 27, 1918, Herman Wittig first went to a store, came home, and then decided to go crow hunting. Wittig did not feel well, later saying that he hunted to clear his head. Was Wittig drunk or upset for conflicts with the Kimballs? He visited his neighbors, the Bolbys and the Schermers, who invited Wittig in and offered him a meal. By 11:00 that evening, Wittig stumbled home and made his way upstairs, and soon fell asleep. Before going into the house, he threw his shotgun out of sight in the haymow in the barn. A newspaper later reported that Wittig had a drinking problem, and he had probably been drinking for several days.
As there would only be one surviving witness to the events in Lafayette Township, we have only Herman Wittig’s version of what occurred next.
Wittig was up at 7:00 the following morning, as were the Kimballs. They immediately continued their argument with Wittig over money that they believed was owed to them. Willard and Cora had approached Herman Wittig before about being paid for their work. Cora argued that she was owed five dollars a week for keeping house. Willard Kimball repaired Wittig’s car at the cost of forty dollars.
Herman Wittig marched toward the barn, leaving the house in haste and attempting to ignore the Kimballs again. Willard Kimball followed Wittig toward the barn while demanding payment and calling Wittig an obscenity. When Wittig reached the barn, he retrieved his sixteen gauge shotgun and warned Kimball to come no further, or he would shoot.
Kimball ignored the warning, continuing to demand money from Wittig. At a distance of ten feet, Wittig turned, aimed, and pulled the trigger, hitting Kimball on the left side of his head and neck. In Wittig’s own words, “Kimball dropped to the ground like a dog.” Cora Kimball witnessed the shooting and hid within the house. Wittig then dragged Willard Kimball’s body into the garage and covered the body with a horse blanket. In the process, Wittig emerged with a substantial amount of blood on his clothing.
Wittig later claimed that he waited approximately ninety minutes before entering the house. Once inside, Cora Kimball, shocked by witnessing the murder of her husband, defended herself with a butcher knife. She then hid with her three children inside their first-floor bedroom. Cora failed to make it out of the bedroom as Wittig pointed his shotgun at her and fired, blowing her head to pieces. Wittig also gave Cora a deep cut on her neck, thought to be with a knife or gun.
In the process of shooting Cora Kimball, the oldest child, Clarence, age seven, tried to defend his mother. Wittig hit the child with his gun, crushing his head. Wittig then strangled the two youngest children, Charles, age four, and Louise, age two, in their beds. Five Kimball family members now all lay dead on the farm of Herman Wittig.
Wittig then left the farm and wandered off into the neighborhood. Around noon, John Federspiel, a nearby farmer whose family gave food to the Kimballs, showed up on the farm. The Federspiels looked for young Clarence Kimball, who usually came each day to pick up food donations. On that Sunday, Clarence failed to appear. Curious because of how quiet it was on the farm, Federspiel tried to locate the Kimballs and Wittig. As he looked through the window of the Wittig house, he saw Cora Kimball’s body on the floor, next to one of her children. Federspiel immediately left and called Sheriff Bradford from Ithaca.
Sheriff Bradford, Deputy Clarence Wheeler, Prosecutor O.L. Smith, Coroner Will K. Ludwig, and Doctor C.E. Burt soon arrived at the Wittig farm. Although they were horrified by the deaths of Cora Kimball and her three children inside the house, the men were unable to locate Willard Kimball. Finally, Sheriff Bradford and Coroner Ludwig forced opened the locked garage where they found Willard Kimball’s body.
The question now was, “Where was Herman Wittig?” Word came to Sheriff Bradford that Wittig was at the Boyce Farm. While on his way there, the sheriff soon ran into Herman, who was returning home. When confronted with the killings, Wittig denied all involvement. Still, his tone changed after being questioned about a large amount of blood on his clothing. Wittig then confessed his crime but said he only killed the parents, denying anything about the children’s deaths. Later he stated that he did not intend to kill the children and did not remember doing so. What surprised the sheriff and the group from Ithaca most was that Wittig showed no sorrow or remorse for what had taken place on his farm earlier that morning.
A Long Sunday in Jail
Shortly after noon on Sunday, April 28, it was only a few hours since Wittig murdered the entire family. With his confession, Herman Wittig was immediately put under arrest and taken to the Ithaca jail. While in his cell, a stoic and unemotional Herman Wittig talked to a reporter of the Gratiot County Herald about what he did. Wittig also signed a full confession for the sheriff.
Orville Bowers, a photographer in Ithaca, drove out to the Wittig farm and took pictures of the murder scene. The photographs, one which showed the two youngest Wittig children dead in bed and another of Willard Kimball on the garage floor, appeared on the front page of the Gratiot County Herald. These pictures were among the first from a murder scene to be published on the front page of a Gratiot County newspaper. Bowers also took a shot of Herman Wittig while he was in jail on that Sunday. Wittig wore a late winter coat, appeared unshaven, hair uncombed, and stared blankly at the photographer. This picture of Wittig seemed to tell readers that he had little guilt or remorse for the murders that he had committed.
Swift Justice, A Life in Marquette Prison
The following day, Monday, April 29, 1918, at 10:00 am, Judge Moinet halted the infamous Beatrice Epler trial proceedings to focus on Herman Wittig. Because of the Epler proceedings (a trial that involved a young girl’s death in Alma and a house of ill repute), it would take something drastic to pause the Epler case. The Wittig Murders did just that.
As Wittig came to trial on Monday morning, some quickly pointed out that he was from a German family (America was now at war with Germany) and had substantial property. Another newspaper feared mob violence could soon erupt in Gratiot County over justice for the murdered Kimball family.
Herman Wittig’s confession, combined with his apparent lack of regret or remorse for what he did, made Judge Moinet’s job easy. Because Cora Kimball died in self-defense, Moinet believed that Wittig should be judged for second-degree murder. The Gratiot County Herald said that “the testimony and confession regarding the woman (Cora Kimball) did not certainly justify a decision of first-degree murder.” Moinet decided Wittig was guilty of second-degree murder and gave Wittig the maximum penalty – life in prison in Marquette Penitentiary.
Around noon on Monday, April 29, Herman Wittig found himself heading north toward Marquette. It would be a long journey in 1918, one in which there was no bridge over the Straits of Mackinac. The trip caused Wittig and his guards to spend one night in northern Michigan. On Tuesday, April 30, 1918, at 3:20 pm, Herman Wittig officially became a part of the prison population at Marquette Penitentiary, all within 72 hours of his crime.
Wittig in Prison
A few notes and photographs concerning Herman Wittig’s prison record exist today. Wittig’s picture showed that he finally got a shave when he entered Marquette, and he appeared in an open-collared shirt and coat. As in all of his photographs, he seemed severe and stoic. Wittig stood 5’ ¼”, weighed 145-150 pounds, had blue eyes and dark chestnut hair. Upon entering prison, Herman Wittig was only 36 years old.
The prison took pictures of an older Herman Wittig on March 13, 1941, and September 17, 1946. He appeared in a dress shirt, tie, and overcoat, with balding hair in both cases.
Herman Wittig met his maker on April 7, 1950, inside the hospital of Marquette Prison. He died from cancer of the stomach and liver and a heart valve problem. The time of death was 8:10 am. There are no records of any specific incidents involving Wittig in Marquette, nor is there any written correspondence he may have had with anyone. Wittig, age 69, never left the prison alive.
Results of the Kimball Murders
The remaining story of the Kimballs is as sad as their deaths. The death certificates on Willard and Cora Kimball state the cause of death as “murdered with shotgun” (Willard) and “murdered by Herman Wittig with shotgun” (Cora). Two different undertakers worked with the bodies, and two other burial places may exist today.
One source says Willard Kimball and a son are buried in Lafayette Cemetery, while Cora and two children are in Ithaca Cemetery. One wonders why the family might have been separated after their deaths. Cora’s informant was from Detroit; Willard’s was in Potterville, Michigan. Still, the family may be in a single plot in the Ithaca Cemetery, but it is hard to tell. In that cemetery, the only evidence that the Kimballs were in Gratiot County is a tiny, chalk-colored marker, which faintly reads “Kimball Family.”
Sheriff Bradford had a problem after the murders in finding family members. However, it is unclear why the Kimball family may rest in two different county cemeteries.
At least one member of Willard Kimball’s family was in the news in response to his brother’s death. William Kimball was arrested in Lansing on May 2, 1918, for disorderly conduct for window peeping. However, the police deemed William Kimball to be “temporarily demented” as a response to the death of his brother. Upon arrest, William Kimball carried a roll of newspapers and photographs of his brother’s murdered family.
Today, the Wittig Murders stand as one of the most gruesome mass murders in Gratiot County’s history. During the spring of 1918, Because residents fixated on another high-profile murder case in Alma in 1918, the Wittig murders did not achieve a place in the county’s long-term memory.
Instead, in our county’s history, this murder case represents one of the quickest times between a crime, its judgment, and subsequent punishment – amounting to less than 72 hours.
After almost 42 months to the day since Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered World War II, Gratiot County learned about the end of the war in Europe. Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered on May 8, 1945.
However, May was still a month of the war. News of those who died fighting for the county continued to come from Europe. There were more calls for the county’s residents to buy bonds, engage in rationing, and keep Gratiot’s farms running.
In a moment, Gratiot County and the war ended in one part of the world, but its effects continued.
V-E Day Arrives in Gratiot County
By early May 1945, it was not a question of how Nazi Germany surrendered but when it would occur. Towns like Alma announced the news by using a loudspeaker on the city’s streets. People were urged to be calm, go to church, and remember that only one-half of the war had ended. Defeating Japan and ending the war in the Pacific was still down the road.
Newspaper announcements on the day of Germany’s surrender emphasized the need for gratitude for the end of the European war. News of Hitler’s death, followed by the surrender of German armies to both the Western Allies and the Russians, soon spread across the county. Businesses closed in Alma, as did the city schools. The Courthouse in Ithaca locked its doors for the day. However, the county rationing office remained in operation. Parades in St. Louis and Ithaca moved through the streets, celebrating the end of Nazi tyranny in Europe.
Flags also flew at half-mast in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President who died in April and who failed to see the war’s end. Mail delivery stopped, and 560 people attended services at Alma’s Methodist Church. Across Alma, most church doors in the city were open to the public on V-E Day for those who desired meditation or prayer. In compliance with President Harry Truman’s plea, industries kept working, and the President issued a proclamation making Sunday, May 13, 1945, a national day of prayer.
The Seventh War Loan Campaign started May 14, and the county’s goal was to raise $772,000 in E Bonds. It soon was apparent that sales goal would be hard to attain. After one week sales amounted to only fifteen percent of its target. The city of Alma initially purchased $28 709 in bonds, most of which came from industries. Even schools helped out. Out at the Mull School, Marguerite Brown reported that her students purchased $97.25 worth of defense bonds and stamps. Students at the Mull School were also active by decorating fifty Easter napkins, making ten wash clothes, purchasing $2.00 worth of items for a refugee box, and giving $2.50 to the Junior Red Cross.
Movies made the rounds in the county as a way to encourage residents to purchase bonds. “Action in Anguar” and “Mr. and Mrs. America” were shown at the Pine River Farm Bureau program to encourage people to buy bonds. Two Alma College students, Apprentice Seaman Robert Shelp and Stanley Brink, introduced the movies. When sales at the end of May slowed in Gratiot County, readers of newspapers could easily see the advertisements that read, “Pour out your might in the Mighty 7th – Buy bigger bonds and More of them.”
Rationing, Rationing, Rationing
The Office Price Administration announced that another shoe ration stamp would arrive on August 1. Sugar rationing took a hit when the OPA said that the new yearly rate for sugar would now be fifteen pounds per person, down from twenty pounds. Lard was no longer worth ten points per pound.
Coal rationing would be cut to 80 percent of regular seasonal allotments for the 1945-1946 coal season. Buyers had to make their decisions for coal by May 15. At the May 3 meeting, the Gratiot rationing board issued 84 tire certificates, most going to Grade 1 tires. Boy Scouts in Alma planned to do a waste paper pickup in Alma on June 16. Previously on May 18, no copper wire would be issued for the remainder of May and all of June. While the county had discontinued power line extensions to farms, farmers who had electricity no longer had to worry about watching their use of electric lights for their animal units.
Tin cans remained essential for the war effort because Japan controlled 98% of the world’s tin supply. Both chain and independent grocery stores placed receptacles for tin deposits for people to drop off before entering the store.
As May arrived, farmers were already hard at work in the fields and farms in Gratiot County. Reports from Saginaw said that farmers would have an ample supply of farm labor for the 1945 farm season. Already 11,500 farm workers had been allocated to get help for the early farm season. Of these, 6,000 Texas Mexicans would arrive to block and thin beets. One group of 425 workers arrived in mid-May to work in mid-Michigan fields, with another 2,500 expected by June 1.
The United States Army continued to promise that 2,000 German prisoners of war would also be available again for farm labor, with a total rising to 6,000 POWs for Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Help was seriously needed in Michigan as 33,390 acres of sugar beets had been planted as of May 12.
Schools again encouraged students to help by working on farms. The county agricultural agent worked to place Gratiot County students with needy farmers. Students were urged to come forward and ask how to help local farmers.
Some bad news took place when a stiff spring frost followed a warm spring in Gratiot County, damaging wheat, alfalfa, and some fruits.
Sheep dipping in Gratiot County got off to a slow start due to the cold weather. A demonstration took place at Reo Sievert’s farm near Washington Center, and Guy Whittaker also hosted one on his farm in Hamilton Township. More farmers were dipping sheep at home this year rather than drive and transport flocks, probably due to gas rationing.
Farmers could get their dairy feed payments until June 1 in Gratiot County. Soybean farmers received price support of $2.04 per bushel for green and yellow soybeans. Effective May 13, area farmers had to register with the War Price and Rationing Board if they gave away or sold their meat. As a rule, farmers received a quota of dressed meat that they could sell each quarter. However, all meat sales had to be reported to the local board by the 15th of the month after each quarter. The shipping of eggs to England now changed from sending shelled eggs to dried eggs, as Europe now needed an estimated 10 million pounds of eggs overseas.
All farmers were urged to keep their tractors in the best working condition due to the war, and farmers needed to conduct a spring checkup on all equipment.
A Michigan State College farm expert, Karl T. Wright, reported that Michigan farmland prices were on the way up, with farm real estate prices 54 percent higher than before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Things that continued to remain scarce for Gratiot farmers included copper wire, tires, and lumber. Fertilizer was expected to be more available in the future, but not until after the 1945 farm season ended.
Even though America and its allies had won the first half of the war, there was little let-up in Gratiot County’s drafting of men. A group of fourteen men was inducted into the Army in early May, with a busload of 26 men leaving the county a week later. Several Alma men were in the group, including Gilbert Jones, Loren Humphrey, Verne Todd, Earl Peterson, and Alfred Mephan. All but two of the men entered the Army; the other two went to the Marines. Still, changes were coming in the draft. Men over the age of thirty were deferred indefinitely while fathers over 29 were now given sympathetic consideration. This included approximately 30,000 older men in the state. More than 2,300 Michigan men who would have been inducted in May and June now received temporary reprieves. A new p
point system soon allowed 1.3 million men to leave the United States Army if they accrued a total of 85 points to get their discharge. General Eisenhower said that he wished that men who had served in North Africa and Europe would be designated to remain in Europe in the Army of occupation rather than being sent to the Pacific.
In other Gratiot County draft news, Richard D. Gay resigned as chief clerk of the Gratiot County draft board due to health reasons. Gay had served for over three years, and Mrs. Gertrude Lokey now planned to replace him as chief clerk. Gay had previously replaced Lyle Whittier in the summer of 1942.
Men and women who served Gratiot County appeared in the news.
Flight Officer Robert Medler of Alma received an Air Medal for meritorious service while serving aboard a B-17 in the 493rd Bomb Group. He had been in a group that successfully bombed a Messerschmitt factory in Regensburg, Germany. Sergeant Russell Howe of Breckenridge was part of the 101st Airborne Division when the division received a Presidential Citation for heroism and gallantry for the defense of Bastogne in December 1944. Sergeant El Jay Wyeth of Elwell served with the 298th Engineer Combat Battalion near Zwiefall, Germany in October 1944. Wyeth saw the enemy laying communication wire only 100 yards away from him, left the safety of his position and crawled to the wire, then cut it. His actions allowed his unit to hold its position for seven hours until support arrived. Sergeant Arland Murphy of Alma received his fifth Bronze Star for being in battle in five campaigns within the European Theater. He recently crossed the Rhine River with elements of the 17th Airborne Division. Corporal Thomas Cavanaugh of St. Louis received the Bronze Star for service with the 610th Ordinance Base while serving in a maintenance group. Cavanaugh’s mother, Adele Cavanaugh, kept St. Louis and Alma readers aware of the names of local boys through a column she wrote in those newspapers.
Sergeant Bernie Eagon of Alma was involved with the 8th Air Force when it dropped tons of food to civilians in parts of Holland. The Hollanders wrote messages like “Thank You” on the tops of their houses and waved flags while hoping for food and supplies. Eagon saw how German soldiers ducked beside trees when his plane went over. Corporal Harold Stadleberger of Sumner and Sergeant Maurice Pearson of Ashley belonged to the 609th Ordinance in England. Stadleberger served as a truck driver and Pearson as an automotive mechanic. Corporal Otto Christensen was with a Graves Registration Company somewhere in Europe. From Alma, he was the manager of Packard Store in town. The Gratiot County Herald featured a picture of three Carter boys from Breckenridge, Corporal Wayne Carter (Army), Bill Carter (Marines), and Lieutenant Clifford Carter (Navy). All were featured on the front page. Clifford was somewhere in the Atlantic, while Bill served in the South and Central Pacific. Private Steve Hanus of Ashley helped another soldier from the 260th Infantry captured Germans while near the front in Germany. It was odd because both Hanus and his compatriot were cooks who took an afternoon off in an attempt to round up enemy prisoners. It worked when their first captured German was told he would not be killed if he told his fellow soldiers to surrender. They did – all eleven of them, but Hanus was shocked when they got back to camp, and the eleven were identified as French prisoners that the Germans had once held. No one expressed any hard feelings, and they all parted ways. Private Walter Thrush of Ithaca arrived in Austria as the United States Third Army moved from Ansbach toward Hitler’s Redoubt, liberating Allied prisoners and capturing over 14,000 Germans. Sergeant Kenneth Brown of Alma, a 491st Heavy Bomb Group member, flew seven combat missions. He had been in the Army for thirteen months and operated as a turret gunner aboard a B-24. Private Charles Marrin of Alma left for Camp Meade, Maryland, after a twelve-day leave. He entered the service in December 1944 and finished training with the Armored Division at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Out in the Pacific, Private Elwyn Hill, an Alma High School graduate, helped establish the Okinawa beachhead. He had been there one week with the 96th Infantry Division but then had to be hospitalized with jaundice. Billy Newson of St. Louis was only seventeen when he enlisted in the Navy, and he was now a carpenter’s mate in San Diego, California. Newson was assigned to the USS Kalinin Bay. Garfield Harris of Alma received an air medal for service as a radioman-gunner on a carrier-based dive bomber. Harris saw action in the Marianas, Philippines, Carolinas, and Formosa. Harris was also one of 100 Navy men who were invited to attend breakfast at a USO club on Mother’s Day. Each man received a personal letter from their mother.
Seaman First Class Richard Carter of Ithaca was aboard a ship that spent four days close to the Japanese mainland. Carter’s flat top sent waves of carrier planes into Japan for bombing missions against the Kyushu and Honshu Islands. Herbert Wright of Alma was one of three Michigan men on a 26 man patrol on the small Philippine Island of Glan. The group worked as a reconnaissance unit of the 31st Division and spent time with the people, whose women all wore special dresses, sponsored a special barbeque, and allowed the Americans to ride horses. George Divish of Middleton was promoted to Ship Serviceman-Laundry Third Class on May 1. Divish came home on a thirty-day leave in March but now was back somewhere in the Pacific. Motor Machinist George Mitchell of Ashley, age 39, was reassigned to the Atlantic Fleet’s Minecraft training center at Little Creek, Virginia. Mitchell previously served twenty months in African waters, then six months sea duty in the Southwest Pacific. Machinist Mate 3rd Class Charles Dolloff of Alma returned to Navy duty after a thirty-day leave. Dolloff and his fellow crew on a destroyer survived a Japanese suicide bomber’s attack. Dolloff had previously seen combat in several places such as Attu, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, and the Philippines and the invasion of Iwo Jima. Private Dan Davis of the United States Marines saw the fighting on Iwo Jima. Davis slept the night in his clothes before the attack and watched the bombardment before Marines went ashore. After two days, Davis went ashore as part of the reserves and slept along a ridge with caves. Davis later wrote his wife that he fought his biggest enemy to fulfill his duty, which was his fears. Corporal Bill Stewart of Alma also was on Okinawa. He wrote his wife about living in Japanese houses, watching the native women doing heavy work, carrying bundles on sticks across their shoulders. Corporal Leo Hoffman from St. Louis appeared in a picture on the front page of the May 24 issue of the Alma Record. He was among the first aviation men to land on the beach to help the Marine aircraft unit and served as an ordinance man. Captain Gordon Netzorg of Alma met his cousin, Sergeant Richard Soule, on Kwajalein, one of the Marshall Islands. The meeting took place when Netzorg’s plane stopped for refueling. Lieutenant Jack Redman continued to send long letters home to his family from his post in India. Netzorg now had his bearer who did his sewing, shoes and provided for his personal needs. Soldiers rented bicycles for $1.50 a week, however, sanitation was terrible everywhere, with malaria and smallpox being very prevalent.
Women from Gratiot County also continued to serve. Miss Beryle Virginia Bauer of Riverdale became a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps. Bauer graduated from Grace Hospital School of Nursing in Detroit and was now assigned to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. Private First Class Esther Bott from Breckenridge joined the Air WACs in late 1944 and now was in Alaska after being stationed in Great Falls, Montana. Private Edna Webb of Alma received the Good Conduct Medal for service as a WAC. She graduated from Alma High School and was a parachute inspector at Romulus Army Air Field. Ensign Betty Miller from Ashley passed her physical examination at Great Lakes and was on her way to Portsmouth, Virginia, to enter hospital nursing. Prior to this, Miller became a Registered Nurse at Hurley Hospital in Flint.
Finally, Sergeant Merle Chapin of Ashley became Gratiot County’s first veteran to be released from the Army on its new demobilization program. Sergeant Chapin was home on leave from the African and Italian war fronts. He was among the first 2500 men to come home to civilian life under the point plan.
The War-Time Initials: WIA, MIA, KIA, POW
The Wounded: WIA
While news about the number of Gratiot County’s wounded seemed lower in May, several men still suffered from the effects of the fighting. Sergeant Merton Peacock of St. Louis arrived at Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek, and his family members drove down to see him. One of five Peacock sons in the service, Merton, was wounded in Belgium in January after he had returned to duty from suffering earlier wounds. Private Leland Troub of North Shade had been injured in April while in France. Troub was now in a French hospital after being hit in the shrapnel in the hip. Private Hugh Cole, who had been in Italy for over two years, was seriously wounded in action. Cole was responding to treatment and was said to be recovering normally. Another Gratiot soldier, Lieutenant H.M. Dickinson of Middleton, also had been wounded in Italy and was now in the hospital. He had been with the 34th Division of the 5th Army in Italy for over 14 months. Private Berfield Acker of Alma, while serving in the infantry on Okinawa, took a Japanese bullet through his back and neck. Acker, who had previously seen campaigns in Attu and Leyte, wrote home to tell his parents about his condition. Lieutenant Robert Ankney of Alma wrote home that his luck “ran out” on April 25 on Okinawa. Ankney was evacuated after being hit in the leg and under his right eye by shrapnel. He was aboard the USS Comfort when the ship was hit by a Japanese suicide plane. A short distance from where the plane crashed, Ankney said a wall in his ward was caved in, but Ankney was unhurt. Private Enterline from Sumner Center had been wounded on Okinawa with the 383rd Infantry. His wife Doris received word that her husband had been wounded on April 4, but no other news was available. Private Kenneth Dancer of Wheeler was wounded in the hand while in Germany, but Dancer said it was not serious. He served with the 10th Armored Division and had been overseas since September 1944. Private Lorne Loomis of Alma was hospitalized in England after receiving wounds received in Germany on April 12. He had been a milk truck driver in Alma before entering the service. Private Joseph Nixon of Alma received the Purple Heart for wounds he got while taking German prisoners to an assembly area. He was now recuperating at the 127th General Hospital in France.
Those Who Paid the Ultimate Price: KIA
More details came in about Private Robert Oberlin, who died in Luzon while with the 187th Glider Infantry. His commanding officer wrote to Oberlin’s parents that he died while fighting at Mount Macolod and that he had been killed by enemy shellfire. Tech/5 Ernie Earegood of St. Louis died March 8, and a letter from his captain arrived in St. Louis. Earegood was killed near Lintfort, Germany, on the Cologne Plain, near the Roer and Rhine rivers. An enemy artillery shell hit the house Earegood lived in at the time, and he had been buried in Margraten, Holland. Private Fay Hopkins was killed on Luzon on April 12. Hopkins attended Alma Schools before he moved to Big Rapids. Private Dale Gelston died in Southern Germany in late April, and his funeral took place in Highland Park, Michigan. Previously wounded and hospitalized after being in Europe for only 16 weeks, Gelston was interred in Germany. His father had once been a pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Alma. Private Raymond Myers of Breckenridge died on April 11, and his memorial service took place in Wheeler. Myers saw action on D-Day in Normandy, went through Holland, and had entered Germany when he was killed. Sergeant Anthony Bajena from Alma died from scrub typhus in New Guinea. The news shocked his family as Bajena had been overseas 38 months with the Coast Guard Artillery Corps when he died. Before entering the service on May 5, 1941, Bajena worked at the waterworks in Alma. Equally shocking was the news of the death of young S/2c Cardwell Hoard of Ithaca. Hoard went to sea in early June 1944 aboard the USS Bunker Hill, but he came home for a short leave in December. Hoard died when his ship was hit by a Japanese suicide plane, and his body was buried at sea. Sergeant Walter Moore of Alma died in action in early January in France with the 12th Armored Division. Moore had been previously listed as missing until his wife received a telegram from the war department telling her that they now announced that Moore was dead. Information was learned about Corporal Oren Patterson’s death in early March after he crossed the Remagen Bridge. One day after crossing it and establishing a position, an artillery shell killed him. Patterson had been overseas only three weeks. Sergeant Melvin Lutz of St. Louis was killed on April 18 in Germany. He had been reported as missing. Lutz served in the 104th Infantry and was engaged to his girlfriend on her seventeenth birthday. The couple planned to marry as soon as Lutz returned home. Finally, after five years in the service and having only suffered minor facial wounds, Sergeant Hugh Rodenbo was killed in Germany in a motorcycle accident when he collided with a truck. Rodenbo was married to Phyllis Franks, a British ATS girl, and they had a daughter. Rodenbo was buried in a temporary American cemetery.
They Were Released: POWs Lieutenant William Gorringe of Alma, a POW since February 24, 1945, had been liberated from a German camp. John Ellis Mix of Alma was released from the Moosburg POW camp. A National Guardsman, Mix had been missing in Belgium for three months until his wife learned of his capture. Sergeant James Rockefellow, formerly of Alma, sent home an exciting letter to his grandmother concerning his liberation. He was now getting three meals a day and having a good bed to sleep in while being in a Belgian hospital and recovering from an infected foot. Sergeant Nolan Howe of Breckenridge sent word that he had been released. Howe was reported missing in September 1944. Private Paul Paulson was among some of the first Americans liberated from a German camp who arrived home in Gratiot County. His wife and daughter had been staying in New Haven. Sergeant John Kupres celebrated his liberation on April 25 by sending a letter to his parents. He wrote, “It is sure nice to be back with the Americans again and eating good food after having been a prisoner of the Germans for what seemed like ages.” He added, “I was so glad to see the Yanks who liberated us that I cried.” Private Marshal Mockridge’s mother received the good news that her son was now free. Although now in a European hospital, Mockridge let the people in Wheeler know that he was okay. Sergeant James Grosskopf of Alma was freed. He had spent more time in a German prisoner of war camp than many other Gratiot service members. Grosskopf, born and reared in Alma, was captured after his B-17 went down in a raid over Emden, Germany, and he had been a POW sinc
since December 11, 1943. “All well and safe. Hope to see you soon,” was the message sent via the Red Cross by Lieutenant Dale Beery of St. Louis. His wife had not heard from him since Christmas when a note arrived from Stalag Luft 111. Lieutenant Beery had not yet seen his young son. News about the safety and liberation of Johnnie Gall of St. Louis reached his family. On August 9, 1944 – six months to the day he left St. Louis for training camp and his daughter’s first birthday – Gall was reported missing in action in Europe. A telegram from Gall did not say where he was, but this was good news for his family. Information about other Gratiot POWs also appeared in county newspapers. Sergeant George Jenkins (Breckenridge), Sergeant Herbert Whittaker (home not listed), Sergeant Edmund Moreno (Arcada Township), Private Jack Little (North Star), Private Irvin Morey (Breckenridge), and Sergeant Dean Button (Alma) also were POWs who had been freed. Their families now planned and hoped for a quick reunion in Gratiot County.
And So We Do Not Forget From May 1945
At Fulton Schools, Norma Downing was Valdictorian and Doloris Litwiller was Salutatorian for the Class of 1945. Downing planned to work at Bordens in Perrinton after graduation while Litwiller planned to attend Lansing Business University in the fall…”A Song to Remember,” starring Paul Muni and Merle Oberon played at the Strand Theatre in Alma. Admission was 12-35 cents, tax included…Michigan school districts could expect an additional $7 per pupil in state aid for the next school year…Dr. Richard Waggoner spoke to Gratiot County nurses on the topic of “Caudalanesthesia” at the home of Mrs. Albin Rademacher…the Gratiot County Council of Veterans Affairs was told that 80,000 Michigan men would be discharged with the ending of the war in Europe. Living quarters, emergency counseling, and returning men to work were all issues that Michigan faced in 1945…Chapter 108 of the Blue Star Mothers met May 1 in North Star. The group raised $1.50 through a contest of discovering who had a dime hidden in their piece of cake…Alma was in process of locating a new city water well as the test well drilled at Delaware and North streets was found to be inadequate. The next location to drill would be on the east side of Alma…Workers at the St. Louis Creamery delayed a strike and continued their work when employees and management agreed on a date for an election. Workers voted 16-6 to delay the strike. A week later, employees voted 22-3 in favor of joining the American Federation of Labor, Teamsters Union…Arthur Dietz, who operated the City News Stand in Alma for 23 years, sold his business to Kenneth Carter. The News Stand resided at 222 ½ East Superior Street…
A county TB clinic was scheduled on May 29 at Alma Junior High School. Anyone who wanted to be x-rayed needed to call Miss Cecil Wolfe, Alma public health nurse, just telephone 211…the Alma Commission decided that the city needed a new fire truck – and preferably two. The anticipated cost for both would be $7,000 -$10,000…A total of 107 Alma seniors graduated on May 31 at Alma High School…Various war souvenirs appeared in the north display window at the Alma Consumers Power Company. Privates Lester Higgins and Nolan Conrad sent home German knives, bayonets, a German flag, and other articles from Germany. An elaborate German officer’s uniform appeared on the display of the window of Star Dry Clears on East Superior Street…The first Lobdell Emery employee to receive a paid vacation for the summer was Private Donald McGillis, Jr. McGillis came home on his way to Fort Meade, Maryland, on a ten-day furlough…Starting July 1, all newspapers mailed to men in the Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard must be wrapped in a specially marked wrapper. This new rule planned on conserving shipping space…The Gratiot County Board of Supervisors acted upon its new plan to meet monthly. A total of 18 standing committees reported to the supervisors…A fire and explosion destroyed a large tool shed and its contents that belonged to August Neitzke in Breckenridge. The fire resulted in $8,000 in losses, and Neitzke was lucky to escape without suffering severe burns.
The Lester Allen woods in Emerson Township hosted 150 Boy Scouts from various Gratiot troops for a weekend “camporee.” Gratiot County would receive new maps from the State Highway Department. The map highlighted state trunk lines in red and county roads in black…Ithaca High School’s senior prom took place in the school auditorium. For this year, all high school students could attend, and several alumni service members also attended. The St. Johns High School orchestra furnished the music…Memorial Day observances took place in Ithaca and North Star, led by the Orin Riker Post of the American Legion. A service also took place on Sunday at the Breckenridge Congregational Church…Poppy Day took place in Gratiot County on the last Saturday in May…Ithaca High School graduated 49 seniors on May 31. Before this, the seniors held their annual picnic at Crystal Lake on May 28…President Truman asked Gratiot County to observe Flag Day on June 14. A notice appeared in the May 31 issue of the Alma Record…
Road oil would be available for laying of dust on country roads this summer. Property owners who wanted the oil had to pay 1.75 cents per square yard of the road to be treated. Contact the Road Commission in Ithaca for your order…The Ithaca School newspaper, The Fortnight Growler, was one of 127 national winners in the eighth annual school press project that focused on the topic of tuberculosis…The Ithaca business section had new flags to fly for Memorial Day due to help from the American Legion Post and Boy Scout Troop 111…Melvin Fisk of Ashley rolled his car three times due to an accident while coming home from work on May 8. Fisk attempted to avoid hitting a flock of pheasants in the road. Fisk suffered injuries to his back and hip, and was forced to go to the Alma hospital. Special Mother’s Day services took place at the Middleton Methodist Church. Each mother in attendance received a flower in their honor. Mrs. Alice Wright and Mrs. Alice Bolyard received plants…Ashley High School graduation took place on May 24 in the school auditorium. This year to Niagara Falls, the annual senior trip would take place after graduation on May 26…Classes ended at the Beebe School on May 12 with a picnic dinner. It was announced that Mrs. Maurice Buckingham would return as a teacher in the fall…Eight students graduated from the North Star School on May 22. Commencement took place at the Church of the Nazarene…Over at the Ideal Theatre in Ithaca, “Around the World,” starring Kay Kyser and Joan Davis played to audiences…Ithaca’s Memorial and Community Building Program continued to ask the public about ideas for a Memorial Building…Irene Robbe flew Grace Johnson from the farm up to Johnson’s Airport. Freda Zimmerman and Harmon Gruesbeck became two more members of the Honor Roll of Solo Students…If materials could be obtained, automotive industry leaders said that 200,000 new automobiles would be produced in 1945, starting July 1.
And that was Gratiot County’s finest hour during May 1945.
Above: Alma Daily Record Leader front page from August 8, 1974.
It was a time many in Gratiot County wanted to forget, a seemingly endless drama that played out in America for over two years. The end came with public disgrace, and many who remember the 1970s knew its name, “Watergate.”
This crisis started in June 1972 with a group of “plumbers” who organized break-ins at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Within the following year, Senate Hearings investigated the break-in to the DNC headquarters. Soon, connections between the plumbers and the White House emerged. As Senate hearings took place, Americans learned that the President of the United States kept secret tapes of his meetings in the Oval Office.
The existence of the Watergate Tapes would be the center of a tug of war for almost two years between Richard Nixon and the Senate. Eventually, the President would fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor in what was called “The Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973. To add to the nation’s problems, the Vice President of the United States, Spiro T. Agnew, resigned due to a personal scandal, which led to the nomination and appointment of a Michigan Congressman to fill Agnew’s place.
When Watergate finally ended, for the first time in history, the United States President resigned rather than be removed from office. The word most associated with this time, “Watergate,” was well known among Gratiot County residents from 1972-1974.
For many in Gratiot County, a traditionally conservative Republican stronghold, it was hard to believe that President Richard M. Nixon would ever intentionally deceive or lie to the American public. Indeed the President of the United States would never swear in private, conduct himself in ways that were un-Presidential, or commit a felony to cover up an investigation? Yet, by the time the Watergate Scandal had run its course, these were the things that people in Gratiot County eventually learned. Despite the President’s infamous saying to the contrary in a 1973 news conference, Richard M. Nixon appeared to be a crook.
An advertisement in the Daily Record Leader attempted to sell readers a 1973 news yearbook with the title “A Year of Internal Struggle.” The title was an apt description of America that year, as it featured the resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew for income tax evasion. Several people in Gratiot County spoke out about Agnew’s crime and resignation, and all of them expressed disappointment in Agnew. Comments ranged from Arnold Bransdorfer’s lament (“It’s a tragic thing for our country. However it reveals a system of justice in our country that exempts no citizen”) to St. Louis Police Chief Herb Wolford’s discouragement (“I’m very disappointed in Agnew…from the way he first defended himself against charges, I didn’t think he was guilty. It’s a dark day in our history”). A pair of construction workers in Alma both thought Agnew should no longer be Vice President. One commented, “It proves there are felons in the United States government.” An Alma housewife wondered what was going on in America’s future with the President involved in Watergate and the Vice President resigning in disgrace. An Alma College student said that Agnew was just an example of crimes that went on all the time with politicians. In his opinion, Agnew just got picked on by other politicians and the press.
Still, in early 1974 a steady stream of Nixon support existed in Gratiot County. Keith Kellogg, age 81 and a former State Representative, wrote one of the first letters to the editor in the Daily Record Leader that expressed continued support for Nixon. Kellogg argued that other Presidents had suffered scandals – and that President Richard Nixon was also facing a hostile press and still was “answering their vindictive, hatred-filled questions” at press conferences. Kellogg ended his letter with what would be a saying from Republicans and Nixon supporters in Gratiot County for the next few months: “Nixon…Keep him on the job.”
However, starting in early January 1974, there were also voices in Michigan calling for Nixon’s impeachment. A rally of 75 people, organized by Michigan Citizens for Impeachment, took place in downtown Bay City. In response to the continual Watergate investigations, some in Gratiot County organized themselves as a group called Michigan Citizens for Support of President Nixon. Sally McKellar became the organization’s leader after being appointed by Gratiot County Republican Chairman Richard J. Allen. Allen stated that many of these support groups were springing up all over the state, all with people proclaiming their support for President Nixon with full-page advertisements. McKellar quickly requested an appeal to the Gratiot County public to buy a full-page ad in county newspapers. She later said that within a few hours, she had the money in hand to purchase the ad.
Within days, an advertisement in the Daily Record Leader asked county residents who supported Nixon to cut out one of four coupons to mail to representatives in Washington, D.C. An article below Nixon’s picture reminded readers that Nixon had won the 1972 election with over 60 percent of the vote. He had been successful with American foreign policy, and that while he made mistakes, “(Nixon) has done nothing to betray our trust.” According to the advertisement, Congressional adversaries and an anti-Nixon news media both “dramatized and prolonged” events related to the Watergate break-in. A total of 59 “contributors” in Gratiot County signed their names in support of Nixon, along with two local businesses and “several anonymous donors.”
Within two days, the coupons of support for Nixon had flooded into Congressman Elford A. Cederberg’s office. Cederberg told the Daily Record Leader that he had 80 coupons and several letters of support for President Nixon. These writers indicated to Cederberg that Gratiot County wanted Watergate to end and that it needed to end swiftly. To Cederberg, these Gratiot County coupons and letters mandated clearing the President, getting the political crisis over with, and moving on. Senator Robert Griffin also received “signed coupons” of support – more than 1,150 of them, as well as 177 letters of support for Nixon. A story circulated at that time that Griffin would rather resign as Senate Republican Whip than impeach Nixon. However, Griffin’s aide denied the report as untrue, and Griffin continued supporting the President.
Unfortunately, events in the late winter of 1974 proved that moving on from Watergate would not be easy for Gratiot County people. As more letters appeared in Gratiot County newspapers, support for the President seemed to be more divided. Some local citizens proclaimed unwavering support for the President; others voiced their belief that Nixon should be impeached. Another thought about the crisis was that Nixon should say that he had terrible aides around him and admit that their actions brought on the mess. In other words, he should blame his advisors.
In February 1974, it appeared that Michigan Republicans were becoming concerned about the upcoming state primaries and elections in the late summer and fall. Republicans planned to tell Michigan voters that there was much more for America to be concerned about other than Watergate, and voters should get Watergate out of the way. Still, Michigan voters sent a message during the special February election for a successor for United States Representative Gerald R. Ford, who had become Nixon’s Vice-President. Since World War I, Ford’s district, the Michigan 5th District in Grand Rapids, had been in Republican hands. All of that changed when Democrat Richard F. VanderVeen upset the Republican candidate. After this shocking defeat, even Michigan Governor William G. Milliken now recognized that the public voted for Democrat VanderVeen as a referendum on Watergate. Michigan voters started to send a message – they had had enough of Richard Nixon and enough of Watergate.
In Gratiot County, potential apathy about politics due to Watergate now concerned Republican leaders. In response, Vice President Ford attempted to motivate Gratiot County Republicans to campaign hard in the upcoming elections. On March 30, Ford planned to speak by phone to Gratiot County Republicans at the Lincoln Day Dinner at the Alma Travel Lodge Motel. A total of 161 attendees listened to a taped recorded message in which Ford answered five questions that had previously been submitted to him. However, Ford made no mention of Watergate, and he stated that 1974 would not be a bad year for Republicans – if the party got out and worked for county candidates. “If we have the determination (this fall),” Ford proclaimed, “we will win.”
Soon after Ford’s Lincoln Day Dinner message, President Richard Nixon announced a campaign rally to test his popularity. The rally was Nixon’s first since the Watergate crisis broke. For this experiment, the President chose to visit three small towns in Michigan’s Thumb area (Cass City, Bad Axe, and Sandusky). However, he planned to bypass major cities like Bay City, Saginaw, and Flint. Before the trip ever started, an anonymous threat was made on the President’s life if he came to Michigan but, nothing came of the threat. Before he ever arrived in Michigan, Nixon was dogged by his recent confession that he had under-reported his income, but he agreed to pay back all of his past due taxes. Complicating the initial news of Nixon’s visit, Michigan Governor William G. Milliken said he would not ask Nixon to campaign on the governor’s behalf when he came to Michigan. Like other Republican candidates up for reelection that year, Milliken feared getting too close to Nixon and Watergate. Still, when Nixon arrived in Michigan, Milliken was right there to greet him.
A crowd estimated at 5,000 people, which started arriving hours before the President’s plane arrived, packed into Tri-City Airport in Freeland to welcome Nixon. Cars backed up in lines at least four miles from the airport as many people from mid-Michigan wanted to see Nixon. While the crowd seemed largely friendly, some signs amidst the throngs read “Kick the Bum Out,” “If You Love Us, Leave Us,” and “Nixon is the Nation’s No. 1 Crook.”
As he toured the Thumb area, an estimated 20,000 people turned out along the 57-mile route that Nixon traveled. During the entire trip, the President never mentioned Watergate or any of his political troubles, keeping to what appeared to be a traditional campaign plan. In the end, the Michigan visit was a litmus test for Nixon to explore his popularity during Watergate in what was an area that was supposedly safe Republican territory.
Regardless of the Michigan trip, by the end of April 1974, Watergate still refused to go away. President Nixon tried to convince the American public in a 35-minute television address that he was innocent by handing over 1200 pages of edited transcripts from the controversial White House tapes. For some time, a political tug of war had taken place about the recordings and the Senate Watergate Committee’s demands to listen to all of the tapes. Because these transcripts were edited, many in Gratiot County remained skeptical that the transcripts would clear Nixon. While some loyal Nixon supporters believed that the country needed to get beyond Watergate, those polled in a local survey sounded like they believed Nixon to be guilty of something. Mrs. Allen Ropp of Alma stated that she thought the President “was trying to defend, to justify himself, in what he’s done.” Gerald Mayes of Alma had voted Republican for a long time and voted for Nixon, “But I wouldn’t do it again,” he added. Others interviewed in Gratiot County thought that Nixon was still hiding something, that he should have given up the tapes long ago, or that the politicians should never have opened up the Watergate investigation in the first place. Sally McKellar, a staunch Nixon supporter and Gratiot County Republican Party member, still firmly stated that “I have faith in the President.”
The problem with Nixon’s turnover of the Watergate transcripts that day was that he failed to share 42 actual tapes that had been subpoenaed. The neatly stacked, blue leather-bound transcripts that Nixon sat next to during his television address that night were unable to stop the crisis or the demands for all of the Watergate tapes.
As spring turned to summer, Vice President Gerald R. Ford’s unwavering support for Nixon continued. Ford stated that he still believed that Nixon was innocent of any crimes or a cover-up, but by the heart of summer, this all started to change. The Chairman of the Michigan State Republican Party came to Alma in late June to urge Gratiot County Republican leaders not to let Watergate distract them. State Chairman William McLoughlin confessed, “Watergate is with us regardless, but we must not fall into the debate trap with the Democrats.” McLoughlin urged the Gratiot leaders to get Republicans to find independent voters “and wet nurse them until election day.” Also, the party needed to contact potential voters by mail and make personal contacts for their votes. Also, Gratiot County Republicans needed to target eighteen-year-old voters.
In the late summer of 1974, Watergate entered its final stretch. Panax, the company that owned Alma’s Daily Record Leader, issued an editorial lamenting the attacks on President Nixon. It also argued that Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State, “are being accorded less consideration than muggers on a dark street.” The column indirectly criticized the Watergate reporting, which exposed the break-in as far back as the summer of 1972. Panax did not think much of writers using “unattributed sources and unconfirmed leaks” at the Washington Post, which exposed Watergate. In another way, Panax seemed to be critical (or jealous) of the exposure and accolades that writers like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein received for their reporting and writing that broke open the Watergate scandal.
To the very end, with Watergate, politics remained politics in Gratiot County. Democratic County Chairman Allen Ropp echoed those critical of Nixon by arguing that all of the Watergate tapes had to be turned over to the public. Nixon also needed to resign immediately. Sally McKellar, the Republican Chairman, disagreed, and then she said this: “I do not feel the tapes should be turned over…I wish Richard Nixon would have burned the tapes and said now what the ‘hell’ you going to do about it?” To McKellar, the news media had overblown the entire Watergate crisis. Surprisingly, in the last days of the scandal, both party leaders in Gratiot County agreed on one thing: Watergate had hurt and would continue to harm Americans in both parties, and it had seriously damaged the country.
As early as August 1, 1974, it appeared that Richard Nixon would soon face impeachment. Republican Representative John Ashbrook of Ohio believed that Nixon would be impeached by a 3-1 margin in the House of Representatives. Four days later, Nixon made the stunning admission that he had withheld information from Congress about Watergate, specifically regarding a tape from June 23, 1972, that recorded how Nixon used the CIA to stop an FBI investigation into the Watergate break-in. Nixon reviewed the tape in May 1973 and then withheld the information from his lawyers and his closest supporters. Even Vice President Gerald Ford was shocked. With the President’s admission on that day, impeachment in Nixon’s own words was a “foregone conclusion.”
Voting in the Michigan primary elections across Gratiot County was extremely light on August 6. County Clerk Eva Smith commented that “There just doesn’t seem to be much interest in a primary election, and this is such an important election.” Panax issued another editorial in the Daily Record Leader, ending its column by changing its course and saying, “We haven’t lost faith in the presidency, we have lost faith in Richard M. Nixon and he must resign.”
And that was what happened as Nixon announced his resignation as President of the United States. Just before noon on Thursday, August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon and his wife held an emotional farewell meeting with the White House staff. They then walked with Vice President Ford and his wife toward a helicopter on the White House grounds, Nixon waving good bye one last time. In moments, the Nixons were gone and supposedly, Watergate was over. Or was it?
Many Gratiot County residents were asked about their reactions on August 8 about the Nixon resignation. Some said Nixon should not be prosecuted for any crimes, that stepping down from office was enough of a punishment, according to Sally McKellar, Gratiot County Republican chairman. She still tried to deflect the enormity of what had happened by saying, “I think (Nixon) has suffered enough.” Gratiot County Clerk Eva Smith commented that “We ought not be vindictive. We are all human ad we all make mistakes. (Nixon) is also human, and he made his mistakes.” Robert Henderson, Chairman of the Gratiot County Board of Commissioners, thought it was best for the nation that Nixon resigned. He said, “I think (Nixon) was a victim of circumstances. I believe (Watergate) could have happened to other presidents under the right conditions.” Strong sentiments said the resignation was the best result given the Watergate scandal. However, more would come out into the open.
Many Gratiot County residents hoped that a resignation would end Watergate, as did many legislators. About a week later, Representative John Engler of Mt. Pleasant told a Gratiot County Republican Party Convention in Ithaca that there was more fallout ahead. He was right. The first non-elected United States President, Gerald R. Ford, had been sworn in and enjoyed a brief honeymoon with America and the press. It all ended one month after the Nixon resignation when President Ford told the nation on television that he granted Nixon a “full, free and absolute pardon.” Many Americans – and many Gratiot County residents – were stunned.
There would be no trial of Richard M. Nixon. President Ford told Americans that it was for the good of the nation that Nixon not face a lengthy and drawn-out trial (such would not be the case for most of his aides). Most of those interviewed in Gratiot County thought the pardon was unfair and that Nixon had gotten away with a crime. Historians would debate the Nixon pardon for years to come.
For President Gerald R. Ford, it meant in the end that he would not be re-elected to office in 1976. Another struggle that Ford soon encountered after the pardon dealt with his plan for pardoning draft evaders from the Vietnam War. Ford proposed allowing draft evaders to do two years of community service for being allowed back into the country. The proposal met almost as sharp a reaction in Gratiot County as the Nixon pardon did. While a few people were quoted as liking the idea, many thought it was wrong. Moving the nation ahead from Watergate and Vietnam proved to be hard for President Ford and the country to do after Nixon resigned. On a side note, the Alma City Commission adopted a resolution in late August 1974 to formally invite Ford to the 1976 Highland Festival. Not much seemed to come from the invitation.
For this writer, the Watergate era left some vivid memories, even though I was a young teen when it all transpired. As the Watergate hearings took place in the summer of 1973, I remember my father parking his pickup in the driveway and doing something he seldom did. After a long day of work at Alma Products, he sat in the truck, parked halfway up the driveway, listening to John Dean give testimony about Richard Nixon’s knowledge of the Watergate cover-up. Apparently, the news was shocking enough for my father to stop him for several minutes as he listened to Dean’s testimony. I seem to recall him saying, “He (John Dean) is one of these guys who knows what was happening (in the White House).”
In the early evening of Wednesday, August 7, 1974, I was sitting in the upper deck of Tiger Stadium watching the Detroit Tigers play the Cleveland Indians. It was a disappointing visit for me. Just the day before, the Tigers traded Gratiot County native Jim Northrup to the Montreal Expos. Sometime early in the game that night, the Tigers announcer came on the air to tell the sparse crowd of 12,408 fans that President Nixon would resign from office at noon the next day. I clearly remember a group of young adults sitting behind me, discussing and arguing amongst themselves about what should happen to Nixon. The Tigers won that night, minus a long time Gratiot County player, and a President resigned his office.
After a very late night at Tiger Stadium, I remember everyone sleeping in the following day. For some reason, I turned on the television and watched the coverage of Richard Nixon’s last hour or two in office before he left the White House on that day in August 1974.
It was all a thing called Watergate, and for some of us in Gratiot County, we remember those times too well.
Above, clockwise from upper left: The Gratiot Theatre debuts in 1948; Fourteen cents Wednesday movie nights; Howe Memorial Library, the former theater; 1948 Opening Headline; Earl Peterson plays at the Gratiot, 1950s; the front door as it looks today.
It was constructed with a Quonset hut over seventy years ago, but today it serves as the village library. For almost ten years, Breckenridge’s village had one of Gratiot County’s newest movie houses, known as the Gratiot Theatre.
Before World War II ended, some businessmen already had the idea of opening a new movie theater in Breckenridge. In March 1945, they announced tentative plans to construct an L-shaped building with an entrance on Saginaw Street, situated between the Chisolm store and village hall. A shortage of building materials during the war, such as lumber, meant that this movie house would be built with cinder blocks. Builders also hoped that the new theater would have new shops go in around it. However, three years would pass before the idea of a movie theater came to being.
Building a new movie theater in Breckenridge was crucial to improving the business district after the war. In early March 1948, a $70,000 theater debuted, made from a large Quonset hut and first called “The Gratiot.” This time, five local businessmen sponsored the construction and leased the building to Jack McCluskey, who also operated the Central Theater in Merrill. The Breckenridge theater’s entrance measured two stories high, with a 40 by 100-foot auditorium and an 18 by 40-foot lobby.
The entrance featured a $5,000 marquee, and inside the main floor sloped toward the screen, which allowed easy viewing for 500 people. A crying room existed for mothers with children. There were also hearing aids available for the deaf, and the Gratiot Theatre had modern restrooms. A new, current air conditioning system costing $6,000 changed the air every ten minutes.
In the early spring of 1948, flyers encouraged people to come and see “Central Michigan’s finest small-town theatre.” One of the first movies featured “State Fair,” starring Dick Haymes, Jeanne Crain, and Dana Andrews. Anyone wanting upcoming movie programs could have them mailed to them upon request.
Owners frequently used promotions to get viewers into the Gratiot Theatre. During Christmas 1949, the theater gave away free turkeys on one Wednesday night. Barbershop quartets benefiting the American Legion held performances beginning in 1950. Another regular feature was “14 Cents Wednesday Nights.” In late 1952, Earl Peterson, “Michigan’s Singing Cowboy,” appeared on stage. Peterson and his group, Sons of the Golden West, came to the Gratiot more than once to give performances.
In early February 1953, Cassidy Theaters Incorporated of Midland took over the Gratiot Theatre operations. The Gratiot then became the fifth theater in the Cassidy chain with the Strand Theater in Alma. Keith Musser, who headed the Strand, came to Breckenridge as manager. Musser also brought some of the ideas for promotions that he used in Alma to get people into the Gratiot Theatre. One of these near Easter 1953 advertised that ticket purchasers could win a free baby Lepus from the stage. Curious and excited people around Breckenridge who went to the show that night found out that Keith Musser was giving away free rabbits.
While management tried to continue to make the Gratiot Theatre successful, it apparently could not compete with a new drive-in theater in Gratiot County and movie houses in both Alma and St. Louis. Although movies continued in Breckenridge for a few more years, by early 1956, the Gratiot Theatre closed its doors.
After it closed, the former theater became known as the village “Civic Center” and housed the firehouse, a library, and the city restrooms. The old lobby of the Gratiot became the village library and held some 2,000 books in the early 1960s. Some find it surprising that Breckenridge ever had a movie theater, but it did.
Today, from the street, the village library in Breckenridge has a large front that partially covers the Quonset hut roof, a reminder that movies played there in the late 1940s and 1950s.
On January 17, 1920, many people in Gratiot County celebrated National Prohibition and its ban on producing, transporting, and importing alcohol. One Gratiot County newspaper wrote that “Old John Barleycorn, one of the nation’s greatest enemies, if not the greatest, was laid away without a tear or a pang of regret, and America has taken a great step forward.” Unfortunately, not every Gratiot County resident agreed, and Prohibition led to some interesting events.
Most Prohibition offender’s stories ranged from tragic to humorous; however, from 1917-1920 (the period of Michigan’s Prohibition of alcohol), only a handful of cases came to trial. In July 1918, Alonzo Hart of Ithaca was among the first in the county to be prosecuted under Violation of the Liquor Laws.
Although there had not been many cases of Prohibition brought to trial, things quickly changed starting in May 1920 when the first trial took place concerning Norman Boody of St. Louis, who attempted to brew raisin whiskey. Boody received what became a standard sentence for first offenders – six months to one year in Ionia Reformatory, along with a hefty fine. That summer, Adolph Sykora got caught on the Edwards Farm, southeast of Alma, which marked the start of county “Still Hunts.” Sykora’s arrest would be the first time newspapers described a still, and with warm summer weather, the stills went into full operation. The Steele Swamp in Hamilton Township contained a still operated by Monta Coss, who planned to sell his booze at county fairs until he was arrested. Carl Bruer and his father also ran a still in Washington Township. However, Sheriff Willert grew suspicious of “a lot of half-drunken foreigners” hanging around Bruer’s shack. Willert caught Bruer, making raisin whiskey, corn whiskey, and wine.
By September, Gratiot County experienced the first murder during Prohibition. Four local men, returning from a fishing trip, stopped on the bridge over the Maple River in Bridgeville to examine the river bottoms. One man spotted a body along the riverbank, partly submerged in the water. After arriving at the scene, Sheriff Willert reviewed the contents of the body, who was identified as James Rossa. Willert found $120 and a loaded Colt pistol. Rossa had a crushed skull, was believed to have been killed elsewhere, then dumped into the Maple River. Both the Lansing police and the sheriff’s department surmised that Rossa, an unemployed Italian from Lansing, had been killed as a result of receiving his money through dishonest means. Recent Italian gang activity in Detroit and Pontiac could also have been related to Rossa’s death.
The roles of foreigners (or the foreign-born) became a constant theme during Prohibition in Gratiot County. Two Belgians in Alma, Leo DeKiser and Barnard Fandell, both were caught in a large operation that involved 200 gallons of corn mash. The men were paid $11 a bottle for their product, which was pretty good money in 1920. There were many, like J. L. Thompson and Joseph Brennan of Detroit, the first downstate bootleggers to be arrested in Gratiot County, who sold alcohol in the county. The two men, who had 74 quarts of Canadian whiskey inside their Cadillac Roadster, arrived on a Saturday night and parked in front of Burkheiser’s Store in Alma. However, the nice car, their strange faces, and gossip in town soon led to their arrests during their delivery. Both offenders received six months to a year in Ionia, along with fines, and the police confiscated their car. These stories from 1920 marked just the beginning of Prohibition in Gratiot County.
Above: American Red Cross poster in Gratiot County during March 1945; Paratrooper Bernard Marin of Alma was only one of several Gratiot County men who were MIA (missing in action); butter and oleo were controversial topics for creameries, dairy farmers, and the public; Private Donald Good is pictured in action near Whalerscheid, Germany.
March 1945 seemed to be a mix of wartime feelings in Gratiot County. Could people have helped but been mixed up as the fifth-year of war continued?
The rationing board and the government told people to think about summer by growing more food through Victory Gardens. Yes, there would be more rationing.
Tin and paper were most in demand. Residents were urged to collect and contribute paper and tin to different drives in the county.
The war in Europe had turned a corner – or had it? One could read how towns and villages prepared for what life could be like in Gratiot County after the war ended. However, the war still dragged on, and fighting in the Pacific continued.
People read more about the consequences of the December 1944 fighting in Europe and the increase in Gratiot County casualties. The names of more men who died in Europe and the Pacific seemed to be growing. Among them, there were prisoners of war, as well as those who were missing in action.
Many hoped for an end to the war.
It was March 1945 in Gratiot County.
Farming in March 1945
Farmers that March appeared most concerned about losing their farm labor to the draft and facing the issue of raising sugar beets. Also, farmers were concerned about who would help in the fields by the time harvest took place in 1945.
Some farmers like C.L. Kent of Ashley sold his herd of fifteen head of cattle and all of his implements as he could not find help. The news told readers that more men could come back to the farms after working in the war plants during winter. However, there were concerns that many of these men would not return to their farm jobs as the money was better in the factories, and many disliked farm work. These men had until March 1 to return to the farm, or they faced the draft. As the date of reporting to the farms approached and the war took more of these men away from Gratiot County, voices like the one belonging to Edna Ropp spoke up regarding taking the young farmworkers. Ropp lamented, “Since most of the able-bodied young farmers have been drafted, how are we going to keep production on Gratiot County farms up to par to feed our boys?” She also commented that men involved with local horse racing, night clubs, and pool rooms had been left alone. Now it would not hurt the Gratiot County Draft Board to start looking “to draft the loungers from local poolrooms and beer gardens for forced farm labor.”
It seemed that the state and the county urged farmers to come on board and raise sugar beets for the war effort. The War Food Administration warned farmers that labor would be available with Mexican nationals and German prisoners of war. The WFA also said that the same payment of $17 per acre was to be paid for those who blocked, thinned, and hoed each acre of land planted with whole seed. The WFA recommended a harvesting bonus of $3 per job with a minimum of $7 per acre. Gratiot County had only reached 62% of its goal in beet contracts, and more farmers were urged to sign up.
There were other issues involving farmers that March as well. The OPA told farmers to make applications soon for non-highway gasoline due to rationing. Farmers had to state their anticipated use of gas from March 1, 1945, to March 1, 1946, then fill out a form and submit it for consideration at the OPA office. The first artificially inseminated calf in Michigan was born at the Darwin Munson farm in Newark Township. The calf, a bull from out of the Blythefield Mooie Triune Holstein bull, was born February 20. Farm get-togethers, like one held at the Beebe town hall on March 7, offered a free lunch that evening, with a talk on “Culling Poultry for Greater Profit.” There was no admission charge. The county agricultural agent, C.P. Milham, noted that Breckenridge was gaining ground for important certified seed production. Eight growers within a ten-mile radius were growing different types of certified seeds. Basil McKenzie of Breckenridge and Guy Federspiel of Wheeler were just two of those raising these seeds.
It was turning out to be a warm and dry March in Gratiot County. Farmers planted more oats and barely this month than in any other time in the county’s history. The dry soil did make it a challenge for farmers who plowed in anticipation of planting corn, beets, and beans.
Rationing in Gratiot County
There continued to be orders to observe rationing in the county during March 1945. L.J.Loesel of Alma served as the County Salvage chairman, and over at St. Louis, Fred E. Himes served as town chairman.
Orders from the Office of Price Administration (OPA) forced the Gratiot County war price and rationing board to hold meetings at the Gratiot County courthouse. All retailers who dealt in apparel, dry goods, and home furnishings had to turn in three copies of a pricing chart that showed how much items cost them and what prices they charged the public. Starting in early May, every item covered by government regulation had to be charted and documented to comply with ceiling prices.
People could sense a new urgency to collect tin cans in the county. Tin now became as needed as paper, and both items were in short supply. Another problem was that the tin which citizens contributed often was not useable because it had not been cleaned and properly prepared. Over in Bay City, a compulsory city ordinance fined people as much as $100 or 90 days in jail if they did not comply with requested salvage drives.
The tin had to be thoroughly washed because leftover food formed a chemical that destroyed the can. People had to flatten each tin, leaving one-eighth of an inch of tin exposed on each side. To help with the shortage, the Alma Boy Scouts conducted Saturday drives, complete with eight supervising adults. Galo Chew led the operation on the last Saturday of March, and the group asked that a special tag be placed on each door in Alma, signifying that the household had tin or paper for pickup.
Paper collection was another area of concern for the war effort for flares, containers for blood plasma, and field rations. To combat the waste of paper, Alma passed Ordinance 123, which sought to curb the trash and clutter caused by loose papers that blew off of porches and yards. A person could even be fined or imprisoned for posting or pasting things to telephone poles, trees, or alleys in town. As a result of this ordinance, Alma sought to get residents to take better care of paper for rationing purposes.
Food rationing came with warnings that the civilian meat supply appeared to be headed to its lowest point in ten years. As a result, the government announced a twelve percent cut for meat supplies and wanted help in conserving fats. The 8,475 families in Gratiot County could take care of the medicinal needs of over 3,000 casualties if each home saved one tablespoon of waste kitchen fat. One pound of fat could process 260 quarts of blood plasma, and helped with burns, insulins for shock victims, and ointments for treating abrasions. Coinciding with this announcement, the Alma Freezer Company received permission to open on East Superior Street. A total of 628 lockers would be rented to store meat, fruit, and vegetables for people who wanted to take meat conservation seriously. The Gratiot County rationing board also announced that a twenty percent cut in the reduction of sugar would take place for home canning.
Everyone in Gratiot County was urged to create and maintain their own Victory Garden in 1945, as those who did so would be eligible for extra gasoline rations. Gardening plans appeared in the Alma Record courtesy of Michigan State College and the Victory Garden Section of the Michigan Office of Civilian Defense.
Other things faced rationing. The rationing board issued certificates for 110 tires, most going for grade one tires. Oleo margarine started to come into the news as places like the St. Louis Co-Operative Creamery warned customers that the creamery was not responsible for butter shortages. Dairy farmers were concerned about how the use of oleo affected the butter market. On a positive note, Alma businesses did very well in their observance of brown-out orders (the regulated use of outside and display lights). The Alma business community was said to be in 100 percent compliance. Finally, a notice appeared in the paper that young people collected 4,781 bags of milkweed in the county last fall.
The Red Cross at Work
It was March, and it was time for the annual Red Cross War Fund drive in Gratiot County. On March 1, the campaign began with the goal of raising $27,500. Many of the ladies in the groups would call at residences as many as five or six times to ask Gratiot households to do their part and give to the Red Cross.
Over in Alma, neighborhood war clubs started fanning out into neighborhoods to raise over $8000 by March 15.
In Ashley, which was part of Red Cross district number five, Mrs. Ralph Tweedie acted as chairman and urged people to give to the goal of $4,000.
People worked in various ways to raise money for the Red Cross. In St. Louis, the Czechoslovak National Alliance Branch held a benefit that raised $477. Consumers Power Company employees pitched in $131.50, while employees at the Michigan Sugar Company ($70) and Swift and Company ($163.55) also gave. Alma Piston Company and its employees gave $510. Mid-West Refineries and its employees also gave $284 to the cause. Over at the Strand and Alma Theaters, collections took place each night for a week when Boy Scout collectors went through the aisles asking patrons for contributions, which raised $747.36.
No effort was too small as the St. Louis Evening Extension Group met at Mrs. Louis Dines’ home. The group voted to donate $2 to the Red Cross. The Meet-a-While Club outside of St. Louis met at the Rose McLean home, and the ladies there voted to give $5. The Mission Circle in Emerson Township met at Bonnie Kozler’s home and donated $5.
A county-wide canvas outside of Alma and St. Louis took place from March 20-22. When giving stalled in St. Louis, the city considered a Tag Day to raise money. Going into the third week, Alma was still short of its $8000 goal. However, Alma raised its goal by March 22. The newspaper recorded that in one part of Alma, “clubs in which a small women’s army of canvassers of the residential districts (which) served with gallantry.” They exceeded their goal of over $500.
Although things looked tight, Gratiot County raised more than its target and ended up with more than $30,000. Alma and the townships of Sumner and Arcada raised well over $2000 beyond their aim. Elba Township oversubscribed, as did the village of Perrinton. St. Louis also eventually met its goal. The good news was that by March 29, the county raised $29,324, almost $2000 beyond its goal.
The Red Cross in Gratiot County also contributed to the war effort through its different works. By March 1945, the Alma branch had created 6,000 garment bags, 1,000 kit bags, and 181,000 surgical dressings. Volunteers there worked hard to reach their quota of 144 kit bags. Only $1 was all that was needed to equip a kit bag fully.
Students at the North Star School received a letter from an American Red Cross unit in Italy. The unit thanked the North Star students for the Christmas Card Menus that they made. The cards had been used for an enlisted men’s club where some of the soldiers wrote messages inside and sent them to friends for Christmas. The Red Cross club pointed out that cards were uncommon in Italy, and the donation had been used and much appreciated.
Over at Ithaca, the Red Cross Home Service widow displayed Mrs. Roland Crawford’s artwork. The painting followed the theme, “Now more than ever, your Red Cross is at his side.” The Home Service also asked Gratiot residents to consider displaying war trophies sent home from the war front.
Letters Home to Gratiot County
Many men and women continued to write home to their families and loved ones during March. These letters showed that the war continued to be a worldwide event.
A pair of letters from the Pacific reflected American invasions in the Philippines. Corporal Paul Flowers from Breckenridge and Private Al Goodrich from Ithaca both wrote about their experiences. Flowers recorded that days were very hot with cold nights. Civilians appeared happy with the arrival of the Americans, yelling and asking for cigarettes. Flowers soon visited one family and enjoyed eating ham, eggs, and rice with them. Flowers wrote that it “Seemed strange to talk to girls again” and how the family invited them to come back the next day to play rummy. There were plenty of flies where he was at, but no mosquitoes. Private Goodrich also commented that on his 23rd birthday, he spent time at the nearby cub strip to watch airplanes. He pledged that “When I get to earning my own money, I’m getting me one of those crates (planes).” By reading newspapers, he kept up his interest in flying and what was happening at Johnson Field in Ithaca. Goodrich could not wait to return home, walk into an Ithaca restaurant and order a T-bone steak, complete with fries and vegetables. At his location, a Filipino served Goodrich as a valet and only cost a few pesos a week. Goodrich found that the native huts like the one he was staying in were incredibly cooler than any tent the army provided.
Private David Swigart, a Marine on Iwo Jima, was wounded on the eighteenth day of fighting on the island. Although Swigart had been in the Pacific since November 1944, Iwo Jima was his first combat experience. As a rifleman in the Second Platoon, Swigart wrote that “I saw all the horror of war, and it was not pleasant.” Near the front lines, Swigart had to dig a foxhole every time his platoon stopped for the night. At least two or three Marines stayed in each foxhole with at least one of them on the watch for concern that the Japanese would attack them. On the eighteenth day on the island, Swigart’s foxhole was hit by a Japanese mortar, allowing shrapnel to go through his helmet and lodging above his right eye and left temple. He rode in a jeep for the first time and was taken to the hospital, where a doctor took out the shrapnel, gave him a shot for lockjaw, ordered a warm meal, and put Swigart to bed. Swigart then went from the field hospital to a ship hospital, where he shaved off his thirteen day-old beard. Swigart then moved again to another base hospital on an island where each hut held twenty men. Although his jaw was sore and his cuts were numb, Swigart joined the rest of the men who mainly rested and awaited transportation back to Pearl Harbor.
Lieutenant Carl Sackett of Ithaca was another Marine who saw action on Iwo Jima, arriving at “D+1.” After giving his mother a vivid geographic description of the island, he told how the island was bombarded for three days straight “to soften it up.” Sackett wrote, “It is beyond doubt the best fortification in the whole Pacific, but we are taking it.” Sackett added that there were 13,000 Japanese on the island, hidden in caves below the surface. He had been a Marine for almost three years during his service, and he had been overseas for 18 months. As an engineer, Sackett worked on road construction. In the process, he had met four admirals, receiving recognition for devising a plan to lay a roadway on a beach at 100 feet a minute. Sackett concluded, “It’s known pretty well throughout the Pacific right now by my name.”
Seaman Jim Howe, Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class, wrote to his mother in February about his experiences. Howe had been in New Guinea, Bora Bora, Guadalcanal, and Leyte in the Philippines. While serving in New Guinea, Howe became lost in the jungle for three days before finding his way. At the time of his writing, Seaman Howe commented about spending much of his time painting and touching up rust spots on his ship’s decks. He lamented that he did not receive enough mail and that it came to him via V-Mail, which resulted in reading letters in tiny print. Even Time Magazine copies came to his ship in reduced size. Howe did get to see the movie “It Started with Eve” until the machine burned up the picture’s last reel and shut down the film.
Lieutenant Carl Baney wrote a very long letter from Africa to his sister in Alma. When commenting about the African coast, Baney described the “faint misty shorelines,” which he liked most when seeing them from a distance. Plenty of lovely palm trees marked the roads that led to towns that he visited. When approaching Casba, it smelled of crowded homes with goats, cats, dogs, chickens, and the family. No bathrooms existed, sanitary conditions were deemed poor, and Arab women appeared to be dressed in American bedsheets, with only an eye peeking out. Tattoos on the face and legs of some women showed a blue sign indicating which tribe they belonged to. Black market traders quickly walked up to Baney and asked, “Business, Joe?”
Private Fred Snellenberger wrote to his parents from Germany. Snellenberger said he was in the United States Third Army, and he had been in Belgium. When payday came, Snellenberger rejoiced that he had just been paid 4,000 Francs ($101.00). Most of his money was headed home. He asked his parents to bank one half of it. After enjoying part of a friend’s package from home, Snellenberger asked his parents to send him Polish sausage and sardines in catsup sauce.
Many Served Gratiot County in March 1945
Stories, updates, and pictures made their way into county newspapers to remind the public about where Gratiot County’s men and women were at war.
Private Martin Walker of Alma appeared in a picture of three men conducting reconnaissance patrol in the Philippines. Along with forty other men, Walker stormed a Japanese bivouac area and found 24 Japanese soldiers dead from artillery fire. Russell Augustine, also of St. Louis, served with the 37th Infantry Division in Manilla. He earned the Bronze Star for heroic achievement during the battle on Luzon. Out in the Netherlands East Indies, Private John Cresswell from the 13th AAF was marooned on a tiny island. Cresswell, a radio operator, was stranded with three other men because of a hurricane. All of the men were reported to be in good condition. Robert L. Brown of Ithaca got the Bronze Medal for heroic achievement in Germany in late November. Brown helped to administer aid and remove wounded men while under fire.
Private Donald Good of St. Louis appeared in a picture taken near Whalersheid, Germany. Good, holding his light machine gun, appeared with a collection of captured German material. He previously had been wounded in October near the city of Aachen. Over in England, Private Elliot Myer of Ithaca served in the United States Army General Hospital as a surgical technician. Sergeant Tom Cavanaugh from St. Louis was stationed at an ordnance depot located in southern England. Cavanaugh claimed to have seen London at least fifty times and proclaimed that the city had the best tube systems in the world. Private Henry Hein of Breckenridge served with the 3833rd Gasoline Supply Company in France. Keeping the motor vehicle units operating oil, grease, and lubricants was Hein’s job. Private William Boyd of St. Louis had been wounded in action while in Germany in late February. His brother, Seaman 1/C Donald Boyd, managed to get news home to his parents that he was okay. The Boyd parents were happy to hear that both sons were safe.
At Casablanca, North Africa, Sergeant Donald Breidinger of Alma served as a Air Transport Command Cadre member. Breidinger was part of a team that planned President Roosevelt’s air route to the Crimea Conference, a distance of 2698 miles along five different airbases. Staff Sergeant Max Turner from North Star received the Bronze Star for helping his fellow soldiers under mortar barrage in Italy with the 135th Infantry Regiment of the 34th Red Bull Division. Lieutenant Jack Eastman of Ithaca flew his first combat bombing mission to the Nazi oil refineries in Vienna, Austria. He was with the 15th Army Air Force. At far off Kiska, Private Mason Grossett of Alma served with the Army Quartermaster Corps. Grossett was in his second year of service at Kiska. Emerson House of Alma came home on a two-week leave after serving three years in Iceland. He was unsure what his next assignment would be
News came that Lester Eyer of Alma had been promoted to first lieutenant at Victorville Army Air Field in California. Pharmacist Mate Allen Vallance came home on a 30 day leave after seeing combat in the South Pacific. Luther Greening of Breckenridge was able to visit his family as he enjoyed leave from the Navy. He was the focus of a family dinner held in his honor. Private Charles Marrin of Alma was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky with the armored division. He was able to get home for one weekend to visit his wife and two children. Private William Barnes of North Star came home to visit his wife and mother on a 24 hour pass. Barnes returned to the United States after being overseas three years in England and France. He also noted that he came home to America while accompanying a group of German prisoners of war.
Several Gratiot County women appeared in the news. Ruth Ostlund of Emerson Township joined the WAVES on her twentieth birthday in October. She was now stationed at Gunners Mate School Office Receiving Station at Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. The Ithaca IOOF Hall hosted a family dinner for Arlene and Margaret Fortney. The two sisters joined the WACs and prepared for their trip to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. A total of 46 people attended the dinner. Doris Jean Hall was sworn into the Women Army Air Corps with the WAC Medical Technician Training Program. She left on March 15 for Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Marjorie Olie Street of Ithaca was a Pharmacist Mate Second Class as a member of the WAVES. Street was in the news as she married William Urban, Jr., in a ceremony Norfolk, Virginia. News came that Private Mary Cowles of Alma finished her training in the motor transport school of the First Women’s Army Corps Training Center at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Private Donna Eyer of Alma returned to Walker Field, Kansas, after an eight-day furlough. Mavis Bosley of Middleton came home to visit her family while serving as a WAVE in Washington, D.C. It was also announced that Dorothy Dionise of Ithaca was appointed to the Army Nurse Corps and was assigned to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. Dionise was a graduate of the St. Lawrence School of Nursing. Lauribelle Simmons, also of Ithaca, passed her entrance exam to the United States Marines and left for Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Sergeant Georgianne Peet from Ithaca continued her service in the WAC Group in Italy. Peet was now in her third country of duty.
Those POW, WIA, KIA, MIA
The numbers of Prisoners of War continued to grow. Private Bruce Meade returned home to Riverdale after being held in both Italy and Germany for two years. News that Sergeant Joseph Thomas of Alma had been freed from a German POW camp reached his parents in Alma. This news was relayed home through the United States Military Mission in Moscow. Sergeant Duane Murdock was confirmed to be in a German POW camp after being listed as missing in action. His wife was living near Elwell. A card from Sergeant Ted Barton arrived in Ithaca on a Saturday in March. On the card, Barton said he was okay, and he was in good condition. Barton had been missing since December. The wife of Sergeant George Jenkins of Breckenridge received a letter from her husband. The letter was dated December 2. Jenkins commented on how cold it was and hoped his father would get a deer while hunting. A similar message also came to the parents of Sergeant Nolan Howe of Breckenridge.
Those who were wounded also were in the news. Private Howard Lord of St. Louis was in a hospital in North Carolina. Lord wrote that he would lose all of his toes and part of his right foot due to suffering frostbite in Europe. Private John Reed was at Percy Jones Hospital after being wounded in the arms and legs. Reed served with the 75th Division starting last October. Sergeant Walter Mutchler, former manager of the Miller-Jones Shoe Store in Alma, had to return to Percy Jones to treat trench foot. Mutchler was in the Saar Basin near Metz, Germany, when he contracted the illness. Also arriving at Percy Jones was Private Robert Wolfgang of Breckenridge, who was wounded near Metz, Germany, in early December. Family members drove to Battle Creek to see Wolfgang, who experienced wounds below his elbow and had his arm in a sling.
Lieutenant Eldon Adams was wounded in Germany, but he recovered after a wound to his forehead and his fractured right arm. Even though Private Leroy Shaver returned to the front lines after being wounded, he faced a third operation now that he was in Italy. Shaver earlier suffered wounds to his stomach and hip while in France. Private Calvin Swett of Alma was wounded and hospitalized near Paris, France. Swett, who had been general superintendent of Lobdell-Emery Company, was said to be with Patton’s Third Army when he was wounded. Another Alma man, Private Victor Abbott, suffered severe wounds to his chest and kidneys while in Belgium. Still, doctors considered him lucky to have not experienced a fatal injury. An orphan, Abbott attended Alma Schools and worked at the Strand Theatre as an usher. Sergeant Warren Larry of Ithaca came home to New York after suffering shrapnel wounds to his left hand and fractures of the wrist. It was announced that Private Frank Galvin of Alma was wounded while fighting in Germany’s Rhine area.
Private Lyle Bouchy of Alma was wounded in his left arm while in Germany in late February, as was Sergeant Charles Humphrey of Alma, who was also wounded in Luxembourg in January. Humphrey’s exact condition was not known. Lieutenant Frank Shimunek, who had been wounded in combat somewhere in Europe, came home to Alma to visit family after being released from a Chicago hospital. While Private Ivan Coleman of Breckenridge was wounded in France on Christmas Day and was taken to a hospital in England, he now had recovered and returned to his company. Another Breckenridge man, Private James Fookes, had been sent to a hospital in England for wounds to his right foot. Fookes was expected to be in the hospital until at least May.
Out in the Pacific Theater, Seaman 2/C Arthur Lover of Bannister contracted a severe form of acne, forcing him to hospitals in Hawaii, California, and then New York. Private Barney Knapp of Alma was the first Gratiot County casualty at Iwo Jima. A Marine, Knapp suffered shrapnel wounds to both legs and his right arm on February 21, the third day of battle. Still, Knapp wrote home that “I figure I have only God to thank for my being here (in the hospital).” Private Dan Davis of Pompeii also was wounded on Iwo Jima after being on the island for seven days and nights. Davis was hit by shrapnel in his left jaw, but it was healing. He now suffered from tonsillitis. Seaman 2nd Class Leman Ingalls of St. Louis, who served as a gunner aboard the USS Bunker Hill, was suffering from mumps.
There was another story about a Gratiot man who was wounded in the Pacific in 1943, Frank Chapman of Alma. He had previously experienced severe wounds as a Fireman first class at Guadalcanal. After Chapman’s ship, the USS Strong was sunk, he was injured and in desperate need of a blood transfusion and was sent to a hospital. Another injured man in his ward, Corporal James Moss of Gary, Indiana, immediately offered to help Chapman with the transfusion. The two men had the same blood type. After their ordeal, Chapman and Moss agreed that when they either got out of the service or when the war ended, they would get together again. To seal the pact, the bet $5 to the man who traveled the longest distance to see the other. In mid-March, Frank Chapman received a mysterious phone call from a stranger – it was Corporal James Moss, who came to Alma to collect the bet. Although Frank Chapman had been home for over one year and worked at Leonard Refinery, he was exceedingly glad to see Corporal Moss. The two spent time in Alma recounting their time in the service and their friendship. The story of Chapman and Moss appeared on the front page of the St. Louis Leader.
Then there were the very sobering and sad stories of Gratiot County men who paid the ultimate price for serving the country during a time of war. These stories continued to remind people of the ultimate costs of war.
Private Fred Huntoon, Jr., of St. Louis, was pronounced killed in action on January 1, 1945, in Belgium. Previously, Huntoon was said to be missing in action. Corporal Pete Earegood, also from St. Louis, was killed in action in Germany. He had been in Europe since May 1944. His wife was a teletype at the 2135th Army Air Force in Panama City, Florida. Alma relatives of Captain Robert Greenhoe learned of his death in Belgium on December 21. Greenhoe was previously listed as MIA. Corporal Orin Patterson of Ithaca met death in Germany on March 10. In February after serving for over two years in the military police in Savannah, Georgia, Patterson was sent to Europe. Private Richard Lover of Bannister was killed in action in Germany on March 3. Previously, Lover had been wounded in France in July, and he spent time in a hospital in England. A picture of Private Robert Lucas of St. Louis appeared on the front page of the Gratiot County Herald. Lucas had been killed on December 28 in Belgium when his jeep was fired upon at an enemy roadblock. Lucas tried to turn his jeep around when he was hit. News of the tragic death of Sergeant Edgar Lyon reached Ithaca. Lyon was killed in a plane crash on January 2 in Slaidburn, England. Lyon was headed to Scotland when the plane crashed into a mountain.
In an attempt to remember those former Ithaca High School students who had died in service to their country, a plaque was to hang in the gymnasium with their names. The names listed David Furgason, Russell Criswell, Edwin Salden, Miles Douglas, and Myrl Putnam. Another name would soon have to be added to the list: Ed Kalinowski.
On top of all of these casualties was the status of those Missing in Action (MIA). Francis Gall of St. Louis was missing in Europe since February 9. In an earlier letter to his sister, Gall said that he landed in France around January 24. Private Bernard Marrin of Alma, a paratrooper, was missing since February. Robert McCreery of Alma had also been listed as MIA since February 9 in Germany. So was Jack Colter of Breckenridge, the former Standard Oil dealer in the village, who was reported missing at the same time and area as Robert McCreery. Private Melvin Thrush of Alma was also reported as missing in Italy on March 7.
And So That We Do Not Forget…
Chester Robinson served as a full-time counselor for the Gratiot County Council of Veterans Affairs. His office was directly above the Ithaca Post Office…A column in the Alma Record entitled “Recognizing the Need for Prayer” mentioned a resolution out of Lansing that all schools begin the day of school asking for divine guidance. The column concluded that prayer united men of all creeds to combat foreign forces was a habit that no one in Gratiot County should be ashamed…A farm group meeting at the Beebe school house discussed items such as the drafting of farm workers, the outlook for livestock markets, and the market for sugar beet plantings…The Breckenridge Blue Star Mothers sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day party in the Breckenridge High School gymnasium. Proceeds went to the construction of a new community center…Tragedy took place in Wheeler when Theresa Ann Conklin, age four, died instantly from a home accident on the Conklin farm. The child climbed up a newly purchased cupboard when her parents stepped away from their porch. She died instantly when the cupboard fell on top of her, crushing her skull…The Betty Barry Shop opened as a new ladies store in St. Louis at 109 North Mill Street…Employees at the Alma Trailer Company for the third time voted down joining the CIO-UAW. The vote was 3-1 against forming a union…The new Fulton School farm shop repair opened each Monday and Wednesday morning in Perrinton for three hours. A class offered farmers help with welding, repair of farm machinery, and forge work. Walter Deitrich and Paul Andrews oversaw the work…Harold Putnam flew his plane solo on one Sunday. Putnam became the youngest solo pilot at Johnson’s airport…An Infantile Paralysis fund campaign in the county raised $1997.59. Mrs. Robert Johnson served as county chairman of the woman’s activities…Ithaca Public Schools announced a general salary increase of $100 for each teacher. A few teachers received another $50 for salaries that “were out of line.” Hiram Becker was hired to return as coach, along with Mable Sowle (mathematics) and Leah Frump (English), among others…Safe crackers who attempted to rob the safe at Breckenridge Bean and Grain Company met resistance one night when a concealed smoke bomb inside the safe went off in their faces. No money was stolen…Michigan Central Airlines announced that it would bypass Gratiot County. The closest stop would be Mt. Pleasant…The George Myers American Legion Post in Alma announced that widows and orphans of World War I veterans were now entitled to pensions. Widows received $35 a month, those with one child would receive $45, and $5 each for every other child. However, childless widows were exempt if they had a yearly income topping $1000…Adams Grocery in St. Louis advertised that it paid the highest marker prices for eggs…Breckenridge High School’s basketball team won the district tournament held at Alma College. Breckenridge defeated Edmore by the score of 57-29.
For the first time since 1941, the R.L. Polk Company published a new city directory of 12,000 names in Gratiot County. One of the features of the directory was the name of all Gratiot’s men and women who were serving in the country’s service…Alma Freezer Company planned to soon open on the east side of the Harris Milling Company building on East Superior Street. A total of 628 lockers would be available for rent for those who wanted to store meat, fruit, or vegetables…In another sad story, Maude Aumaugher, age 58, drowned herself on the family farm east of Ithaca. The woman, who was a deaf mute, was in despair when her 87 year old father was forced to sell the family farm…Eight St. Louis High School students participated in a speech contest at Coleman. Donna Fisher, Phyllis Himes, and James Cavanaugh led the winning St. Louis team…Representative T. Jefferson Hoxie of St. Louis introduced a resolution in the Michigan House of Representatives to make it compulsory for state agencies and state sponsored schools to comply with slow time (Central Standard Time). School aid and vouchers were to be withheld from those who did not conform…Breckenridge had plans to build and open a new movie theater between the Chisolm Store and Village Hall. Most of the building was to be made of cinder blocks… The Dave Kirker gas station in Sumner burned to the ground. The Ithaca Fire Department arrived too late to save any part of it…The American Legion hosted twenty legionnaires from county posts on one Monday night for the regular monthly meeting of the Gratiot County Council. After adjournment, the St. Louis Legion Post voted to help with local efforts to collect used clothing for shipment overseas to people in need in Europe…The twelfth annual Easter Seals campaign was about to start in Gratiot County…Representative Hoxie announced that the state of Michigan had many post-war highway improvements with goals of making improvements throughout Gratiot County. Widening of bridges, roads and pavements were mentioned in the report…Three St. Louis boys under the ages of fifteen all pled guilty to stealing $24 from the basement of the Alma JC Penney store. A purse was found by one of the boys as they cleaned the basement. The take? A total of 36 cents and two packs of cigarettes. However, the boys were linked to thefts from two local elevators in the county…Approximately 100 FFA members from five area chapters attended Alma High School to take part in FFA training. Subjects included public speaking, parliamentary procedure, and demonstrations about loss of livestock…Victory gardeners who could start growing plants indoors were urged to start doing so. County Agricultural Agent C.P. Milham published a column about how to get started and what seeds to plan in March…Blue Star Mothers Chapter 108 in North Star met in late March. The group read letters from local service boys and then voted to donate $10 to the Red Cross…
Sam Fortino became the first Michigan and Alma born basketball player to win the 1945 Detroit Free Press Trophy given to the most outstanding collegiate player in Michigan. Fortino played for Michigan State College after entering the V-12 Program and attending Central Michigan for one season…St. Louis Superintendent T.S. Nurnberger gave a message at the St. Louis Rotary about possible training programs for men when they returned home after the war ended. One aspect of the presentation dealt with the topic of compulsory military training once young men reached the age of 18…Twenty members of the Alma Veterans of Foreign Wars met in its monthly meeting in their hall above the Alma J.C. Penney store. Alva Cook was chosen as commander…The Alma Commission received a letter asking for Alma to establish a public honor role for those men and women who were in the service. Funding for building the honor role was the main issue…Miss Cecil Wolf, Alma’s public school nurse, might be deputized by the city. Wolf had found many local business owners to be opposed to her orders for cleaning up areas and operations after inspections had been made. Possible fines and jail sentences awaited those who continued to defy health orders…A column in the Alma Record warned readers that even though the war in Europe could end soon, the danger of war weariness could not stop the fight against Japan. While there might be a period of ease and rest after Nazi Germany surrendered, the war against Japan had to continue. Beware war weariness…Alma Air Raid Wardens organization had several hundred dollars left in their funds considered donating the money to a war memorial. While a dozen of the wardens would keep the organization together until the end of the war, any money donated to a memorial must be more than just a list of names…Abbot and Costello were on the way to the Strand Theatre starring in “Here Come the Co-Eds” on April 1-2…
The Michigan House of Representatives defeated a bill that proposed instituting the death penalty. It fell by a vote of 55-38 against the measure…Mrs. Simon Messinger, the wife of one of Alma’s pioneer families, died at the age of 86. Mrs. Messinger was one of the few remaining pioneers left in Alma and she had four grandchildren serving in the military…A pheasant caused a ruckus at the home of Doctor Kirschbaum’s home at 707 West Center Street in Alma. The bird broke a window and flew into the bedroom, then turned around and flew out the window again. Footmarks were left by the bird on the bed and dresser…St. Louis firemen received a pay raise to $2 an hour when on duty. This was a raise of fifty cents with the goal of attaining $2.50 an hour in the near future…The Redman Trailer Company received a contract fro the United States Ordnance Department to build one ton cargo trailers. Deliveries were to start in May…and Alma’s George Myers American Legion Post Number 164 celebrated its 26th birthday as a national organization with a family pot luck style dinner.
And that was Gratiot County’s Greatest Hour in March 1945.
This past summer, I did something I have not done since 1986 – I stayed home and spent my entire summer in Gratiot County.
With exceptions of “big trips” to places like Saginaw, Midland, or Mt. Pleasant, my wife and I opted to play it safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Things like movie theaters, archives, and museum trips were all closed. For health and safety reasons, even our local libraries in the county had restrictions on what people could and could not do. Previously, summer had meant a time to travel, even if it meant in-state, out of state, or even out of the United States. However, this year the pandemic meant no travel. What should I do over a long summer with limited choices and a lot of time?
Sometime in late spring, I came up with the idea of trying to travel every main north and south road in Gratiot County. The project became known as “Gratiot North and South,” and I started it in June, beginning with Gratiot East County Line Road. Over time, I decided that if there was a main road that ran from the south end of Gratiot County to the north, then I wanted to travel it.
Many of the roads were familiar by name to me, but some led to Gratiot County areas that I had not seen before. On Wednesday, December 16, I finished the last Gratiot County segment and what had been my way of dealing with the COVID -19 crisis.
There were a lot of things that I tried to do throughout the travels. First, I looked for what seemed to stand out, whether it was a building, the countryside’s contour, or something that someone did to the land. It soon became apparent that I was in a “6-8” problem – I missed about 6-8 shots on a road because I either lost an angle, I was going too fast, or “I just missed that shot.”
However, there were some memorable days on Gratiot County’s roads. I remember a hot July day in northeast Gratiot when long-haired Scottish steers stared me down as I took their pictures. Just down the road, a bunch of alpacas did the same thing. At the end of the journey in early winter, I found a good-sized boulder in Seville Township that someone got off of the ground and had it hanging by a set of chains. How does anybody lift a boulder, put a chain around it, and get it to hang there that long?
I grew up with the image of Gratiot County being a place with straight roads and sharp corners. Placed neatly in the middle of the Mitten, Gratiot County appears on maps a tightly drawn square box. In the 1980s, when I lived in south-central Ohio for one year, I could not fathom why anyone in Ohio had to drive three to four miles east or west in order to go one mile north or south. While Pickaway County was very similar to Gratiot County in many ways, the Ohio roads were not. It was enough to call me back to sanity and return to Gratiot County, which my wife and I eventually did.
Over time I found out that the Gratiot roads did not always fit that “straight and sharp” pattern. If you head to the southeast corner of Gratiot County, you will find that a curve meanders beyond a cemetery before it goes north again, making it impossible to drive a straight line as one thinks it appears on a map. I found out that not every main road in the county runs on straight lines and many have their “jog” in the road. The roads aren’t perfectly drawn or laid out, possibly as a message that none of us in Gratiot County are perfect either.
I also learned that the countryside still contains old barns, many of which are still standing from when they belonged to a time when agriculture was the county’s primary way of life. Some of these barns, which are falling into disrepair, probably were built before World War I.
Old schoolhouses can still be found in Gratiot County; at least schools that operated independently before school consolidation in the 1960s caused them to close. I saw one old schoolhouse in North Shade Township that had been remodeled but appeared to be used for deer camp. Then there are the remains of Gratiot County’s “burgs” – places like Sickles, Beebe (Emerson), Sethton, New Haven, and Newark, among others. Places that had formerly been the center of rural communities are now largely abandoned. At the time, these “burgs” had only an old store, township hall, or school building to mark a time which passed decades ago.
The trips up and down Gratiot’s roads were also reminders of struggles that we still face in Gratiot County. Some may be surprised to learn how much water we actually have. A large stretch of state land to the south of the county fosters the Maple River. Then there are rivers like the Bad and the Pine. There are also several bodies of water in the county, many that are mapped, but they are inaccessible by roads and appear to be on private property. Places that have become known as gravel pits now draw large numbers of people to swim, camp, and fish. Another thing that has grown is the presence of large scale dairy farms that can be found in both the north and the south of Gratiot County. The idea of water, how to use it, and who uses it are still questions and issues that Gratiot County faces in the 21st century.
The trips also taught me that while there are many nice homes, not everyone in Gratiot County lives the same way or can afford the same type of housing. Is there blight in Gratiot County? I would say yes. But it also reminds me that not everyone can build the house or buildings of their dreams – or at least like their neighbors.
Still, it is the only county I have really known: “Gratiot North and South.” And now for an encore?
Writers note: You can see pictures from a collection known as “Gratiot North & South” over on Facebook under “Gratiot County Time Machine.”
Whether he flew in by airplane, arrived by taxi, or was pulled by reindeer, the arrival of Santa Claus in Ithaca has a vivid history, especially for Ithaca’s baby boomers.
In December 1946, Santa made his appearance in Ithaca by arriving at Johnson’s airport along with nine other planes that accompanied him. Thousands of people soon lined up in downtown Ithaca and watched the Ithaca High School band lead Santa to the village hall. For this occasion, the Ithaca Chamber of Commerce provided 1300 sacks of candy and nuts to children. As an incentive, prizes totaling $25 could be found inside some of the sacks. During his visit, Santa spent time receiving letters from children, and some ended up in the Gratiot County Herald.
One year later, on December 6, 1947, Santa chose to parachute into Ithaca. Santa assured Warren Larry, chairman of Christmas activities in Ithaca, that Old St. Nick would be okay. He had practiced his landing drops and planned to touch down in front of the village hall. However, to be safe, the Ithaca Fire Department stood by to make sure Santa did not get hung up in a tree. Santa made the drop safely into Ithaca and then came the official turning on the business section’s lights. Christmas 1947 was also the first year that a contest for the best-decorated home took place in Ithaca. The theme that Christmas was “A wreath on every door and a tree in every window.”
The official lighting of the Gratiot County Courthouse coincided with Santa’s arrival in Ithaca that year. Strings of lights from the top of the building extended down to Center Street, creating a “blanket-like effect.” Specially designed wreaths all appeared on the light poles in the downtown area. It was also the first Christmas that people could see Santa and his sleigh on top of the courthouse.
Starting in 1949, Santa appeared in Ithaca each Saturday in December. To prepare for his arrival on that first Saturday, he sent a telegram from his workshop to the Gratiot County Herald announcing his arrival time. This year Santa flew in a plane over Ithaca and then came into town via taxi after landing at the airport. It was also the first Christmas in Ithaca where new plastic street decorations appeared upon all the downtown light posts.
Other changes began taking place with Santa’s arrival in Ithaca. Before he showed up on November 26, 1955, the Ithaca Ministerial Association conducted a downtown Ithaca program to stress the religious aspects of Christmas. This year, Santa arrived in Ithaca aboard a specially designed wagon, carrying candy and nuts for the children. A new tradition also started when Mrs. Ethel Gibbs, owner of the Ideal Theatre, offered free matinee movies for children each Saturday in December. Gibbs continued to provide free matinees during the Christmas season for several years to come.
By this time, more and more letters to Santa poured into the Gratiot County Herald offices. One picture showed Santa trying to sort through many letters that area children sent to him. Despite a very blustery and windy winter day in early December 1959, children still turned out in the wild weather to hand letters to Santa. This time he stood behind a winter snow fence and greeted the children. Afterward, the Ithaca Veterans of Foreign Wars Post invited 150 young guests to the high school gym to receive candy, cake, ice cream, gifts, and clothing donations. Morrison’s Shoe Store donated 80 pairs of new shoes for the children who attended the event.
Another decade did not slow down Santa. During Christmas season 1960, teacher Randall Johnson and his high school shop class built a new throne for the courthouse lawn’s northwest corner. The throne measured eight feet tall and sat on a decorated platform. For his first appearance, a public address system allowed people to hear the conversations between Santa and those children who sat on his lap. An estimated 600 children came to Ithaca that night to see Santa. Afterward, someone threw a ceremonial switch, and the lights in downtown Ithaca came alive with the Christmas spirit. During that December, merchants held a “Price is Right Contest,” which gave away over $500 worth of gifts in Kernen’s Department Store window to the person who could guess their total price. John Smolka won the contest by guessing the exact retail total of $530.34. The Ithaca Chamber of Commerce stated that over 3,000 entries took place.
Going o into the 1960s, more Ithaca residents participated in events with Santa’s arrival and the start of the Christmas season. The Ithaca Jaycee Lighting Contest awarded a $25 Savings Bond to the first place winner. In 1962, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin McGillis won the contest after cutting out and painting over twenty figures for the Nativity scene in front of their home.
A year later, in 1961, people started to become aware of the work of Glen Rhines, building superintendent at the courthouse, who continued the Ithaca Christmas tradition each year with his work. For the next few Christmases, one could see Santa atop the Gratiot County Courthouse, along with his sleigh, decorated Christmas trees, and elves. A Nativity scene sat in front of the courthouse. Each year, Rhines added to the year’s previous display. Rhines’ work made the Gratiot County Court House one of the most important places to see in the county when it was lit up in the evenings.
It was also in the mid-1960s that Santa started a tradition of arriving in town aboard a sleigh pulled by Hollis Cooper’s ponies. Sometimes the ponies wore antlers.
However Santa arrived in Ithaca, it seemed that the children in town kept turning out in larger numbers. By the end of the 1960s, well over 1,000 children turned out to greet Santa on his first trip to town. It now became common to see lines of children measuring over two blocks long, each with their desire to tell Santa what they hoped he would bring them for Christmas.
For many children born after World War II, the arrival of Santa Claus in Ithaca was an essential part of the Christmas season.
Author’s note: This article is a follow-up and an expanded piece based on a column that I wrote for the Gratiot County Herald earlier in November 2020.
When people hear about festivals that have taken place in Gratiot County’s past, not many people think about turkeys. However, during the 1940s, many throughout Michigan knew Gratiot County and Alma as the turkey capital.
It all started in 1941 when the Central Michigan Turkey Growers and the Alma Chamber of Commerce joined to hold the first state Turkey Fest in late October. A group of 200 people gathered at the Alma Odd Fellows temple and attended the first meeting thrown together in less than ten days. Upon the platform that night in the Odd Fellows Temple, a majestic tom turkey, weighing over fifteen pounds, sat inside his cage and oversaw the festivities. Judges crowned Ithaca High School students Colleen Townsend and Wanda Gabrion as the first Turkey Queens. The Gratiot County agricultural agent, C.P. Milham, was the person who endorsed the idea of a Turkey Fest, and he served as chairman of the program. On that night, H.S. Babcock, editor of the Alma Record, served as master of ceremonies. A professor of Michigan State College told the audience that Gratiot County then served as the largest turkey and chicken producing county in Michigan. He then added that an estimated 30,000 turkeys had been raised on 129 turkey farms in Gratiot County in 1941.
One of the things on the program that night in 1941 included demonstrating the proper way to carve a turkey. A magic show entertained the audience, then came the crowning of the two Turkey Fest queens. Participants who attended received balloon squawkers, and they could see balloon-shaped turkeys that sat on the decorated tables. Frank Cross, who owned the tom turkey on the stage that night, was given another big turkey as an award. Mrs. Carrie Cole, another area turkey farmer who did work with the program, also received an award. A total of sixteen turkey farmers who donated turkeys for the feast received recognition for raising more than 3,000 birds in 1941. The hastily prepared first Turkey Fest appeared to be a success, and plans were launched for another one in 1942.
However, what Turkey Fest promoters failed to consider was how World War II would affect meat supplies due to the war. In July 1942, organizers started the plans for another Turkey Fest, and by late summer, the organizers set it for October 29. The banquet took place at Alma’s Odd Fellow Hall, and it was open to anyone who could pay the $1 admittance ticket. Those who supported the second Turkey Fest hoped that the Alma festival would eventually grow to rival the Tulip Festival or Cherry Festival. A total of 236 people attended despite tire rationing and a 35-mile speed limit due to the war. Miss Mildred Stehlik, one of three daughters of turkey growers who received nominations, was voted Turkey Queen. The evening’s surprise came when one of the fifteen donated turkeys went to auction and received a premium when bidders moved to purchase war bonds. Mrs. Homer Fulton of Alma first won the large turkey with a bid of $305. However, she returned the bird for a second auction. When the bird’s re-auction raised another $355 worth of bonds, the winner gave it back, and a final winning bid brought in another $315. Suddenly, a member of the audience raised the bid on one of the auctions so that the second Turkey Fest raised $1,000 in bond sales for the war effort. After the meeting, a list of turkey farmers showed that Gratiot County had close to 40,000 turkeys in 1942.
Unfortunately, what Turkey Fest followers failed to imagine was how World War II would affect meat supplies due to the war. The government froze the turkey market, and that dashed plans for a 1943 festival. A similar situation happened the next year. Hopes were high that the Central Michigan Turkey Growers would hold the Ithaca festival in 1944, after being held in Alma the first two years. The Ithaca Chamber of Commerce and Ithaca Methodist Church planned to host and feed crowds on December 5. Within two weeks of the initial announcement, another notice ran in the Gratiot County Herald. It read that “due to events which were unforeseen a short time ago,” Ithaca had to cancel the program.
Gratiot County would not see the “Turkey Festival” (the new name) return for another three years, but in 1947 things began to change. With the end of World War II and no more war ration and restrictions, Turkey Festival returned to Alma bigger than ever. Because of this, the Alma Chamber of Commerce sent out an announcement asking if anyone had extra rooms to rent for the many people coming to Alma. The advertisement for the 1947 Turkey Festival also was carried by WJR in Detroit. The fest also coincided with the annual meeting of the Alma Production Credit Association, which brought 750 stockholders to town.
For the first time, Turkey Festival debuted as Michigan’s first dressed turkey show, and it took place between the holidays. In this manner, the festival’s timing allowed turkey farmers to conclude Thanksgiving business and yet display finished birds. The Michigan Turkey Growers Association also canceled its tour through southwest Michigan. Instead, it merged with Gratiot County for the festival. Notices of a Turkey Queen selection went out to high schools at Ashley, Fulton, Alma, St. Louis, Breckenridge, and Ithaca. In each school, the student body would vote and choose their school nominee. Unfortunately, because Alma hosted the event, the high school decided not to elect a candidate. St. Louis High School then had a policy of not selecting a queen for any purpose. As a result, this year’s Turkey Queen candidates included Donnavere Abbott (Fulton), Belva Thum (Ithaca), Donna June Cook (Ashley), and Elda Crittenden (Breckenridge). In the end, judges chose Elda Crittenden as the 1947 Turkey Queen.
New events at the 1947 fest included the planned arrival of Michigan Governor Kim Sigler to preside over the activities. However, plans changed when Sigler underwent emergency surgery in Lansing. Hence, Lieutenant Governor Eugene C. Keyes came to Alma in Sigler’s place. After the Turkey Festival ended, Queen Elda Crittenden and her court traveled to Lansing to personally deliver the governor’s winning dressed bird. A picture shows the four girls with Governor Sigler wearing what appeared to be a hospital coat over his dress suit.
Activities welcomed those who entered the contests and those who just came to observe the festivities. Entries for the various turkey contests took place at Exhibition Hall, a recently constructed Quonset hut on the corner of Superior and Pine Streets. On the afternoon of December 4, a parade took place down the main street, led by the Alma College and Alma High School bands. Following the parade, a turkey race for boys and girls featured youngsters chasing their birds down the main street to the finish line. Norman White and Bill O’Boyle claimed the $25 savings bonds as prizes.
A turkey banquet and the crowning of the queen took place in the evening. On December 5, judging classes took place throughout the morning, followed by a demonstration for ladies on holiday foods. For the first time, judges gave out premiums totaling over $600 to contest winners. Also, over at the Strand Theatre, anyone could get a free turkey sandwich.
When the 1947 Turkey Festival ended, a total of 130 turkeys had been on exhibit. Zeeland Hatchery had the largest bird at 37 ¼ pounds. Soule’s Turkey Farm of Jackson won four out of six championships. Gratiot County winners included Deloy Henney of Middleton, the Hoyt Turkey farm, Joe Pinter of Alma, and Mrs’ Clark Howland of Ithaca. Since Turkey Festival opened itself to more people from around Michigan, more non-Gratiot County turkey farmers entered and started winning more contests. Because of its success in Alma, Turkey Festival was again would place in 1948.
The Alma Chamber of Commerce proclaimed that “An even bigger and better Turkey Festival is destined for Alma in 1948 than (was) the one of 1947.” As planning for the 1948 festival began, Turkey Festival attracted attention from places outside of Michigan. LIFE magazine inquired about the possibility of sending photographers to capture the event. A Chicago motor company contacted the city and asked for information about the Turkey Festival, and they were not alone. The Chamber of Commerce also reported that organizations from Ohio, Illinois, and California showed interest in the upcoming festival. There were even companies that asked for permission to help decorate the city. However, the Chamber proclaimed that the Turkey Festival’s focus would be to show that Michigan turkeys were as good or better than those anywhere else. Michigan could become the leader in turkey production.
The next Turkey Festival took place on December 7-8, 1948, and the banquet at the IOOF Hall drew over 300 people. The evening’s high point took place when judges chose Fulton High School senior Dorothy Ramsey as Turkey Queen. Her court included Doris May Kinney (Ithaca), Doris Neitzke (Breckenridge), Evelyn Shaw (Ashley), and Pat Anderson (Alma). Don Hoyt of Jeddo had the largest turkey, which weighed 37 pounds 8 ounces. Mary Haines of Vassar won grand champion Tom, New York dressed. For local winners, H.J. Pinter took reserve champion full drawn bird. Again the Turkey Festival gave out $600 to winners in various contests. Most of the categories had as many as nine or ten entries, both locally and from around the state. Demonstrations took place on how to prepare turkeys. Panels taught farmers how to keep Michigan turkeys healthy. After presenting the awards on the second day of the exhibits, an auction sale for the winning turkeys took place.
In all, the 1948 Turkey Festival enjoyed another success as it had tripled in size from the previous year. Entries came in from all over the state of Michigan. The downside of the festival’s success was that fewer Gratiot County turkey farmers competed in the contests.
Although people in Gratiot County did not know it at the time, 1949 would be the last time that a Turkey Festival would take place in Alma. Billed as being “still bigger and better than before,” this festival took place over three days (December 7-8-9). Alma College’s Memorial Gymnasium hosted the activities.
Organizers emphasized educational events such as cooking demonstrations at Alma High School gymnasium where women learned how to cook a turkey by the piece. An informational meeting about turkey marketing in Michigan followed this demonstration. People who wanted free turkey sandwiches could get them at the high school. Twice as many exhibit booths as the previous year meant exhibits now had to be viewed inside the banquet hall.
Early in November 1949, Fulton High School senior Connie Sanford became Turkey Queen. Her court consisted of Phyllis Kinney (Ithaca), Marilyn Stine (Ashley), Mary Anita VanAtten (Alma), and Leta Conklin (Breckenridge). This time Governor G. Mennen Williams came to Alma for the crowning of turkey queen during the banquet. Williams had his picture taken with the queen and her court. Governor Williams also auctioned off the grand champion and reserve champion turkeys. Williams’ auctioneering met with success when he sold the 32-pound grand champion for $9.50 a pound to Grant Hess of the St. Louis Park Hotel. For his help with Turkey Festival, Governor Williams received the largest bird at the show, a 43 pound Tom raised by Henry Preston of Quincy, Michigan.
When it came to contests, dressed birds remained the focus. After choosing the winning birds on the first day, they went to be dressed. On the third day, the turkeys appeared on display. For fun, a 1949 “Fashion Show” took place with turkeys and chickens wearing different costumes.
Attendance increased so much that more people had to be turned away from attending the banquet. However, there had been whispers that the festival would soon move away from Alma. While many Michigan turkey growers said they would return in 1950, local officials feared that the festival would end. The officials were right.
When 1950 rolled around, Turkey Festival no longer was a part of Gratiot County. Newspapers appeared to be silent about the reasons why it would not be held in Alma. Probably the Michigan Turkey Growers Association and Michigan State College’s Agricultural department wanted other parts of Michigan to benefit from moving the festival. What had started with an idea in the early 1940s and then grew to an annual event to celebrate turkey farms in Gratiot County and mid-Michigan, quietly passed away.
Still, for a brief time, Turkey Festival had been the thing to see and do in Alma, and it became a part of Gratiot County’s history.