Ferocious or friendly? During the 1960s, many residents had to decide which word best described several wild animals that arrived in Gratiot County. These “beasts,” made up of at least seven different species, could be found on display and seen at various times and places in the county.
These animals, made out of fiberglass and often moved on small trailers, were used for promotions by business owners, movie theaters, and parades in Gratiot County starting in the late-1960s. Many young people of that time saw these creatures: an elephant, bear, turtle, rhino, gorilla, lion, and hippo.
One of the first times the fiberglass animals appeared was in June 1967, when they took part in “bargain circus” sales in downtown Ithaca. Area shoppers were invited to store sales, and children received free snow cones on Friday evening. The animals’ appearance in Ithaca was just the start of several encounters between these beasts and the Gratiot County public starting that summer.
These animal promotions soon spread across Gratiot County. Over at Alma, the Jaycees, led by Terry Johnston and Frank HInderleider, sponsored what they termed the “Greatest Show on Earth,” a combination of promotions for the Strand Theatre and Alma merchants. Theatre owner John Musser promoted P. T. Barnum’s birthday with the reissue of Cecille C. DeMille’s movie “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which starred Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, and Betty Hutton. During that week, on Wednesday, July 5, 1967, an old-fashioned circus parade in Alma featured fiberglass animals. Afterward, when anyone passed the front of the Strand Theatre, they could see the elephant with the lion posed alongside it. At the start of the promotion, Musser, Johnston, and Hinderleider had their picture taken with the two animals, with Musser sitting on the elephant. Inside, the Strand displayed several of P.T. Barnum’s famous exhibits, while a circus barker stood out on the street each evening.
Two months later, in September 1967, the city of St. Louis also used the animals for sidewalk sales. As part of the sales Mayor Larry Shirely dressed as a circus hunter in an African safari-decorated theme in front of Shirely’s Furniture Store with the elephant in front. The elephant continued to be popular at Halloween when Kernen Buick-Opel rented it for car sales in Ithaca. Other merchants also rented some of the animals at different times. Another picture showed one on display in front of the Dog-N-Suds drive-in when it opened south of St. Louis.
Toward the end of the 1960s, the animals showed up in Alma in a parade for Santa’s arrival after Thanksgiving. A picture shows two helpers, dressed as Porky Pig and Donald Duck, pulling Harry the Hippo on a miniature wagon down Superior Street. More animals were probably in the parade on that day. They also made appearances during Alma’s Highland Festival in 1968. One photo shows a lady dressed as actress Phyllis Diller standing between the arms of the bear, each on a small float sponsored by Van Atten’s of Alma.
Gratiot County’s “wild animals” no doubt made many more appearances as the years passed. The question today is, what happened to these fiberglass animals? Before the Covid-19 outbreak in the late summer of 2019, I stopped to look at what may be the last remaining fiberglass animal in the county, the elephant. Today, the elephant is missing one tusk, but he is on display in front of Best Sales and Service, visible by those passing the business on State Road south of St. Louis.
Many in Gratiot County may recall the famous Dandy/Tony’s Restaurant chicken that sat in front of the restaurant in St. Louis starting in the late 1960s. Was this renowned chicken one of the original fiberglass animals that came to Gratiot County during that decade? The story goes that the chicken was purchased and installed by Joe Nako when he owned the Dandy, making the chicken a landmark in the St. Louis community for decades. However, it is unclear exactly where Nako obtained the chicken.
Regardless, many baby boomers can recall the giant creatures. Possibly they were sold out of state, went into the hands of private collectors, or ended up being destroyed over time. Today, although the fiberglass “wild animals” that came to the county appear to be gone, their memories with the Gratiot baby boom generation continue.
Oscar Collins as he appeared on the day that he entered Marquette State Prison in May 1921.
Brown Street neighborhood in Alma as it appears today. Both the Crowe and Collins families lived on or near this street in 1921 when Ellen Crowe was brutally murdered.
In the end, the scratches on Oscar Collins’s face caught up with him.
On a night in early February 1921, a young woman named Ellen Crowe was attacked and brutally strangled to death on her way home from shopping in Alma. Crowe tried to fight off her attacker, swinging and digging at his face as two strong hands choked her. The murderer then dropped the young mother’s body at a crime scene fifty yards from her home. The neighborhood was south of the area formerly known as Millerville. Ellen Crowe’s death was Alma’s second murder in four years, and both had taken place only five blocks away from each other.
In a sense, the death of Ellen Crowe (sometimes spelled Crow) was the result of the burgeoning liquor trade during Prohibition. Money was to be made selling moonshine whiskey, and every Gratiot County township had its liquor law violators. With moonshine quickly selling for $20 a jug, big and small stills operated in all parts of the county. At Crowe’s murder, the Lansing State Journal reported that Gratiot County officials knew “that it (was) practically impossible to keep moonshine out of Gratiot County.” In response to this homicide, Gratiot law enforcement immediately searched for a murderer and cracked down on a liquor ring in Alma.
Ellen Crowe, age 28, was a dedicated mother with a good reputation. She and her husband, Thomas, raised five children aged nine years to sixteen months. The Crowes struggled to support their family and had moved into their home on Brown Street less than a month earlier. Thomas Crowe took a night watchman’s job at a lumber mill in the town of Alba and had only been working there for three weeks. The situation left Ellen, who previously worked for Mrs. Laurence Sinkovits as a house cleaner, to raise the children while holding a job. Ellen sometimes walked into town for groceries along a path from Brown Street, which eventually connected to the railroad tracks. She soon learned that a nearby shack contained moonshine whiskey, and a neighbor sold it. For the sake of her children and her morals during Prohibition, Crowe became concerned about Oscar Collins, who owned the shack and was a well-known moonshine supplier in Alma.
During the holidays of 1920, Oscar Collins was brewing and supplying buyers with whiskey as part of what was known by many as “Alma’s Moonshine Ring.” Selling moonshine around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays meant a lot of money for Collins. When someone asked about buying moonshine during a haircut at an Alma barbershop, the barber spoke up and said, “Just see Oscar Collins.” An immigrant, “Oscar Callens” arrived in the United States in New York in 1913 from Conegheim, Belgium, aboard the SS Noonland. He soon went to Chicago, married, had several children, and moved to Gratiot County. He quickly became known around Alma as “The Belgian,” possibly due to his accent and rough demeanor. Collins also had relatives in the Gratiot countryside. Most of these family members were farmers, and one of them, Victor Collins, had a farm several miles south of Alma, making it an excellent location for creating and holding moonshine.
Upon arrival in her neighborhood, Ellen Crowe soon learned that Oscar Collins was dealing in moonshine, confronted Collins about his shack, and threatened him to stop or she would turn Collins into the police. As a result of the threats, Collins moved his moonshine to the local lumber mill near the railroad tracks. Because of Ellen Crowe, Oscar Collins lost business around the holiday season, and Collins remarked more than once to others that “She (Crowe) will get what’s coming to her.” In fits of anger over lost liquor sales, Oscar Collins made comments to several men inside the whiskey ring. Collins stated that Ellen Crowe “squawked” too much, she would pay the price, and that “I will fix her” and “I will take care of her.”
On the early evening of Saturday, February 5, 1921, Ellen Crowe went to the post office and the Cleveland Grocery on Bridge Street, then stopped at her employer’s home, Mrs. Laurence Sinkovits on Grafton Avenue. As Ellen prepared to leave for home, Mrs. Sinkovits urged Ellen to be careful about walking down the tracks to get home as the route could be dangerous. Ellen went that direction because there were no sidewalks, the railroad tracks were drier, and this offered a shorter route home. Crowe said goodbye to Mrs. Sinkovits, then proceeded down the steps and went her way. It was sometime after 7:00 p.m. Ellen Crowe would never be seen alive again.
Early the following day, February 6, 1921, around 10:00 a.m., two boys, Donald Blanck and Paul Ritter traveled along the path from the railroad tracks, then went past Collins’ shack and found a body. It was that of Ellen Crowe, who laid just over fifty yards from her home in the pathway. Near the body were a letter, newspaper, a bottle of ketchup, and a jar of olives. One rubber was almost off Crowe’s left shoe, and her fur collar covered her neckline. The collar covered some of the marks on her neck. Ellen’s cap was partly off, but her purse remained intact, suggesting that the killer was not after her money. The police were called and soon appeared on the scene of the crime. After a quick autopsy, which showed five finger marks on the right side of her neck and three on the left, the coroner ruled that death resulted from strangulation. When police and neighbors went to the Crowe house, they learned that the children had spent the night alone as their mother had failed to come home. Another murderer was on the loose in Alma, and the police immediately went into motion to find out who killed Ellen Crowe and why.
The police and sheriff’s department quickly controlled information about the murder and the investigation. Most of this resulted from the bungled and confusing elements surrounding the Beatrice Epler case in 1917. During the Epler murder, Alma police felt that too many people helped muddy the investigation as they went after a reward to help solve the crime. Also, the lack of arrests nearly three months after Epler’s murder contributed to a long, drawn-out trial and conviction. Many in Gratiot County felt that there remained questions about who killed Beatrice Epler and if the right person had been convicted or not. After four years, the court had not yet awarded the reward money for those who then supposedly helped solve the Epler murder. Strangely enough, the resolution of the reward money took place just after Ellen Crowe’s death and subsequent trial.
In 1921, the Alma police and county sheriff’s department followed the strict rule not to tell anyone on the outside about the Ellen Crowe investigation. Police did allow one local newspaperman, Homer Dunham of the Alma Record, to be present while questioning suspects. Outside newspapers like the Lansing State Journal and Detroit Free Press wanted and demanded the same type of role as observers and access to information in the case that the Alma Record and Gratiot County Herald received. However, the “outside newspapers” were kept out and objected.
Starting on the same day that Ellen Crowe’s body was found, the Alma police acted on tips and confessions from those who were part of those who belonged to the “Alma Whiskey Ring.” The day after the murder, police brought nearly a dozen men to Alma’s City Hall for questioning in what police called a “John Doe court for investigation.” It did not take long for some of the men to talk. Herbert Rigg, Victor Collins (a cousin), Julius DeVeres, Joseph DeKeiser, William Stevenson, Stanley Baker, and Howard Griffin were suspects. Other names would also be mentioned: Joe Brennan, H.L. Thompson, Dan Duffey, and Arlie Ingraham. Herbert Rigg was among the first to break and eventually turned state’s evidence. Several men had heard Oscar Collins swear that anyone who messed with his liquor trade “would get what’s coming to them.” More than one in the group said that the threats Collins made all pertained to Ellen Crowe. These confessions pointed Police Chief Vibber and Sheriff Willert to one man: Oscar Collins.
Collins was brought in that Sunday night after the murder, and police invited Homer Dunham of the Alma Record to witness what was called “the grilling.” Others in the whiskey ring had received this same procedure that consisted of repeated, rapid-fire, endless questioning that lasted most of Sunday night and into Monday morning – all in an attempt to find out who killed Ellen Crowe. As soon as Collins appeared at City Hall, the police and Homer Dunham first noticed a series of deep scratches on Oscar Collins’ face. When asked why he had such marks, Collins repeatedly stated that he received them from playing with his fourteen-month-old child earlier that weekend. Collins confessed to having been at a nearby grocery store that Saturday evening of the murder, purchased some potatoes, and walked home. While Collins admitted to dealing in moonshine whiskey, he also stated that he had been outside Alma for much of that Saturday at his cousin’s farm. Collins never admitted to killing Ellen Crowe, saying that his only encounter with Crowe occurred when she picked berries near his shack the previous summer. At that time, the Crowes lived in another house in the neighborhood. Finally, when pressed to confess to the murder, Oscar Collins stared at the police, then bluntly said, “Prove it.” He was let go that night.
However, after weighing the information gleaned from the rest of the “Alma Whiskey Ring,” the threats by Oscar Collins, and most of all, the appearance of scratches on Collins’ face, the police arrested him five days later for the murder of Ellen Crowe. Investigators believed that Collins had followed Ellen Crowe home that evening (he said he had been at a grocery store), or Collins waited for Ellen to pass on the trail while he hid behind his shack. Collins then attacked Crowe and proceeded to choke her to death. In her defense, Ellen Crowe swung wildly and tried to fend off the attacker by scratching his face. Unfortunately, Crowe could not defend herself against a stronger foe, but she clawed the attacker repeatedly in the face before she died. A photographer from Alma, Willard E. Baker, took pictures of the murder scene and at least one photo of Oscar Collins in the days following the murder because it showed the scratches. Over the next few months, several photographs of Collins appeared in county and state newspapers, with profiles that featured his face’s right side. Pictures of Ellen Crowe with her young children also appeared in the newspapers.
Oscar Collins was quietly arraigned later that week by the sheriff’s department, and almost no one in Ithaca knew that Collins was appearing before a judge. He then sat in jail for weeks before his arraignment while others in the Alma Whiskey Ring faced the quick judgment of the county court. Judge Moinet immediately sentenced most of the men within two weeks of the murder. Several of them received six months to one year in the Ionia Reformatory. When Dan Duffey, one of the ring members, came up for arraignment, he tried to bail himself out. When he did provide bail for $1,000, additional charges were placed against him, and Duffey was forced to raise another $1,000. When he met that bail, prosecutors submitted another charge against him and asked for still larger bail. This time, Duffey, out of money and friends to bail him out, went to jail until his sentencing. As the arraignments and sentencings came down on the whiskey ring, county newspapers reminded readers that every citizen needed to cooperate with law enforcement to stop selling and distributing illegal liquor.
In March, prosecutors showed the court cause for a case against Oscar Collins by only revealing enough evidence to warrant a trial and to avoid thus tipping their hand to the defense. This procedure left the defense attorney, Romaine Clark, guessing what precisely the prosecution had on Oscar Collins. One of the problems Clark had was dealing with those from the ring which turned against Collins to save themselves. A key witness was Herbert Rigg, who claimed that he twice heard Collins threaten to kill Crowe on New Year’s Day, saying, “I’ll fix her (Ellen Crowe) before she ever squawks on me again.” Rigg noted that he was with Collins on that day when they retrieved whiskey, which Collins hid by a nearby bridge. Rigg also stated that he believed that Ellen Crowe was murdered because of what she knew and that she was going to the police. After reviewing the motions by the prosecution, the court granted a trial for Oscar Collins, who remained in the Gratiot County jail for two more months. When Collins was allowed a visit with his wife and children, the entire Collins family was observed and told they could only talk to each other in English.
On May 9, 1921, the Oscar Collins murder case began and lasted ten days. Almost all of the jurors save one were either farmers or retired farmers in Gratiot County. Collins appeared relaxed, happy, and smiling at his table during the first two days of the trial, believing that the prosecution would fail to convict him. Collins’ wife and children also saw him for a few minutes in court daily. Things for Oscar Collins began to change on the third day of the trial. One of the points of the trial dealt with the marks on Ellen Crowe’s neck and the size of Collins’ hands. Prosecutors argued that the bruises and marks on Crowe’s neck were a match, even though the defense questioned this throughout the trial. Regardless, the brutality of Ellen Crowe’s death kept being brought in front of the jury. In another twist, the sheriff testified that he examined the child Collins claimed scratched him. However, the sheriff remained unconvinced that a young child could have caused large and deep scratches just a day or hours before police had first questioned Oscar Collins.
Three men also testified to the threats Collins made against Crowe, including Arthur Easley, a tailor who bought moonshine from Collins several times and had been inside the Collins shack. He was another man to testify to Collins’ threat: “By God, I’ll get her (Ellen Crowe). I do not dare to keep liquor at the house.” Neighbors also testified that Oscar Collins was one of two men they saw outside, looking and pointing toward the scene of the murder the following morning. Another problem for Oscar Collins was his alibi for the evening of the murder, which he changed since his arrest. Although Collins confessed to dealing in illegal liquor and implicated his cousin Victor Collins in the process, Oscar Collins had concocted his alibi about being out of town during most of the day of the murder and that Collins was out at his cousin’s house. Now Oscar Collins said he could not have been in Alma when the murder occurred. This explanation did not match earlier testimony and conflicted with the story that Collins had been at a grocery store that Saturday night. When he took the witness stand in his defense, Collins confessed to selling moonshine, but he was adamant about being innocent of the murder of Ellen Crowe. Although prosecutors pressed him about changing his story, Collins remained firm that he was now telling the truth. Still, there remained inconsistencies from defense witnesses about where Oscar Collins was and what he did on the day of the murder. Also, there was conflicting testimony about when some defense witnesses saw the scratches on Collins’ face. As the trial wound down, some defense testimony did not agree or sound convincing.
On the last day of the trial, a Saturday, the court met, and the jury adjourned at 11:00 a.m. The verdict came back in three hours: Oscar Collins was guilty of first-degree murder, and he would receive a life sentence in Marquette, Michigan. On the afternoon of May 27, 1921, Oscar Collins, accompanied by deputies Ray Willert and Sydney Williams, arrived at Marquette State Prison to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Before the start of the trial, Ellen Crowe’s funeral took place on February 10, 1921, and she was placed in Alma’s Riverside Cemetery vault. During coverage of the murder, some newspapers referred to her by her former name, Mamie Ellen Stull. Soon, Ellen’s husband and children picked up and moved to the Grand Rapids area, where Thomas Stull later remarried.
Collins immediately tried to appeal his case to the State Supreme Court. A group of people made up of family members and a Belgian newspaper in Detroit solicited and raised $2000 for the appeal. The appeal was denied in 1923, and Collins continued his prison time at Marquette. As another consequence of his crime, Oscar Collins’ wife divorced him.
However, Collins got a break in August 1935 when Michigan Governor Fitzgerald made him eligible for immediate parole. Judge Moinet, who oversaw the trial in 1921 and now served as a judge in the Eastern Michigan District Federal Court of Detroit, refused to recommend Collins for any early out. On the other hand, Gratiot County Judge Kelly Searl, who had been the assistant prosecutor in 1921, wrote for a pardon and said that” while the jury found Collins guilty, there always has been doubt in my mind.” Collins’ prison records show that he worked as a janitor and had been noted for good behavior.
After he got out of prison, “The Belgian” became a naturalized citizen in 1942, later lived at Jackson’s Trailer Camp in Van Dyke, Michigan, and died in 1973. Collins was buried in Bay County, where his marker read “Father.”
Strangely, however, in all of the years since the 1921 trial of Oscar Collins, no other person was ever arrested or tried for the murder of Ellen Crowe. She was simply an Alma woman concerned about her children and the liquor traffic in Gratiot County during Prohibition and who met her fate at the hands of “The Belgian.”
In the late summer of 1916, the city of Alma had a problem. The city needed to construct a new sewer and water system, and citizens voted to pass a bond to approve the project. In 1916, women were not allowed to vote in elections; however, in this case, they could vote on the bond issue.
Anti-suffragists in Alma (most likely men) had problems allowing women to vote. They feared women would move toward a larger goal, such as gaining full equal rights to vote in other elections. To keep Alma women from voting, they tried one tactic. Anti-suffragists cried that if women voted that morning, they were taking time away from home duties such as raising the children and keeping the house.
In response, women in Alma showed that they had had enough. On that election day, many women in the city organized and descended upon the voting precincts precisely at 3:00 pm. Anti-suffragists were so astonished at the women’s turn out that someone, or some people, tampered with ballots by incorrectly folding them. This move resulted in the disqualification of many of the votes. However, enough good ballots overcame the anti-suffragist scheme, and the Alma bond issue passed decisively, thanks to the large turnout of women.
While these Alma women made a statement about their right to vote in 1916, there was still a way to go for women in Gratiot County to gain the same right to vote that men had. However, women took a decisive step forward the following spring.
In April 1917, Frances Burns, a national women’s suffrage movement leader, was the key speaker at a meeting held at the Alma IOOF Hall. A total of 60 women came and signed up as National League for Women’s Service members. Together they raised $74.25 toward their $200 goal to establish a county chapter.
The women’s suffrage movement picked up more steam as state elections approached in the fall of 1918. By that September, it appeared more and more that Michigan was ready to grant women the right to vote. Another mass meeting at Alma High School featured Frances Burns and E.C. Warriner from Central Michigan Teachers College as speakers. At the same time, the state Republican Party began publishing advertisements in county newspapers stating that the party now endorsed a women’s suffrage amendment.
Suffragists set out across Gratiot County to find out just how many of Gratiot’s women wanted the right to vote. These canvassers reported that 90 percent of the women in the county wanted the right to vote and signed petitions. In many places in Gratiot County, the third Sunday in October 1918 became known as “Suffrage Sunday,” as local ministers were asked to use that Sunday to support women’s suffrage. Also, on that Sunday, Mrs. F.M. Harrington held a county rally at 2:30 pm in Ithaca. Probably the tiny turnout on that day occurred because of the existence of quarantine measures due to the Influenza Epidemic in Gratiot County. Even though only 40 women showed up, local merchants began sponsoring advertisements in the county newspapers saying that they too supported women’s right to vote.
Suffragists applied other pressure to how Gratiot County’s population should think about women’s suffrage. During each week in October, a large advertisement appeared in the Alma Record showing how many men voted in the last election and how many women petitioned for the right to vote. In Alma’s first ward, 254 women signed petitions demanding voting rights. Notices of women’s intentions in Alma’s other wards soon followed.
As the right to vote headed toward its goal in the fall of 1918, only one thing stood in its way – the Influenza Epidemic hit the county in October and now was spreading. Large meetings were discouraged, and women needed to postpone their plans. But would they?
On November 7, 1918, Gratiot County voted on the issue of women’s suffrage and the right to vote. A total of 2,349 residents said yes, while 1,496 said no. While a few of the county’s precincts had close votes, only Newark Township failed to support the issue of a woman’s right to vote.
It seemed that by the time of the state elections in 1918, Gratiot County and other counties got the message – it was time that women be allowed the right to vote the same as men. While it would be another two years before the United States passed the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, the issue of women’s suffrage by that time was a done deal in Gratiot County and Michigan.
Soon other things in the county came about due to the 1918 vote. The county’s Republican Party established the Women’s Republican Club and courted women to join the organization. In 1919, Gratiot County had its first trial in Ithaca, where the jury consisted only of women. A year later, Sara Brodebeck became the first woman to run for public office when she ran for the county clerk’s position as a Democrat in 1920. Brodebeck was soundly defeated. However, the number of votes she garnered appeared to many in the county to be a moral victory.
As the decade of the 1920s began, Gratiot County women now possessed something that many women labored nationwide for decades – the right to vote.
In January 2019, I started a journey of writing about Gratiot County during its watershed moment of the Twentieth Century, which was (and is) World War II.
Before starting this project in 2017-2019, I was completing a history of Gratiot County during World War I, as that war was commemorating its centennial. It was challenging to finish that project and shift gears, but I needed to do so. Technically the 75th anniversary of World War II had been underway, and the two wars overlapped with their respective anniversaries. Still, I wondered, who was paying attention to America’s involvement in these world wars and who cared?
Because the 75th anniversary of World War II was well underway, I decided to pick up Gratiot County’s involvement beginning in January 1944, leaving me with the task of covering the last twenty months of the war. Most of the writing you find here on the blog was based on our history, as seen from our county archives and newspapers such as the Gratiot County Herald, Alma Record, and St. Louis Leader-Press.
As time went on, it turned out that it took me 3 ½ years of my own life to cover 20 months of Gratiot County’s history during that time of war. Although I did not anticipate it, the world of COVID threw up roadblocks and challenges that none of us anticipated. Archives and libraries closed, which hampered this project while we dealt with the first pandemic to hit Gratiot County since 1918. With these shutdowns, I quickly fell behind my goal of finishing the history on time; hence here I am in the summer of 2022. The last six months of the war proved very taxing as more war coverage expanded in 1945. Still, I attempted to try and write about some of the events, issues, and people tied to Gratiot County during World War II.
And so, the project expanded as time went on. After writing a total of 96,111 words about Gratiot County during World War II (or an average of 4,805 words per chapter), there were some things that I wanted to highlight to readers:
-I hoped this project would be a start in preparing for the time when Gratiot County looks back at the centennial of World War II when the county gets to the 2040s. I hope I am here at that time, but right now, I have only had the grit and energy to cover the last two years of the war (1944-1945).
-What I wrote about here on the blog was a chronicle, drawing from what I believed to be the most important topics and themes during the war. Things like rationing, farming, the draft, who served and where they were stationed, and those who were wounded, killed, or missing in action – all of these were key to the war here on the home front in Gratiot County.
-No matter what events, places, and names were covered, there were more that should be mentioned. Similarly, no matter what letters of service members were published or stories of where our men and women were during the war, there were more. It became impossible to write about them all – and sometimes, I was asked why I missed a reader’s father or grandfather. I probably missed stories of those wounded in action, although I tried to recognize those we lost as killed in action.
-Looking back, Gratiot County pulled together and overcame the crisis we know today as World War II. However, it came with a high cost. A total of 116 men lost their lives defending Gratiot County and the nation, and their names appear on the All Wars Memorial in Ithaca. The war also did not ultimately end for some men who did come home. Veterans struggled to find work and how to support themselves and their families, even as economic problems came with inflation and the adjustment to a “peacetime economy.” Some of these men struggled in their marriages and with what we today know as a post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, these men went on and helped build the postwar county many of us inherited. The return home of these servicemen also triggered what became known as the “baby boom,” which affected schools and school enrollment for several decades.
-Probably the most important question from this look at Gratiot County during World War II remains this one: if a national emergency such as another world war took place, could Gratiot County (and America) come together as it did in the early 1940s? Members of that generation asked that question as we passed through the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam, economic recessions, political scandals, good times, and bad. Could we, as residents of Gratiot County, come even close to what “The Greatest Generation” pulled off? I seriously wonder about trying to answer that question.
That generation and events made up “Gratiot’s Finest Hour.”
Private L.C. Whitford uses a Ford-Ferguson tractor for the Percy Jones hospital center agricultural school farms at Fort Custer. Whitford was recovering from wounds received while serving in the 26th Infantry Division in France.
The End of the Pacific War
The title of a county newspaper on August 9, 1945, read “Ruination is Visited on Japanese.” It had been three days since the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima; now, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan, and just like that, the Second World War in the Pacific had ended. Signing a peace treaty and getting American troops into Japan would take a bit longer. Still, most in America heard and believed that the war was over. Gratiot County had officially been at war with the Axis Powers for almost exactly three years and eight months.
There had been warnings to the public that the Pacific War against Japan could go on until late 1946. Now, not only did the war end suddenly in August, but the atomic era began in human history. These new weapons would usher in new and dramatic changes across the world. It turned out that the official surrender of Japan was announced in Gratiot County during the early evening of Tuesday, August 14. In response, the county went wild.
Just how did V-J Day affect Gratiot County? Celebrations in the county caused businesses and factories to close. Most did so on Wednesday and some on Thursday because President Truman declared a two-day federal holiday. Still, it was unclear which day the community was supposed to celebrate – and many people celebrated both.
City sirens, horns, church bells, and factory whistles went off once the news arrived on Tuesday evening. Unorganized celebrations in Alma started that evening and continued into the next day. People took to their cars and trucks, plugging intersections and downtown streets. In Ithaca, Howard Goodspeed tried to bring in wheat that he had thrashed for farmers in Newark Township. When he pulled his wagon-load into the village, traffic was stuck and backed up toward the city park as people in Ithaca got out of their cars, honked their horns, danced, and celebrated. Across the county, a joyful celebration exploded that marked the end of the long war that started at Pearl Harbor.
During different celebrations, men in service uniforms stood out in the crowds. In Alma, an impromptu snake dance occurred throughout the downtown, causing the streets to become littered with scraps of paper. Some people in cars threw corn and grain into the air to simulate confetti while bystanders and automobile drivers thought they were being hit with stones. Michigan issued a state wide 24 hour shut down of all places selling liquor, starting Tuesday night. Yet, Alma police who tried to monitor the traffic sere were very lenient with those who appeared to be inebriated.
Alma had an official parade to end the war at 9:30 am on Wednesday. The Alma Chamber of Commerce, which had loosely planned for a victory parade in town whenever it happened, took charge and assembled those who wanted to participate. Moving down Superior Street from west to east, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts led the parade. Then came the returned service members, V-12 apprentice seamen from Alma College appearing in white uniforms, followed by school children and numerous cars and trucks.
St. Louis also made noise as people spilled into Mill Street, but things appeared more orderly. On the previous Saturday, Representative T. Jefferson Hoxie distributed handbills on what St. Louis would do when the war’s official end took place. A parade quickly was assembled, led down the street by the St. Louis High School band. Snake dances broke out, led by sailors and other service members in uniform. Sirens, horns, yelling, and celebrations continued late into the night. At one point, the American Legion “shot” an effigy of Hirohito at Saginaw and Mill streets.
While many St. Louis churches had no plans for services like they did during D-Day, most were open to the public for prayer and meditation. The coming Sunday services in town were also meant to be a time of commemoration and thanksgiving.
However, people quickly wondered what stores, businesses, and factories were to close, and for how long? President Truman had announced legal holidays for Tuesday and Wednesday, but for federal employees only, which created confusion in Gratiot County. On Wednesday, in Alma, all stores and businesses shut down, as did many factories. The Gratiot County courthouse also closed for the entire day. The problem for some was how long to stay closed. Banks and city offices opened up on Thursday, as did most grocery stores which observed the summer ritual of operating on a half-day on Thursdays. Owners had to decide how long to stay closed due to nationwide confusion on what the holiday (or holidays) meant.
When it came to the end of the war it turned out that Gratiot County did play a small role in building the atomic bomb. The Alma Trailer Company built and trucked hundreds of three-section homes to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Workers there used these homes while secretly working on the bomb.
Regardless, Gratiot County celebrated the longest and most costly war it had fought. Now, it was time to celebrate, rest, heal, and mourn. The Second World War was now over, even though it had cost Gratiot County well over one hundred of its young men who tried to defend the county and nation.
During the last month of the war, the main issues for Gratiot County farmers centered around potential problems with crops and how to enable returning service members to return to farming.
The corn, beet, and bean crops all looked like they had improved from a rough spring-early summer start. Some farmers feared that corn would be affected by a poor yield unless the county had a late summer.
One issue that the county did not have was harvesting enough wheat – which was turning out to be the largest crop in fifty years in Michigan. So much grain came in that elevators did not have enough train cars to haul the wheat. By early August, some shipping had improved as more freight cars arrived to take away the grain, but elevators in Michigan still needed 5,000 more cars. Farm leaders feared that if something did not happen in August, elevators would dump and pile wheat outside, leaving valuable wheat to spoil in bad weather. For the first time that summer, due to the largest oat crop in 25 years, the government offered loans on oats graded Number 3 or better. The loans averaged 48 cents per bushel.
Other problems like potato blight, corn borers, and coddling moths appeared. Another problem in the county dealt with the increased number of starlings, which became topics of conversation in towns. The Alma mayor took complaints from residents who complained about the large flocks of birds. In the end, the mayor admitted, “We will just have to take it (the problem with birds).”
Milk production continued to run well as 347 cows in 26 herds averaged over 740 pounds of milk and 30 pounds of fat. Over in Breckenridge, A. J. Neitzke had a brown swiss that produced 1,764 pounds of milk and 70.6 fat.
Another issue that Gratiot County farmers dealt with was migrant labor. During the war, Mexican labor became an essential part of the farm season as laborers started to appear early in the summer. The federal government again increased payments for farmers who contracted to grow more sugar beets in 1946. Farmers already received $12.50 a ton for beets, but who would help cultivate and harvest this critical crop? The answer involved Mexican workers.
The number of Mexican laborers and their families in Gratiot County and the Saginaw Valley grew each summer during the war. As a result, something needed to exist to allow both husbands and wives to work in the fields. Two centers, one in Breckenridge and another in Beebe, were places where Mexican children could be left while their parents worked. At these locations, Miss Katherine Andreas and Miss Christine Moreno worked under the Home Mission Board, holding Daily Vacation Bible School and weekly recreation programs for migrant children. The recreation programs were well attended, and in Breckenridge, as many as 145 migrant children participated. The Gratiot County Council of Churches paid $300, almost half of the anticipated budget, for the programs, while the Home Mission Board in Chicago made up the rest. The program provided Spanish and English classes, and trips for migrants.
Unfortunately, one of the issues that appeared in the news dealt with an occasional arrest of a Mexican worker. In early August in downtown Ashley, Antonio Fernandez assaulted another worker with a knife during a brawl. Geronimo Linares received a deep gash from his ear lobe to his upper lip, which took fourteen stitches to close. Fernandez stood trial in Ithaca for the assault. Despite this incident, the overwhelming number of migrant workers who came into the county to work each summer worked hard to support their families and caused few problems.
Other news items involving farmers included farm programs, plans for returning veterans, and other new methods of protecting crops. The Gratiot County Farm Bureau had its annual picnic at Conservation Park in Alma. Day Bigelow and Clarence Cornwell became new Farm Security Administration committee members. Their goal was to help returning veterans find work on county farms. Returning servicemen were eligible for forty-year, three percent loans under the Bankhead Jones Farm Tenant Act. The veteran needed to be an experienced farmer, and he received help if he could not get credit elsewhere.
Emerson Township became the focus of a farm inheritance study from the Michigan State College Farm Management Department. The purpose of the survey centered on helping farmers transfer their farms safely to the next generation. The program also stated that tenant farmers made up 31 percent of the farms in Gratiot County. Finally, weed killer 2-4D was applied to areas west of Alma on the Naffzinger farm for poison ivy. In Alma, other people like R.H. Mantey’s and Carl Vanderbeek’s home received the spray for bindweed, artichoke, ragweed, burdock, and catnip, as did the Thomas Home Garden west of Alma. Many people remained curious about how effective the spray would be and how it affected these locations in the next year.
Rationing Takes a Few Turns
The end of the war with Japan immediately changed how rationing affected Gratiot County. However, rationing had a way to go before it completely ended. Until V-J Day, county newspapers continued to urge citizens to conserve tin, paper, fats, oil, and sugar.
Meat rationing and distribution remained a hot topic in the county, even though cuts occurred in rationing points for beef, veal, and lamb. During the summer, Black Market operations and the public’s desire for more meat plagued the Office of Price Administration (OPA). In some places in Gratiot County there seemed to be confusion about how much meat one could purchase as well as rationing points. The issue about meat rationing was important enough that local Grange meetings invited OPA spokesmen to come and explain what was going on with meat rationing.
In August, the biggest news about rationing concerned what became known as the Bartley Trial, the first OPA case to take place in Gratiot County’s Circuit Court. Before this trial, individuals who faced charges regarding rationing violations faced the law in Bay City Federal Court. This time a court case involving rationing violations officially took place in the county. James A. Bartley, the proprietor of Bartley’s Market in Alma, several times sold meat above ceiling prices and the OPA warned the Bartley to stop doing so. Complaints about Bartley first started in 1943, and he received official written warnings by mail at least three times. Bartley was also accused of slaughtering cattle, calves, and hogs for over three months in 1945 without officially registering his slaughterhouse with the OPA. Because Bartley refused to heed the warnings, the OPA now took him to court and asked that his license be suspended for one year. At sentencing Bartley most likely benefited from the sudden end of the war in August as he only faced a sixty-day suspension of his license.
The end of the war improved rationing in some areas, while others remained unaffected. Varieties of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing now required fewer points and lower retail prices. Tomato, orange, and grapefruit prices came off the rationing lists entirely. Shoe rationing was expected to end within two to three months, easing the anticipated need for fall and winter shoes. On the Wednesday after the Japanese surrender, rationing of gasoline, fuel oil, oil stoves, and blue point canned foods all officially ended. The printing of 187,000,000 newly designed ration books for the next year of the war suddenly halted. The OPA believed that enough ration stamps in the current books would last until 1946. The government told the automobile industry that it could return to total production with a goal of producing 5,000,000 new cars. The problem was that the companies needed more materials. In the mean time, the companies prepared to set their prices for new automobiles, which were expected to be above the old 1942 ceiling prices.
The tougher rationing news was that some items would still need to be rationed and collected. Sugar, fats, oils, and butter remained rationed until 1946. The OPA feared that bottlenecks in the supply chain would occur, even though the military now required less of these items. Tractor and implement tires came off the list, but not passenger and truck tires.
Still, as August ended, more news from the OPA came out with more reduction points for butter. The rationing office in Ithaca also began to cut hours back to a forty-hour work week and closed on Saturdays.
The United States Navy claimed it had 327,000 Navy men ready for immediate discharge, even though those with critical skills remained in the service. The first group targeted for early release involved those who were older and who had served longer during the war.
Despite the end of the war, the draft continued. The Gratiot County Draft Board followed orders to call those men ages 18 to 25, with 18-year-olds being the focus. Fifteen young men left Monday, August 13, for induction in Detroit; all but one went into the Army, while one entered the Marines. Franklin William Burke was the group leader of this contingent. Bernard Evey from Sumner and Marvin Gabrion from Ithaca headed into the Army. The lone Marine in the group was Young Hoyt from Alma.
In August, a final call went out for 17-year-olds who wanted to join the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program. These volunteers had to be high school graduates, and needed documentation of their parents’ consent and also proof of graduation. Residents in Ithaca received the Veteran’s Post War Community Survey. This survey asked Ithaca citizens what work opportunities existed for veterans who had no jobs when they came back home. The advertisement and survey form appeared in the Gratiot County Herald.
The Red Cross
While the Pacific War had no end in sight during the first week of August, the Gratiot County Red Cross requested the public’s help. To meet the needs of returning servicemen and veterans, a second Red Cross Home Service Office soon opened in Alma. Volunteers were needed as the chapter had no intention of closing down or reducing its hours.
Russell Gaffney, a former businessman and well-known figure from Alma, returned home after spending fourteen months as a Red Cross assistant field director in Caledonia in the Pacific. Upon his return, Gaffney took up his old duties as head of the Gratiot County Bureau of Social Aid in Ithaca. He replaced Grover Brenneman, who became a supervisor in Bay County.
Letters Home to Gratiot County
During August, letters from across the world found their way into county newspapers. These letters reminded readers that Gratiot County still had men in Europe and the Pacific.
Seaman Second Class Charles LeBaron of Alma wrote to his wife about his time aboard the USS Hale, which saw action in the Pacific. LeBaron made it as far as an atoll near Ulithi, where he became a part of Task Force 8. In March, the group headed toward the Japanese mainland in preparation for the Invasion of Okinawa. Within two weeks, the USS Hale was sending planes to attack the island of Shikoku and dodging Japanese dive bombers became more of an issue as the destroyer carried out its missions. One time a dive bomber narrowly missed the Hale. LeBaron recalled, “A Jap dive bomber picked us out while protecting a damaged destroyer and tried to get us. We fired everything in the book at him, but he kept coming g. We were all pretty scared since we thought he was a Kamikaze, but he wasn’t.” The plane missed the destroyer by 30 feet and shook the crew up, but no one was injured. LeBaron recorded lighter moments, such as the appreciation of receiving mail from home, which unfortunately was not frequent enough. Also, when he arrived in Guam he saw the first Red Cross girls and nurses in a long time, which reminded him of home. Arriving at Leyte in the Philippines, the crew rested, then headed toward the Japanese homeland. The USS Hale became the first American destroyer to bombard Japan and targeted the Kamasihi Steelworks.
Another shorter letter appeared in the newspapers from Private Bill Lator, who was from Ashley. Lator was now stationed in the Philippines, had a brother who was trying to get home from England and another brother stationed in Arkansas.
Doyle Plank wrote to his sister from the Mediterranean Theater, where he found a beautiful place in the aftermath of war. Plank served with the 798th Air Material Squadron as part of the 548th Air Service Group. Based on the Adriatic coast north of Rimini, he had to leave Florence, a place that he loved. Plank knew many Italian families from traveling the streets of Florence. Doyle wished that his sister could have seen the beautiful valley and sloping hills surrounding the city. As he concluded his letter, Private Doyle noted that he sat at a desk only 300 yards from the waterline of the Adriatic Sea.
More letters came from occupied Germany, where soldiers described the war’s end. Private Clare Ingersoll wrote from Stockstatd, Germany, after traveling 700 miles in a GI truck across the French Alps to the French Riviera. Arriving at Nice, an international resort, soldiers found places to stay that the Army now occupied which once charged $30 to $50 a night. Ingersoll wrote, “It is truly a wonderful place, but awfully hot – so hot that one could have gone around without anything on, and the only result would be a bad sunburn.” He also mentioned a bus trip to Grasse (which was a major perfume center), Cannes, and Monte Carlo. However, Monte Carlo was off-limits for all troops. Private Frank Masarik wrote to his parents from Austria. He had just received two letters from them and stated that he would soon be headed to France. After nine months in the Army, Masarik received four battle stars, but humbly felt
he never did anything too important. He commented, “Maybe I never wanted to do anything brave. After the first days of combat, I saw how it was. It’s very easy to get shot, which I came close to getting in Bastogne.” At one point, while attacking the town of Fay, Masarik was one of only ten men left in his platoon that held their position for several hours until German tanks entered the fray. After he and his fellow soldiers took out most of a 20-man German patrol with grenades, he and others retreated. The man closest to him was hit, while Masarik escaped with only bullet holes in his shovel and canteen. He was grateful to have lived through the encounter at Fay, and he pledged to tell his parents later in detail what else happened.
Major Albert Anthony, the former pastor of Alma Presbyterian Church, wrote from Austria. He described visiting Hitler’s lair in the Alps. Anthony saw Hitler’s home, which sat on the brow of a peak and had a gigantic picture window. Amazingly, no part of Hitler’s home, the surrounding guard posts, or other buildings could be seen from the valley. Hitler’s window measured fifteen feet high and twenty-five feet long, but it was completely shattered. The interior of the house was burned, and all he could see were remains of furniture, bed springs, and overstuffed chairs. Anthony also mentioned that Hitler’s lodge had been equipped with the latest movie picture equipment. He also noted that dugouts and tunnels with complete living quarters ran for six miles into the mountains.
Finally, Sergeant Fred Hicks of St. Louis wrote from Berlin, Germany, as part of the 82nd Airborne’s occupation of the city. Hicks had been promoted and made it to Berlin by mid-August. The billets in Berlin were the best Hicks and his fellow paratroopers ever had. He wrote, “There are approximately three men to the room, and we have Beds (capitalized and underscored) to sleep on and our own bathroom (underscored) which is just a few steps from this room. As soon as we get some fuse plugs, we will have hot water.” Even though the water was cold, he had electricity, and the place to stay was nice. Hicks also thought it was wonderful to have dressers and drawers. “It is a relief to pull a drawer open and pick up what we want instead of pulling everything out of a bag and finding what you want on the bottom.” Private Max Capen of Wheeler and Corporal Paul Rademacher of Alma were also in the 82nd Airborne.
Even though it was only August, families were urged to prepare now to get items mailed overseas to their service members for Christmas. An article in the Alma Record informed readers of the rules for packaging items and deadlines for mailing.
Those Who Served
News and updates about those who served Gratiot County continued in August 1945.
Lieutenant Avery Granger of Alma was part of a combined white and colored engineers who worked on the Ledo Road from Burma to China. Seaman 2/C Steve Plesko of Ashley had been aboard the USS Guam as it engaged the Japanese from Okinawa to the edge of the Sea of Japan. On March 18, the USS Guam made its debut in battle in the Ryukyu Islands. Also in the Pacific, Seaman 2/C Albert Camargo served aboard the USS Birmingham. The Birmingham had traveled over 121,000, starting with the Invasion of Sicily to the battle at Okinawa. Camargo’s wife lived in Alma. Lieutenant Colonel W.B. Keyes of Elwell was home to speak to the Ithaca Rotary Club. Keyes vividly remembered being present at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack and described how he was knocked out when a bomb hit his hanger. Keyes had a long list of places where he saw action as a pilot in the Pacific, which included Midway, Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, and Burma. His service earned him four oak leaf clusters, the silver star, and the Purple Heart. Keyes also earned the nickname “Bridge Buster” for his successful attacks in the India-Burma Theater. Sergeant Virgil Nelson of Perrinton spent two days successfully doing reconnaissance work in the Benguet Mountains of Northern Luzon, Philippines. Nelson had one enemy encounter, which lasted 45 minutes, but left 15 Japanese soldiers dead. He later commented that “I never saw so much lead flying.” Technical Sergeant Ford Parling of North Star was stationed at Saipan. He had been overseas for more than three years. Pharmacist’s Mate, First Class Roland Mayes, Jr. of Alma, had several close escapes during the Battle of Okinawa. Besides swarms of flies and mosquitoes, water problems, and lack of food supplies, Mayes survived being blown out of his hole at least four times – all without a scratch. Okinawa was the most intense fighting Mayes experienced in 38 months of service. Felton Muscott, Seaman First Class aboard the USS Hornet, received a two-week leave to come home to see his wife and three children. It was the first time Muscott saw his youngest child named Patty. Muscott had been aboard the Hornet when it survived a typhoon off the coast of Japan. Also caught in the same typhoon, RM2C Paul Martin of the United States Submarine Trutta remembered encountering winds of 150 miles per hour. The Trutta sank seventeen Japanese trips at one point. Brothers and cousins surprisingly met on Okinawa when Wayne Flegel, Romaine Flegel, and Nyal Flegel. Wayne and Romaine were Marines; Nyal was aboard the USS Sou Barrisson. The three had leave and spent one day and night together after not being together for three years. Glen Reeb, Water tender 3/C of St. Louis, served aboard a destroyer in the Pacific. Reeb spent over 20 months in the Pacific and witnessed action at Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Carolines, New Guinea, Marianas, Philippines, and Okinawa. His ship shot down four Japanese planes and sank an enemy submarine off Truk Island. Reeb attended Ashley High School before his service. Private Harry Hill of Alma had his picture taken with two other Michigan soldiers at a rest camp on Okinawa. The three men had been together in the same company for two campaigns. Hill had been overseas since late July 1944.
Sergeant Leonard Kaslander had been in Iceland, England, Ireland, and France as part of the headquarters of the 5th Infantry Division. A teacher from Shepherd Schools, his wife lived with her parents in Alma. First Lieutenant William Barstow of St. Louis came home on thirty-day leave after being at Nuremberg, Germany. Barstow was executive officer of the Motor Battalion of the Chemical Warfare Division. Barstow’s battalion was the first to cross the Remagen Bridge on the Rhine River during the war. After spending nearly three years in England, Sergeant P. Snacker of Ashley came home for a thirty-day leave, including the last six months in the Army Air Force. As of August, Snacker had eight years and seven months of service for the United States. Lieutenant Frank Baker of Perrinton came home on thirty-day leave after serving with the 42nd Bombing Group. He had been overseas piloting his B-17, “Dream Girl,” and led a bombing mission over Berlin. Before coming home, Baker transported liberated prisoners from Austria to England. Both Corporal Joseph Koval of St. Louis and Sergeant Rudy Tilharik of Ashley reported to the West Coast in anticipation of deployment to the Pacific. Both men had been in the Mediterranean Theater. A group of eight Gratiot County men returned home after serving with the 772nd Tank Destroyer Battalion as part of the 75th Division. Although they only entered combat in late December, the battalion saw intense action in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. Among this group were: (Alma) Staff Sergeant Arthur Cole, Corporal Lyle Goward, Sergeant Paul Sapp, Corporal Maywood Morris, Private Harold showers; (Ashley) Staff Sergeant Rudy Tihlarick; (Carson City) Private Carroll Mann and Technical Sergeant Mervin Rinckey. After seven months in Italy, Private Arthur Courter of Forest Hill came home on a 34-day leave. Corporal Joseph Mikula of Elwell went many places with the 296th Signal Installation Company. Among his many stations included England, Scotland, Wales, Africa, Italy, France, Germany, and Austria. Mikula now was back in Italy and awaited transportation home. Carl Peterson of Alma earned his honorable discharge with 89 points and mustered out of the Army. Peterson served overseas for three years and was part of the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion, First Armored Infantry. He saw action and went to places like Tunisia, Naples, Foggia, Rome-Arno, Upper Apennines, and the Po Valley. T/5 Milford Peacock of St. Louis, who had been part of the 35th Santa Fe Division, fought from the Elbe River to within 42 miles of Berlin. Peacock first touched European soil when he landed in France on July 7, 1944. He was now on his way home to St. Louis.
In the United States, Technical Sergeant Glen Langworthy, Jr. of Elwell, served as an instructor for nineteen months in the Army Air Forces engineering school at Marsh Field near Riverside, California. He recently moved to Boise, Idaho, to take a course for engineers of bomber crews. After completing paratrooper training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, Private Eugene Smaltz of Middleton came home on a 17-day leave. His next stop was Officers Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Marine Private Laura Simmons of Ithaca first worked to make B-29s for Fisher Body Corporation in Lansing; she then joined the Marines in February 1945. A 1940 Ithaca High School graduate, Simmons completed boot camp at Camp Lejeune and now served at the Marine Corps air station in El Toro, California. Corporals Arlene and Margaret Fortney of Ithaca finished their schooling at Fort Oglethorpe and Percy Jones Hospital. Both girls managed to get one day of leave to visit their parents. The Fortney sisters liked their work and welcomed letters from friends. Lieutenant Dorothy McClintock, an Alma High School graduate, was stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and announced her engagement to Technical Sergeant Orlynn Eyer, also of Alma. Eyer spent two years in India with a signal corps service group.
Finally, a few of Gratiot County’s servicemen would bring home other people known as “war brides.” Kenneth Harrier, a member of the Maritime Service in England, married Miss Gladys Jones. They met while Harrier prepared for the D-Day Invasion, and three days after their wedding, he was back aboard his ship. In another instance, Corporal J. B. Guild of Ithaca married Miss Mable Miles of Brighton, England. Corporal Guild was a 1934 Ithaca High School graduate and worked at the Phillips 66 station until going into the Army in January 1942. Corporal Guild served in Iceland, England, and France. He eventually received a two-week leave to return to England to marry his English bride. After the wedding, Guild returned to the continent and was stationed in Germany while awaiting his discharge. Like the Harriers, Corporal Guild planned to have his bride come to Gratiot County – which ultimately happened!
Those Wounded, Killed, Missing
In August 1945, one saw the costs of defending Gratiot County by those who returned home but who had been wounded.
Private L.C. Whitford of Alma was sent to Percy Jones Hospital Center. Whitford appeared in a picture on the front page of the Alma Record driving a Ford-Ferguson tractor on the hospital’s agricultural school farm at Fort Custer. Whitford was expected to fully recover from injuries he suffered while with the 26th Infantry Division in France. After being wounded in the Pacific, Captain Michael Andrews of Alma came home with his wife and two sons from Fort Jackson, South Carolina, after having a third operation on his leg. After visiting his parents in Alma, Andrews had to return to Fort Jackson. Second Lieutenant John Skriba of Ithaca became a new patient at Vaughn Army Hospital in Hines, Illinois. Skriba had been in the service since 1941 and served as platoon infantry leader in the Pacific for 25 months. While it was not told how Skriba was wounded, he received a presidential citation and the Purple Heart after seeing action in the Marshalls and on Atter, Okinawa, and the Philipines. Private Marvin Haas, formerly of North Star, came home on a 30-day leave after being wounded on February 8 while crossing the Ruhr River. Haas had been part of the 6th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army. After coming home, Haas returned to Bordens General Hospital in Chickasha, Oklahoma. The Gratiot County Veterans Counselor, C.R. Robinson, attended a conference in Lansing. Robinson learned that some men coming home to Michigan from the Pacific still suffered from return attacks of malaria.
Despite the ending of the war, more bad news arrived in the county regarding those who paid the ultimate price for service for the county. Private Clyde Damon of Riverdale had been reported wounded in action on December 14, 1944, near Strass, Germany. After months of uncertainty, Mrs. Alta Daymon was told that her son died the following day and was buried in Margraten Cemetery in Holland. It was a hard and bitter blow for the Daymon’s as they held out hope for over six months that Clyde would be found after being listed as missing in action. Private Ralph Rud of Merrill died in early May and memorial services took place at the Merrill Congregational Church. Rud, who was with the 32nd Rainbow Division, died on Luzon, and he had a brother living in St. Louis. Rud also left behind a wife and three children. More news came in regarding Private Melvin Thrush of St. Louis, who died in Italy in March. Thrush’s body had been found inside a house that served as an outpost. However, at the time of the confirmation of Thrush’s death, the Army still could not tell the family exactly where Thrush was buried. The town of Breckenridge took a double hit when two men died who were on the same ship while transporting the atomic bomb across the Pacific to Guam. The USS Indianapolis was torpedoed off of Leyte on July 30, and Seamen Dan Karpol and Wilbur Bott were among the 883 men killed or missing after the cruiser sank. An early report stated that ten officers and 305 enlisted men survived the sinking after five days at sea. Still, Karpol and Bott were not among the survivors. Other tragic deaths took place after the war ended. News of another sad ending reached Middleton as Seaman 2/C Charles Rule was officially declared lost at sea. Rule had been missing since June 16 when the destroyer Twiggs was hit and sunk by the Japanese during the fighting off of Okinawa.
Corporal Don Freeman died in a drowning accident in the Elbe River near Grippel, Germany. He was on his way to embarkation when his death occurred. In another loss, Sergeant Warren Clark of Alma drowned during a Victory Party near Spokane, Washington, at Silver Lake. Clark had been a middle school teacher before entering the service.
And Lest We Forget in August 1945
Fair premium checks were mailed to all Gratiot County fair exhibits. Some went to individual winners, and those who did not receive their checks were asked to contact their leaders…The M&S Flint Yellow Dogs played a softball game on the Rathbone Field on a Friday night. A note read that “This Flint team is one of the outstanding colored teams in the state.”…The Ithaca wading pool opened on August 4. Measuring 34 by 24 feet, it was the only water sports facility in the village. It held 6,000 gallons of water…Carson City defeated Fulton in baseball by the score of 2-1. Shortstop Brauher had two hits for the losing team…Donald Healey, age 13 of St. Louis, tragically broke his neck while diving at Turck’s Beach on the Pine River near Alma. He was taken to R.B. Smith Memorial Hospital in Alma…In another incident, Francisco Yadez, age 22 and a Mexican sugar beet worker, drowned at Turck’s Beach on July 31…Private Jack Ecklebarger of North Star wed Miss Joyce Clark, also of North Star. Ecklebarger had just returned from England and was on his way to Camp Grant, Illinois…Those who threw away tin cans in Clinton County now could be subject to a ten-dollar fine. All tin needed to be saved for salvage for the war effort…Merle Rhoads of Breckenridge planned on opening a Gamble Store. The Gamble Store would be one of more than 17,000 in Michigan…The Sickles and Barton schools held their annual reunion at the Grange Hall in Sickles…Talk of building a community swimming pool began in Alma. Most of this resulted from problems at Turck’s Park dealing with water quality and the safety of swimmers…Those who wanted to apply for jobs at the Alma Post Office as substitute clerks and carriers could do so. The introductory rate of pay was 84 cents an hour, and applicants had to be sixteen years old…The Alma Board of Education announced that it planned on closing the Alma East Side Library, which had been in operation since 1937…Captain Tom Crocker, a worker on Detroit’s Bowery, prepared to speak at the Salvation Army in Alma. Crocker had once been an inhabitant of the Bowery himself…Alma Recreation bowling alley was sold to Porter Field of Mason. The alley had operated since 1939.
A lack of building material held up the plan of building fifteen new residences in St. Louis. Although construction started on one house on Saginaw Street, a lack of lumber stopped all other building plans…A water shortage also continued in St. Louis as repairs continued on three city wells. Residents were told not to make unnecessary use of water…A Social Security manager from Saginaw planned on being at Alma’s city hall for anyone interested in discussing claims or account numbers…Having trouble with poison ivy? Buy Te-ol at any drug store in the county…Gratiot County supervisors eagerly entertained discussion about a proposition from the Alma City Commission that Alma airport property be conveyed to county government. Discussion also took place about a city swimming pool being part of a memorial to those who served in World War II. Alma’s Center Street continued to be a busy place on Saturday nights. Public dances in a State Street hall continued to filter out into the streets, causing “liquored patrons” to dance, yell, and utter profanities and left broken glass. Complaints were issued to the city commission…Swimming at Twin Bridges continued to increase as Turck’s beach was deemed unfit. The new swimming hole was located west of the Ely School…Leonard Refineries held its sixth annual picnic at Conservation League Park on a Saturday. It drew 350 people…Not to be outdone, the Gratiot County Farm Bureau held its annual picnic at Conservation Park one week later…The Orin Riker American Legion Post in Ithaca planned a new year of activities, had new officers, and welcomed the ideas of World War II service members. The meetings were open to all honorably discharged veterans from World War I and World War II…Doctor F.R
McNabb of Ithaca received a fractured collar bone after being thrown from his sulky in an accident at the Ionia Free Fair. McNabb was using his horse, Billie Breeze, in the race…Mrs. Grace Johnson of the Ithaca Airport took the engine from a Blue T aircraft back to Pontiac for repairs. Don Barden took a solo flight in early August…Buster Diaz and a fifteen-year-old friend were arrested for shooting dice for money on Breckenridge sidewalks. Diaz paid $6 to avoid jail and sentencing…A total of 175 people came to the reunion of seven schools at Bannister. The reunion took place at Holiciks Woods just north of Bannister. Mrs. Ella Hoover Bishop received flowers for being the oldest living pupil of the Bannister Scho l. She attended school there in 1880… Gratiot County got an oil well in Elba Township. Merrill Drilling Company hit oil on the Elmer Cook farm in Section 14 of Elba Township in early August. Oil was discovered at 2432 feet…A flower and vegetable show was sponsored by the Breckenridge Garden Club. The Methodist Church hosted the program in the basement…On a Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Della Story of Wheeler hosted a Garden Club on her lawn.
“A Song to Remember,” starring Paul Muni and Merle Oberon, played at the Ideal Theatre in Ithaca on August 9…St. Louis Schools planned to open for the year on September 4. The Board of Education rented the Adventist School in southeast St. Louis for one grade…More news came to county newspapers that DDT produced by Michigan Chemical in St. Louis wiped out flies on Mackinac Island. A public bonfire took place to burn the many fly traps that were no longer needed…President Truman was expected to abolish the use of wartime. During the war, Gratiot County residents heard about slow time, wartime, and Eastern Standard Time. The Michigan Legislature needed to pass an act in order to adopt EST…An Army plane came to Gratiot County to pick up an emergency supply of DDT to fight an outbreak of polio in Rockford, Illinois. Combatting flies was believed to be the best way to fight the transmission of polio…Miss Maurine Stovall exhibited three photographs at the National Photographers headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. Two of them were considered among the best fifty photographs in the country for the previous year…The ninth installment of moratorium taxes was due on October 1, according to the county treasurer. These taxes covered the years 1935, 1934, and 1935…An estimated 500 Lobdell-Emery workers went to Lumberjack Park in Riverdale for their first annual picnic. Participants enjoyed a full day of activities. The Alma Scots battled the Chippewas at Mt. Pleasant in what was billed as a heated rivalry that went back to 1897…North Star Township schools released the names of teachers for the upcoming year. They included Pauline Greer, Martha Neilson, Florence Pittman, Norine Peters, Reva Zancewicz, and Mozelle Pete s. The Barstow School still needed a teacher…Victor Manzullo’s grill at 224
East Superior in Alma was being remodeled for the new Jim Brown Store, which was attached to the Brown Fence and Wire Company of Cleveland, Ohio…Fulton Schools would open for school on September 4 at 9:00 am Central War Ti e. The school still needed a music teacher…Ithaca Schools would open on September 5…The Gratiot County superintendent announced that employment problems with the road commission, which had been a nagging problem for some time, no longer existed. The return of veterans looking for jobs solved the issue…A rat situation in certain portions of St. Louis caused city officials to be concerned about a potential health problem. No action had yet been taken…Joe Purdy, manager at the Alma Strand Theatre, gave a free Saturday afternoon show to 700 youngsters. Kids stood four abreast on the sidewalk eagerly waiting to watch the comedy feature and four cartoons…August 30 was the last day in which Alma stores would be closed on Thursday afternoons. Starting in September, stores would resume regular hours…The National Housing Agency gave approval for the building of fifteen new homes in Alma. Five of the homes could be sold to owners while the other ten had been offered as rentals at no more than $60 a month…Cars could no longer be parked on either side of Wright Avenue between Superior and Elwell streets. Those who did risked prosecution, and the city commission adopted the resolution.
And that was Gratiot County’s Finest Hour in August 1945.
Next time, a summary: “Lessons Learned, Men Lost, and Things Loved from a Journey Through Gratiot County in WWII from January 1944-August 1945.”
Alma resident Julia Rench took these three photographs on May 9, 1923.
It is never too late in the year to snow in Gratiot County. Almost exactly one century ago, residents discovered that King Winter still ruled when a May snowfall buried the county with up to a foot of snow.
The date was May 9, 1923, and when I first was told this story, I could not believe it – until my uncle, the late Aaron Bliss of Newark Township, described that day to me. Bliss remembered going to bed on May 8 and then awakened to a pile of snow that started falling after midnight and throughout the following morning. St. Louis reported that it had up to a foot of fresh snow, while other areas in mid-Michigan had at least six to eight inches.
Tree limbs began to bend under the weight of the snow, as did telephone lines. Soon both went down in scattered places across the county, and communication with Saginaw was temporarily lost. Fruit growers feared the loss of the summer crop. However, state experts predicted that most crops would survive as long as the temperature did not reach freezing. They also said that the early snow might be good for killing most bugs and insect pests.
While the temperature in places like Battle Creek dropped from 73 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it did not go low enough to cause severe damage.
For Aaron Bliss and other residents, the accumulated May snow was short-lived at that time. Within a day, the snow had melted due to the warm ground, and it was soon gone. On the positive side, many farmers were happy that the snow provided much-needed moisture for the dry land.
A week later, Gratiot farmers got another blast from nature that came in the form of heavy rain. This time a total of 3.66 inches of rain came down in Gratiot County over two days, giving the ground even more moisture.
Not much exists today about the May 9, 1923 snowstorm aside from newspaper accounts. However, those like Julia Rench of Alma and Fred Howes, Sr. of Ithaca, ventured out into the snow and took pictures.
Today, the Rench and Howes photographs remind us of when King Winter visited Gratiot County for a day in early May 1923.
Above: Brice postcard of the Tabor murder scene; young John Tabor; young Edith Tabor; Edith Tabor’s death certificate; a marker of John Tabor in Payne Cemetery; the picture of the Tabor house as it appeared in the Gratiot County Herald. Someone marked the room where the Tabors met their end.
Could it have been termed a crime of passion? A jealous husband, married to a younger wife, pulls out a large jackknife and viciously slashes her in the back. After she dies, the husband then grabs a bottle of carbolic acid, drinks some of it, and then lays down next to his dead wife. Soon, he, too, is dead.
The small community of Brice, located seventeen miles southwest of Ithaca in North Shade Township, became the location of one of the most bizarre murder stories in early twentieth century Gratiot County. Almost 111 years ago, on March 24, 1911, Gratiot County was shocked by the death of a married couple near a crossroads of a farming community that had a store, blacksmith shop, and township hall, all within one mile of each other.
In the wake of the murder, many in Gratiot County wondered what led to John and Edith Tabor’s deaths, which made an orphan of a young, deaf girl.
The story began with the marriage of John and Edith (Straub) Tabor in 1895. For John Tabor, age 34, it was his second marriage, and Edith, from Hubbardston, was only 15 years old. Edith listed her age as 16 on the marriage record. What drew the two together, and why would a young girl marry a much older man? One story is that Edith, born in Gratiot County, lost her mother at a young age. John Tabor later was considered a man of some substance who eventually owned property in Florida and an estate worth $4,000, a fair sum of money over a century ago.
After a few years of marriage, the Tabors adopted their daughter, Gladys (also called Minnie in newspaper accounts), after Gladys’ mother died in childbirth. It turned out that Gladys was deaf due to contracting a childhood disease and now required special attention. Edith Tabor determined that her daughter would get help, even if it meant traveling to faraway places.
Along the way, John Tabor, known as a lazy man who labored at odd jobs, became known in the community for his temper, intense jealousy, and the belief that his young wife was seeing other men. People in the Brice community knew John Tabor his behavior, and they knew Edith for her good and upstanding character. The couple frequently fought and Edith did much of the work at home while John sat around the house.
At one point, John and Edith Tabor took Gladys to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1910 for help and treatment for her hearing loss. During the visit, John Tabor took off for Florida and got talked into buying twenty acres of land. Since the Tabors had previously leased their property in Brice to other people, they had to find a place to live when John Tabor returned from Florida. It was Thursday, March 23, 1911, and it was late winter in Gratiot County.
With no home of their own available, the Tabors ended up renting a small tenant house on the property of Valois Todd. The house was a small, drab place that had a downstairs bedroom that only measured seven by nine feet wide. When the Tabors first arrived, they quickly dumped their belongings inside and then left to tend to a sick neighbor named A.J. Thompson.
The Tabor family spent that Thursday night with their neighbors, and John and Edith quarreled so fiercely that young Gladys believed that her father would eventually kill her mother. The fighting was nothing new, as Tabor’s jealousy existed throughout the marriage.
Early on Friday morning, John and Edith returned home, and John was seen outside the house walking on the lawn as Edith unpacked their belongings. It was sometime before 8:00 A.M. when John Tabor’s fury exploded.
It is unknown what set John Tabor off that morning. Possibly he suspected that his wife had a new romantic interest, or he resented his wife’s attention for their sick neighbor the night before. Perhaps Edith’s continued concern about their adopted daughter drove a wedge between them and caused a breaking point in the marriage. That morning, it ended when John Tabor found a large jackknife and plunged it into Edith’s left side, resulting in a gash that ran along Edith’s back, causing a three to four-inch wound, breaking two ribs and severing her artery. After being attacked from behind, Edith Tabor fell to the floor and died almost instantaneously.
John Tabor stood over his wife’s body, then he went and found a bottle of carbolic acid from inside a medical bag. He opened the bottle, drank a few ounces of the poison, and dropped to the floor. John then crawled to Edith and put his head on her breast. Possibly he listened for her heartbeat, or he tried one last time to demonstrate some affection or guilt for his dead wife.
Shortly after the attack, young Gladys Tabor came home, entered the house, and found her two adopted parents on the floor in the small bedroom. Still alive and groggy, John Tabor raised his head and looked up at his daughter. Shocked by what she found, Gladys fled the house, screaming for help. However, by the time the neighbors arrived, both Tabors were dead.
The next day, a coroner’s jury was held in Middleton and confirmed the doctor’s analysis that a murder-suicide had taken place in Brice.
The Brice community and many in Gratiot County wanted to understand what resulted in the two deaths. However, all that people could do was guess as Tabor left no note. The closest explanation that John Tabor provided was that the night before murdering his wife, he lamented to a friend in Middleton about his wife’s supposed unfaithfulness. Edith Tabor was supposedly going behind his back to see other men, and Tabor said aloud that it would soon lead to her demise, possibly that very night.
The burials of the two Tabors represented how different sides reacted to the murder-suicide. Edith Tabor was taken back to Hubbardston, where she was buried in West Side Cemetery. John Tabor was buried with other Tabor family members in Payne Cemetery, south of Middleton.
Young thirteen-year-old Gladys Tabor was left an orphan. One story says that she had a child at a young age, attended the Flint School for the Deaf, and later died near Lapeer, Michigan, in November 1984.
What was the legacy of the Tabor murder-suicide? It calls to mind that women in early twentieth century Gratiot County frequently had few options in leaving a bad marriage. To leave a marriage back then, a woman needed help, either from family or friends. Edith Tabor may have felt that she had neither option, and she decided to endure the marriage for the sake of her daughter. The background of the murder also makes one realize the effects and challenges of the issue of adoption. Edith lost her mother, as had Gladys. Marrying an older man, who was old enough to be Edith’s father and who had money and property, offered a young wife and orphan a haven and stability in rural Gratiot County. In the end, each of these factors led to a tragic ending for Edith and Gladys Tabor. Soon, the Tabor house became
an image on postcards about Brice. When Gratiot County historian Willard Tucker put together a history of the county in 1913, he included a page about the Tabor incident. Tucker commented that: “North Shade Township has been peculiarly free from serious crimes, nothing approaching this in seriousness ever having been enacted within its borders; and it is earnestly hoped that the time may be far distant when another of like nature occurs.”
For many, the Tabor murder-suicide remained a horrific event in southwest Gratiot County with no clear explanations for two deaths in 1911.
It was a hot summer in Gratiot County, and the fighting continued in the Pacific.
Bond sales slowed as people grew weary of being asked to support the war effort with their money. However, people in the county continued to observe rationing of many items, some of which were still hard to find, let alone purchase.
The number of men entering the service from Gratiot County continued even as veterans began coming home from Europe or on leave before going to the Pacific. Those wounded in battle also came home, and several came to visit their families before they returned to places like Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek for more surgeries, treatments, or rest.
One could read the letters from men and women in newspapers that told about the fighting they encountered and the new places they found along the war fronts.
It was July 1945 in Gratiot County.
Draft, Bonds, and Rationing
Even as the war with Japan seemed headed toward a climax, forty Gratiot County men went to Detroit to be inducted into the military on June 19. Donald Belles of Breckenridge and Nello Wolford of St. Louis later served as leaders and co-leaders. Two men headed to the Army included Daniel Zammarron of Ashley and Jack Humm of Ithaca. In July, the United States Marine Corps opened its ranks to seventeen-year-old me and hoped to accept one thousand volunteers. As a result, Marine Corps offices opened at the Bay City post office to welcome Gratiot County who wanted to join.
The Seventh War Loan drive in Gratiot County slowed during the summer and reached less than eighty percent of its assigned goal. The county sold only about sixty-five percent of its assigned E Bond quota, signifying that war fatigue was prevalent.
Rationing continued to be an important issue in the county during July. The county rationing board issued 361 certificates for tires, most going for grade one type tires. There was good news that more than ten million new leather shoes would be available with the following shoe coupon, airplane stamp Number 4, starting August 1. The coupon was good for nine months. In December, a new War Ration Book Five, which measured “smaller than a dollar bill,” would be issued through public schools. Because of the new design, it held half as many stamps as the previous book.
People received a reduction in points for butter as the civilian butter supply improved due to reduced military requirements. Purchases could now be made for 16 rationing points instead of 24 points.
To show public support and patriotism, women from several organizations in Alma all came together for two days to process 700 pounds of tin. This group included the Civic League, Blue Star Mothers, Lions Club, Neighborhood Club, Rebekahs, Monday Club, church groups, and city employees. The tin that they processed came from cans used by Swift and Company and was so successful that the county planned another tin and paper drive for August.
On a more serious note of rationing problems, state police set up a blockade on the corner of M-46 and US-27 to look for concealed deer meat. The blockade, one of three in the state, ran from 6:00 pm Sunday until 1:00 am Monday while police searched over 300 southbound and westbound cars, but they found no deer meat. However, officers found two vehicles not from Gratiot County to violate state fishing laws. One instance dealt with illegal trout, and the other had a person with too many pike in possession. The blockades went up in the state in anticipation of black market sales in Detroit and other cities and the increased illegal hunting of deer statewide.
Although it was not related to rationing, the St. Louis Co-Op Creamery celebrated the shipment of its first carload of sweet cream to the Atlantic seaboard. The cream went east in cans inside of refrigerated cars. If the Creamery continued to receive the type of milk needed for sweet cream, a market in the east meant that the company could make an extra $100,000 in the next year. The company also installed a fourth spray drier which could process 600 pounds of non-fat milk per hour. It had taken almost two years to obtain the drier, and up until then, army requirements meant that 70 percent of all products went to the military.
Gratiot County Farming during hot July
Early in the month, farmers received warnings to look out for potential problems with their crops. Stem rust, a fungus, attacked local wheat crops in the county. Spittlebugs could be affecting wheat, oats, and barley. With haying season taking place, farmers had a shortage of workers and needed to look out for defective haying equipment such as hay racks, ladders, ropes, pulleys, and hitches.
Crop conditions throughout the county varied from area to area. Higher grounds appeared to be doing well, while lowlands suffered from late planting. Beans across Gratiot County looked good in most places, despite a late start and the fear of maggot blight. The county produced a bumper wheat crop, and grain elevators told farmers that they might be overloaded. Farmers now had to store their harvest in their bins until more wheat could be shipped out of the county.
Sugar beets went in late in the spring – and farmers did not know then that they would face an incredibly tough fall harvest in 1945 due to bad weather. Plantings went up fifty percent from 1944 but were still short of the state’s goal for sugar beets. Many farmers needed more German prisoners of war to work the fields, and harvest crops and soon got help from some of the 1,000 POWs stationed at Camp Freeland at the Tri-City airport.
The state’s peach crop looked very good and was said to probably be the only fruit crop plentiful enough for home and community canning. The state agricultural commissioner estimated that the harvest of 2,340,000 bushels meant that peaches would be on sale starting August 15.
Farmers received a beef subsidy that paid fifty cents per hundredweight on dry-fed beef cattle. They collected payments at the AAA office in Ithaca. Milk producers in the county continued to do well. W.R. LeClear’s herd in Bannister topped milk production out of the 25 herds that were tested in June. Ralph Densmore of Elwell had one cow that yielded 2058 pounds of milk.
Accusations of black market activities among farmers in Gratiot County made many angry. One potato grower, Henry Albaugh of Vestaburg, wrote a stern letter to Federal Judge Frank A. Picard about comments the judge made about farmers in mid-Michigan. Picard sentenced two Gratiot County violators of meat rationing and called for closer monitoring by the OPA. In response, Albaugh believed he had the support of over 600 farmers, who thought that the judge wrongly blamed farmers for violations in the Gratiot County area. One of the problems that county farms faced involved the issue of price ceilings for things like poultry sales or even selling a truck. Because buyers quoted different prices for items, farmers had problems understanding what they could and could not sell at a specific price. Most farmers in Gratiot County wanted to follow the guidelines, even though people like Judge Picard stated otherwise.
In early July, an electrical storm with hailstones struck Gratiot County, and lightning hit Jay Brodebeck’s barn in Hamilton Township, causing $7,000 in damage. Over in North Star Township, lightning struck and killed a horse on the Lamey farm. The North Star Washed Sand and Gravel Company also suffered a significant loss when a lightning strike destroyed its electric gravel dredge, leaving only the steel pontoons. Damage was estimated to be $3,000. After the storm, 21 authorized agents sold Federal Crop Insurance in the county, including George Schleder, who represented area number three.
Letters Home to Gratiot County
Many servicemen and women continued to serve in the armies of occupation in Europe.
Sergeant Stuart Warnaar, an Alma College graduate, was an aviation mechanic on a B-24. Warnaar hoped that he would not be sent to the Pacific and told his parents that he saw Frank Sinatra and Phil Silvers at a USO show. Even though it was hot and dusty, Sinatra put on a lengthy performance, “even more than we expected to. He seemed like a regular fellow, I thought,” added Warnaar. Italy had a great fruit country with miles of grapes, cherries, walnuts, apricots, plums, and figs, which is what Lieutenant Elizabeth Sanford from Bannister wrote to her mother from Leghorn, Italy. Sanford had been in the service since late 1942, landing near Oran and moving with the troops to Anzio, Naples, and Leghorn. She wrote, “It (the war) hasn’t all been pleasant, but there have been some nice spots in these 2 ½ years. I’ve met a great many people. I’ve seen the horror of the war. The big question in each of our minds now is where do we go from here.” Sanford still hoped she would soon be sent home. William James Gallagher of Alma wrote that he had traveled all over Italy with his medical unit, the 35th Field Hospital, starting at the heel. Now he was at the “top of the boot” and had visited Pompeii and the Po Valley. In Northern Italy, Gallagher was shocked that most Italians moved on bicycles and one-horse carts. While many Italians dressed nicely, it was not uncommon to see people go barefooted. Gallagher commented that “…I say I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my experiences, yet I wouldn’t go through another twenty-two months like the past if I were given ten million dollars. Once is sufficient.” Kenneth Dancer of Wheeler served as a truck driver and now was in Garmisch Partenkirchen, deep in Bavaria. Located near the Alps, he shared an old house with twelve men, two radios, and even gave Dancer had a room. The area wa
was a great resort place, but Dancer had little time to explore the sights. He wrote that back in March, “…I saw some of the ruggedest days of my life. It’s something I will never forget. I am sure all of you folks back home do not realize what we fellows have gone through here. I hope it won’t be long till we’re all back home.” Another Dancer, Sergeant Leroy Dancer (Kenneth’s brother), also wrote to his sister from Hodomor, Germany. He reflected on Christmas and the box he received from home, complete with socks, which he got one day before his unit invaded Marseilles, France. His Christmas dinner in 1944 consisted of the hard candy his sister sent. On March 17, Leroy Dancer was wounded near Saarbrucken, Germany, while trying to fix a cut telephone line. Knocked on the ground face first, Dancer was hit in the back of the head and would have been killed had a piece of shrapnel not hit his knife on the back of his belt. With only 64 points, Dancer thought he would not be home for another five to six months.
Lester Hooper of Ithaca wrote home from Flossenburg, Germany, where he was helping to guard 4,400 SS troops at the Flossenburg concentration camp. Hooper saw the furnace used to cremate approximately 36 bodies at one time. Mainly Polish prisoners were left when Hooper arrived. However, he was struck by the large piles of shoes of all sizes that he saw on the ground. While Hooper was aware of the anger of American soldiers toward the Germans for what happened in the camps, he hoped for true justice for those Nazis who had been in charge. “This company has as much reason to hate the Germans as nearly anyone else. From D plus two until VE Day, it sustained a thousand casualties.”
In the Pacific, Chief Petty Officer Robert Ode, whose mother resided in St. Louis, had much to say about his experiences in the Philippines. Ode rode upon one of the first LSTs to land on the beaches at Manilla. He wrote about traveling past Corregidor and how vast Manilla Bay was (27 miles across). Fighting in Manilla was fierce, and Ode learned that the Japanese had fought for each part of the city, even fighting from room to room inside the Manila Hotel. The city’s destruction looked so depressing that Ode thought it would take years to rebuild. The black market freely operated in Manilla despite the smell of decaying bodies that could be found after the fighting. Ode paid 40 cents for Coke Cola, which turned out to be a local concoction that lacked carbonation. Still, he learned that American cigarettes remained in high demand and made excellent trade material.
Gratiot County Men and Women in the Service
Even though the war in Europe had been over for two months, news about Gratiot County’s men and women appeared in the newspapers.
Private Milton Klein of Ithaca, who went overseas on Christmas Day, 1944, now was in Bad Mergentheim, Germany. Milton was the oldest of six Klein sons to be in the service. Staff Sergeant Thomas Cavanaugh from St. Louis sent home two boxes containing German guns, rifles, a sword, and several bayonets. Cavanaugh included in his letter that seventy-five percent of the city of Munchen Gladbach lay in ruins. Corporal Stanley Nesen of Alma arrived home from Camp Grant, Illinois, on leave in preparation for a return to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Nesen served 14 months with General Patton’s Third Army with an ordinance company. Corporal Fred Terwilliger of St. Louis moved to Austria after a seven-day furlough in Nice, France. Terwilliger went overseas in 1943.
Dick Robinson sent a package of souvenirs from Germany to his father in St. Louis, Dr. B.N. Robinson. What was unusual was that the package arrived wrapped in old copies of the St. Louis Leader newspaper. Private Floyd Freed, Alma, was with Germany’s 3833rd Quartermaster Gas Supply. His company supplied vehicles worked on by Italian labor service and German POWs. Sergeant Lyle Smith of Ithaca was processed at Camp Atlanta in northeast France. Smith, who served with the 13th Armored Division in the Ruhr Pocket, was expected to be part of the first ETO armored division to go to the Pacific. The same was true for Private John Moffett of Elwell, also at Camp Atlanta. Moffett hoped to receive a furlough home before going to the Pacific. Private Burdette Coleman of Alma got to live in a building for only the second time in two years after being stationed near Munich, Germany. He now guarded German POWs but “felt no sympathy for them whatsoever.” Warrant Officer John Hoyt of St. Louis arrived in Germany with the Army of Occupation after being with the United States Rest Center for one year in Rome. He graduated from St. Louis High School in 1939. Staff Sergeant Clara Wolford came home from Namur, Belgium. She had served as a telephone operator for the past two years in England. Private Harry S. Murphy sent greetings and hello from Berchtesgaden, Germany. Murphy served with the 101st Airborne Glider Infantry. In March, Private Doris Hall of Ithaca joined the Women’s Army Corps and took her basic medical training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. In June, Hall transferred to Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek.
Similar stories and updates came from men who served in Italy. Private Joseph Zigray of Alma came back to Miami, Florida, after serving 28 months in Italy. He partook in battles in Tunisia and Sicily, ending up in Italy. Corporal Norman Leach of Elwell was assigned to John H. Payne Field in Cairo, Egypt. Leach entered the service in 1943. During the Italian campaign, Sergeant Max Hagerman of Alma received the Bronze Star medal for action on the Fifth Army front. Hagerman served as an assistant squad leader with the 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division. Private Louis DeRosia of Alma came home after being discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey. A member of the Army Quartermaster Corps, DeRosia joined campaigns in Africa and Italy. Private Leland Perry of Alma transferred to a new division in Italy. Perry had been with the 88th Blue Devil Division. There also were those like Tech 4th Grade Dorwin Hagerman of Alma, who served 36 months in the Persian Gulf. Hagerman came home on leave on July 17 via an Air Transport command trans-Atlantic plane. Lieutenant Colonel William Kyes of Elwell, who had been in the India-Burman-China Theater, telegraphed his parents that he had arrived in New York City and expected to be home in Elwell within four days.
As the war continued in the Pacific, readers paid more attention to news about Gratiot County men who fought the Japanese. Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Austin of Riverdale heard that their three sons (Jack, Leon, and Lawrence) had seen each other at different places in the Pacific. Although never all together simultaneously, they managed to visit one or the other at places like Guam, Okinawa, and Hawaii. After serving in the Dutch East Indies, Private Gale Loomis of Ithaca received his discharge. Corporal Cutha Wymer of Ithaca also got his release after seeing action on Guadalcanal in the Northern Solomon Islands. Master Sergeant Gerald Housencamp served 19 months in the China Burma India Theater with the Air Corps Bomb Group and received four battle stars. Housencamp was now home. Sergeant Jarold Brawn of Ithaca received another Battle Star for serving aboard the 317th Troop Carrier Group in the Philippine Islands. Corporal Delbert Gould of St. Louis arrived safely in the Philippines and was stationed near Manilla. Two Ashley boys, Private Charles Vanecek and Private Tommy Horn met in the Pacific while aboard a ship headed for Guam, where both would be stationed. The two had their picture taken, and it appeared on the front page of the Gratiot County Herald. Over the last thirty days, reports stated that Lieutenant Alfred McCuaig led attacks on Japanese shipping lines in Korea four times. He and another pilot sank thirteen freighters during their runs off Korea’s west coast.
The WIA, KIA, MIA, and the POW
The terrible initials that families learned to fear and respect continued to appear with the stories of Gratiot County’s young men in July newspapers.
Those wounded in action were placed in hospitals at home and abroad. Private John Reed of Alma had his second operation on his right arm in Percy Jones Hospital. He had been injured by machine-gun fire while in Germany. Private Gordon Batchelder of Wheeler also spent time at Percy Jones Hospital after being wounded by a sniper’s bullet in Germany. He had previously been wounded at St. Lo after the D-Day invasion and originally spent six months in a hospital in England. Fireman 2nd Class George Shaw came home to Ashley for fifteen days after spending time in a convalescent hospital in Colorado. Shaw was seriously wounded in the battle for the Philippine Islands while onboard the St. Lo, an escort carrier. He received wounds on the right side of his body near his lung. While doctors did not know if he had damaged both lungs, Shaw faced another three to four months of hospital recovery. Lieutenant Mark Anderson of St. Louis also came home on a 21-day furlough after arriving in the United States. He spent time in overseas hospitals after being wounded on March 26 when his platoon came under intense cannon and machine gunfire. Anderson spent time in hospitals in France and England before being brought home in late June.
Then there were those who were killed in action (KIA). Lieutenant Kenneth Russell of Alma was killed in action in the Celebes Islands in the Pacific on June 19. He served as a radar navigator on a B-24 during a low-level bombing mission. Although he was killed in January, Sergeant John Townsend’s wife received his Bronze Star during a ceremony at Camp River Rouge. Townsend died in Luxembourg as a result of enemy machine gunfire. The parents of Private Anthony Bajena of St. Louis learned more about their son’s death due to tropical disease. Bajena died after being hospitalized for sixteen days somewhere in the Pacific. Marine Private John Chvojka was killed on Okinawa on June 15. Services for Chovojka took place at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in St. Louis, which had a large turnout of Blue Star Mothers and Legionnaires and Chovojka’s friends and relatives. Private Clyde Daymon of Riverdale had been listed as MIA and now was declared killed in action after a battle as part of the 15th Armored Division on December 15, 1944, in Germany. Daymon graduated from Riverdale High School in 1940. Before training for overseas duty, Daymon served for one year in the Coast Guard in Maine.
The term missing in action (MIA) could be equally stressful for families due to the uncertainty of what happened to their son or brother. Seaman First Class Charles Rule of Breckenridge was missing after being aboard a destroyer in the Pacific and seeing action in the Iwo Jima campaign. He was a Fulton Township High School graduate and entered the service on June 6, 1944. According to the International Red Cross, Private Gale Ludwick was now considered lost at sea on June 16. Ludwick became a prisoner of war after the Japanese captured Corregidor in the spring of 1942. Ludwick was aboard a Japanese transport ship that sank on October 20, 1944, in the South China Sea. Only nine prisoners escaped the ship’s sinking 200 miles from the South Chinese coast, but he was not one of them.
And So We Do Not Forget
The Ithaca Recreation Department hoped that the new community wading pool would open by July. The pool measured 34×24 feet with a depth of 9 to 18 inches. It would be painted green… On one Sunday, the Saginaw Products played against the Alma Navy team at Conservation Park. The game was a rematch after Alma gave Saginaw its first loss of the season…The death of Earl Chapman, a single man, aged 29, shocked the Middleton community. Chapman, who worked the family farm with his father, was a suicide. No reason could be determined for his death…Lewis Brothers Circus came and performed twice for one day in Alma. The circus set up south of the Superior Street bridge, just west of the river…Many people in Gratiot County took time to view an early morning eclipse as the moon slowly covered 73 percent of the sun. While some watched the eclipse with the naked eye, smoked glasses had been recommended for viewing the eclipse.
Caretaker Ray Scheib overhauled the clock in Alma’s clock tower. The clock also had its face lifted and cost $700 for the improvements…Harold A. Trower, who formerly managed the E.E Trower and Sons furniture business, returned to Alma from Oklahoma. Trower hoped to reopen another furniture business in Alma by the fall…Anyone needing help with their Social Security claim or account numbers could get help from Joseph Ramsey, the Saginaw field office manager. Ramsey promised to send a representative to Alma’s city hall to meet with people…Rademacher Motor Sales in Alma remodeled its sales building at 306 West Superior Street. The business planned on having its parts updated, new mechanics on duty, and it hoped to display new 1946 car models…Half-year license plates went on sale in Alma starting July 16…Gratiot County postal workers received an increase in their salaries to combat inflation. It was the first raise that postal workers received in 20 years…Extensive repairs had been completed on the Cheesman Bridge. A completely new approach to the bridge’s east side had new steel girders.
A total of 15 schools looked for teachers for the upcoming school year. County School Commissioner Donald L. Baker expected to fill all positions by August 20…Clarence Owen, age 24 and from Route 4, Ithaca, fell in a barn and fractured two ribs. After treatment at R.B. Smith Memorial Hospital, Owen was released that evening…Donald Wilkinson of St.Louis started a small crate manufacturing plant on North Mill Street in St. Louis. The company started making shipping containers for DDT compound produced by Michigan Chemical Company…A counselor for the Gratiot County Council of Veterans Affairs, C.R. Robinson, was available to help veterans apply for additional education under the G.I. Bill of Rights…The Alma city manager announced the blacktopping of Wright Avenue and Superior Street. The state highway department approved an improvement plan for the city. Parts of Michigan Avenue also would be blacktopped…The Alma Community Center held a reunion for 100 graduates. A total of 11 service members who had just returned from overseas were present. Maurine Stovall took a group picture of the men…Officials tried a new type of weed killer, dichlorophenoxacetic, on North Wright Avenue in Alma to combat the spread of bindweed.
Michigan Chemical also held tests with its DDT insect-killing spray on Mackinac Island. According to reports, afterward, there weren’t many flies on the island…A total of 93 men attended the annual stag day program at the Pine River Country Club. The men played golf, had entertainment, and ended the program with a pot-luck dinner…The Gratiot County Fair in Ithaca had excellent weather…Former teacher and principal Miss Annette McLaren of Alma passed away at her home. Miss McLaren moved to Alma at age 13, attended Alma school, and taught in different rural schools in the county. Miss McLaren previously resigned her duties due to a hip fracture after 40 years of teaching in Gratiot County…The Fulton baseball club defeated Ithaca on a Sunday by the score of 3-2. Fulton players Somers and Brauher had key hits and plays in the game…A pet parade took place during the Ithaca Playground program. All pets were leased, tied, boxed, or caged…The Alma Church Federation brought a resolution to the Alma City Commission concerning gambling devices and games of chance during upcoming carnivals. The ministers wanted the police chief to monitor said carnivals…Lightning struck the home of Lewis Briggs in Breckenridge, leaving a hole in the porch roof. The Breckenridge Bean and Grain elevator also were hit by lightning…If St. Louis residents did not have their weeds cut by July 5, city workers would cut them at the property owner’s expense and add the cost to their tax bill.
And that was life in July 1945 during Gratiot County’s Finest Hour.
Above: National Guardsmen and Consumers Power crews worked furiously to try and deal with the ice storm. During the first few days, their efforts were challenged by the ever-changing weather conditions.
Record warm temperatures in Gratiot County on February 28, 1976, suggested that spring was on its way – or so many people thought. On Monday, March 1, a thirty-degree temperature drop combined with snow, rain, and even thunderstorms led to the beginning of the ice storm of 1976.
The next evening, the district boys’ basketball game at Ithaca High School pitted a heavily favored St. Louis squad against an Ithaca team that had won only a few games all season. As the contest proceeded, it was interrupted several times by flickering lights and temporary power losses. With only 42 seconds left, Ithaca’s Kent Kirby hit a shot that gave Ithaca a 64-63 upset win – and then the lights in the Ithaca gym went out for good. Everyone there, as well as most of the city of Ithaca, dealt with almost total darkness. Boys’ basketball games were soon called off in many places because schools did not have power. A total of 44 games in two nights were postponed across the state.
Early the next day, at least 3,000 people were without power in Ithaca. Things were not good in the city of Alma either, as 4 inches of snow and over 2 inches of ice had fallen the night before. The roads around Gratiot County quickly became impassable, with 60 percent of them blocked by fallen trees, limbs, and debris. Phone systems went out, and the first Consumers Power work crews came in from Mt. Pleasant to help.
Dr. Don Gardner of St. Louis immediately set up a mobile command station at the Ithaca Police Post. Gardner’s vehicle measured 27 feet long and was equipped with a 110-volt generator, oven, and stove that he purchased as a mobile medical unit the year before. He and his group remained on duty for the next five days to help people. Another emergency center was set up at the Michigan Masonic Home in Alma. CB radio volunteers made up another group that tried to help. They reached 90 percent of rural Gratiot County within 48 hours by contacting families and then visiting homes that needed help.
During the storm, Gratiot County citizens did their best to cope with the severe weather conditions. People lined up outside of grocery stores starting early on March 2, but they needed flashlights to find items in the aisles. Cashiers could not use their electrically-operated registers and used battery-powered calculators to add purchases. Bread, lunch meat, hot dogs, paper plates, flashlights, batteries, and beer all went quickly. At least one grocery store sold meat at half price for fear of spoiling. Ice cream was given away for free, even as it dripped out of the freezers.
The ice storm affected many other places as well. Larry’s Hardware in Ithaca saw 2,000 people come through its doors on March 2-3. Most people wanted flashlights, batteries, and lanterns, but they were all sold out by noon on Wednesday. To cope with the customer traffic, the store soon had to display a notice on the front door about the many items that Larry’s no longer had. Police and the sheriff’s departments gave extra surveillance to banks, even as people came and went to finance loans to purchase generators – if they could find one to buy. WFYC radio station went off the air for 36 hours until Midland Dow loaned a generator along with two men to show how to use it. Schools throughout the county were out for the week. Over at Ashley High School, volunteers served soup and hot food for those in the village who needed something to eat. Maple Rapids Elementary School also provided food. Gratiot Community Hospital ran on emergency power for over eight hours on March 3. Hospital employees walked to work and exhibited good morale, despite working 16-hour shifts. Gas stations had no power, and many could not pump gasoline. One Ithaca station sold 6,000 gallons of gasoline on one day alone, six times the usual amount. Gas disappeared by Thursday. However, a supply truck had the station running again by Friday.
At mid-week, the ice storm had failed to let up and continued to wreak even more havoc. Freezing rain came down on that Wednesday, accompanied by thunderstorms, which left another half-inch of ice on trees as the storm moved from southwest Gratiot County to the northeast. In addition, flooding took place along the Maple River, threatening homes in that area. Morbark sent volunteers to Alma to help with down trees while Governor William Milliken officially declared Michigan to be in a state of emergency. To provide more help to Gratiot County, 60 National Guardsmen from the 125th Infantry Alma Armory and the 1345th Engineer Battalion, Company A, from Midland, went to work in the county. During the same time, Consumers Power continued to call in extra crews from out of the state. The National Guardsmen and Consumers Power crews fought to get lines operating again by removing downed trees but then turned to another line (or two) that soon went down due to even more falling branches. At this point of the ice storm, most Gratiot residents were told not to expect full power until as late as Sunday. Alma and St. Louis now had 60 percent of their residents without power, while areas east and south Gratiot County had no power at all. Places like Pompeii, North Star, Middleton, Elwell, Elm Hall, and Sumner lacked water. Residents had to boil water, and food freezers needed to be emptied after 72 hours.
By Thursday of that week, Gratiot County experienced high winds. In places like Ithaca, which had gotten power back at 8:45 pm, the winds now knocked out another 40 percent of the town. The same happened in Alma, which had also regained power, only to see 60 percent lose again. Life seemed better in St. Louis and Breckenridge, where 90 percent of the residents got their power back. Ashley and southwest Gratiot still had none, nor did many who lived south of Breckenridge. General Telephone said that the county had 1,039 service drops and 150 significant cable breaks that needed to be fixed. As to travel, roads remained shut down throughout approximately one-third of the county. Chlorinated water supplies had been sent to Elm Hall, Elwell, Sumner, Middleton, and Pompeii as food and water shortages remained severe problems. Amidst the continued bad weather, another group of 200 Consumers Power linemen from Chicago arrived in the county.
Even though things initially looked grim that week, by the weekend the situation improved enough that Gratiot County residents could move about in certain places. Many roads were now clear, but drivers still ran into areas with dropped limbs and downed power lines. The National Guard was deactivated by Saturday afternoon, and Dr. Gardner closed his command post in Ithaca. Another Red Cross emergency center which had been opened at Alma College now moved to the First Methodist Church. The Red Cross continued to offer food to people at the Ithaca High School cafeteria, and they provided places to stay in town for those in need. Approximately 70 percent of General Telephone customers in the county now had their phone lines back.
Other stories emerged about those who came to help Gratiot County. Consumers Power set up a command post for work crews at the Edgewood Conservation Club on Barry Road. Work along east Gratiot County seemed never-ending. At least 36 linemen set 380 poles and over 40 miles of wiring along 12 square miles. Their biggest challenge, aside from working 14-18 hour days, was the mud, which hindered the setting of the poles. The new telephone poles had to be shipped in, coming from as far away as Louisiana and Mississippi. As tired as they were, these Consumers Power crewmen found food and coffee breaks at the Breckenridge United Methodist Church, where 40 dedicated women fed a total of 80 linemen from the county throughout that week.
Normal daily life in Gratiot County gradually resumed. However, there were long-term effects of the ice storm of 1976, especially concerning cleanup in villages, towns, and townships. A week after the storm, Alma estimated its damages to be more than $540,000 and that it would take 60 working days to clean up the city. It was expected to take 21 working days just to get all branches off the streets and sidewalks. The St. Louis City Council had a similar problem and considered how to deal with $190,000 in damages. The council received an offer of volunteer help from students at Northwood Institute. However, city attorneys feared that downed power lines, injuries, and accompanying lawsuits were too much risk to accept the students’ help.
The city of Ithaca had another idea about their cleanup. On Saturday, March 13, city hall issued a call for help through “Operation Twiggy.” Pastor David Nelson of the Ithaca United Methodist Church chaired a group of organizations made up of the Ithaca Chamber of Commerce, Ithaca Rotary Club, Lions Club, Ithaca Jaycees, and the Ithaca Ministerial Association. These all came together to ask people to clean up Ithaca. Approximately 200 people and 40 vehicles worked that Saturday, beginning at 8:00 am. Volunteers were told only to pick up large items like branches and debris along streets and sidewalks in Ithaca and not enter private property. Homeowners, in turn, were told they were responsible for small pick up of items on their lawns. On that Saturday, a steady flow of trucks and vehicles loaded from the pickup point ran from Ithaca west to the landfill on Washington Road. County-wide, “Operation Effort” also took place on that day. As part of a more extensive county-wide cleanup, volunteers met at their township halls at 9:00 am and brought chainsaws, pickups, trailers, and trucks. A total of 32 volunteers showed up at North Star Township Hall to work on that day. Other things became apparent after the ice storm. Initial damages to Gratiot County, first estimated to be at $5.5 million, rose to $6.25 million at the end of March. Residents had to deal with damaged trees for some time to come, and the county guided people to save those trees that remained largely intact. People in Gratiot County received warnings about potential damage to LP gas regulators, which could still be iced over and clogged. Many homeowners also had to hire electricians to reconnect their electric entrance cables to their meter sockets because Consumers Power only repaired the actual lines. Warnings went out to the public to beware of imposters posing as Consumers Power workers who charged a fee to repair remaining downed lines. To help those who applied for federal assistance, the Alma Community Center became the place for making claims for damages or asking for information about claims.
As people started to put the disaster behind them, discussions began to take place about how to better prepare in the future for emergencies like the ice storm of 1976. This storm forced leaders to consider changing some ideas from the old Civil Defense plans that existed during the Cold War.
One positive result of the ice storm involved how people in the county looked after and took care of each other. Letters to the editor in newspapers commented how many in the county had pulled together to face the crisis. Gratiot County had survived. The ice storm of 1976 had brought out the best in Gratiot County’s citizens.
The first day became known as “B-Day,” or “Blizzard Day,” as it first struck early in the early morning of January 26, 1978. By the time it ended six days later, some of Gratiot County’s oldest citizens had said it was the county’s worst snowstorm since 1936. It became known to many in the county as the Blizzard of 1978.
At first, weather forecasters predicted the storm to only yield about 4-14 inches of snow, along with northeast winds going up to 30 miles per hour. Soon, two ominous storm fronts, one from Mississippi and the other from Minnesota, combined to shut Gratiot County down starting early in the morning of Thursday, January 26. Instead, an estimated 24 inches of snowfall, with winds hitting as much as 60 miles per hour, created drifts up to 6-7 feet high, paralyzing the county.
Statewide on that first day, at least 60,000 people were without power due to winds knocking down power lines (the number would soon more than double). Schools closed, and the National Guard arrived to help those in need in many places in Michigan.
Early on that first morning of January 26, 1978, Gratiot County’s emergency Civil Defense coordinator, Dave Natali, set up a command post at his house. He started taking phone calls at 4:00 am. Natali attempted to coordinate responses with the Road Commission, State Police, and the Sheriff’s department to decide how to handle emergencies. Snowmobilers, CB radio users, and four-wheelers were all asked to help people in need. Four hours later, the Gratiot County Board of Commissioners chairman declared Gratiot County to be in a state of emergency.
County snowplows went out to work early in the morning, but road crews came to work with their sleeping bags, expecting a lengthy stay at the road commission. However, the commission ordered employees to stop working on the roads that Thursday afternoon due to the high winds and continual snow drifting. No matter how hard the road commission worked, no one could keep the roads open. An early estimate on that first day of the storm was that it would take three days to dig out, but in actuality, it would take Gratiot County twice as long. On Friday at 6:20 pm, President Jimmy Carter declared Michigan to be in a state of emergency, and at least 150,000 people were without power.
Amid the first day of the storm, some people in Alma remained at their jobs. The Main Café was especially busy in the morning with customers but slowed down and closed in the afternoon. Lillian Ankney got to work with help from her four-wheel-drive pick-up and kept the Main operating, along with Ray Croisant, who was bussing and cleaning. Ankney’s boss was in Florida, and she had the keys to the café, so she opened it, and the people soon started arriving. June Mernitz stayed at her desk at city hall. She remarked that “…people look to city hall as a command center, so we’ve got keep things moving here.” June and Rosemary Conners also joined her, working operating phones for Dial-a-Ride. The Alma Fire Department had an entire crew of 20 men working continuously, starting at 7:00 am. They remained on duty, helping the Alma community for another three days.
Over at Gratiot Community Hospital, employees like Peggy Kunik found a way to the hospital. She worked seventeen hours that day. Kunik explained, “There is no way a hospital can close down. And besides, I need the money.” Like the road commission workers, as many as fifty hospital employees brought their sleeping bags and supplies to stay at work for as long as needed. Nurses, doctors, and police across Gratiot County found rides into town via snowmobilers who offered to help them. At the same time, Alma Community Hospital postponed non-emergency surgeries, while at least four health emergencies in the county occurred where someone had to go to the hospital. A call from Breckenridge brought a person suffering convulsions. Two older adults stranded on US-27 had heart conditions, while two more in Alma experienced breathing problems. All ended up making it to the hospital. The one death reported in the mid-Michigan area during the blizzard occurred when an 80-year-old man was found dead from exposure near Mt. Pleasant.
Other places like the Pine Knot Bar boomed with business on the first day of the storm, running out of some beverages before the night ended. Over on the corner of Wright Avenue and Downey Street at the 7-11, business went “wall to wall” as people cleaned out bread, milk, and beer from the shelves. When asked about staying open during the storm, manager Anson Jaynes stated that “When we (7-11) say we’re open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, we mean it.”
People stranded in the county needed help at different places, especially those whose cars ran into trouble on US-27. The Ithaca United Methodist Church put up seventeen people who needed to stay. The Alma Fire Department, Alma City Hall, Salvation Army headquarters, and even the jail offered to help people who needed a place to sleep, as did Alma College’s Athletic Complex and the old Masonic Home annex. Shepherd High School also opened its gymnasium for 75 people who waited out the storm.
The National Guard also went out to help Gratiot County during the blizzard. Company A, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry, was called to report on Thursday afternoon. The armory itself housed 29 people in need, while members of the Guard took people to hospitals and nursing homes when needed. They also helped out at the Michigan State Police Post in Ithaca, where they enabled a total of 119 people to receive help.
Although offices stayed open, the mail nearly shut down in Alma, Ithaca, and St. Louis. Mail went out to Gratiot Community Hospital and Masonic Home, but as the postmaster put it, “It is pretty hard for workers to deliver mail in four feet of snow.” Over at St. Louis, a postal employee made it into work by traveling five miles using his snow skis. The St. Louis postmaster commented that he had some very dedicated workers.
As the storm and digging out from it proceeded, Gratiot County’s road crews dutifully served the county in terms of how long and how hard they worked. On average, road commission crews worked 50 hours over four days and started work at 4:00 am Thursday. In Ithaca, workers started even earlier at 3:00 am and had all they could do to clear their streets. They still worked 12 hours on Saturday and another 10 hours on Sunday. Cleaning curbed areas complicated the work in Ithaca. Also, the heavy snow in town meant that three pieces of snow equipment were needed, not just a street plow. Visibility at corners in Ithaca remained a problem for drivers for some time to come. Even though Alma snow removal employees worked a 19 hour day on the first day of the blizzard, it would take them more than two weeks to haul snow away from the city’s intersections, parking lots, and roadsides. Complicating some of the work in Alma were snowmobilers who got too close to plows while they worked. Visibility early in the storm also made snow removal treacherous at times for those trying to clear the streets in Alma.
Going into the following week, many Gratiot County schools remained closed for another two days until mid-week. After four days of the blizzard, a minimum of 24 inches had fallen in most areas, and snowdrifts now reached heights of 10-12 feet.
As the new week dawned and people started to crawl out from several days of being shut in, drivers were still being warned not to go out unless they needed to do so. Snowplows opened most roads by Wednesday, February 1, and schools reopened. Although there were no deaths in Gratiot County, 17 people in Michigan were now dead.
In the end, the blizzard of ’78 cost Gratiot County an estimated $74,000. After receiving money from federal disaster aid and the State Highway Department, the final total would be $52,250.
It was a time and season that we lived through for many of us – and one that we do not forget.