April, 1917: Pupils, Patriotism, Volunteers Expected in Gratiot County


Above: The Gratiot County Herald, April 12, 1917

The news that the United States had officially joined the Great War in April, 1917 brought about a surge of patriotism in Gratiot County.

Down in Middleton, high school students showed their patriotism by wearing small flags on their clothes. They sang patriotic songs in the afternoon when the Declaration of War was announced. The American flag waved over the building as it also did over numerous  downtown businesses.

Gratiot County hoped that at least one hundred young men would initially join up to fight before April ended. The nation had a goal of supplying 38,000 men for the navy by the end of the first week alone.  Volunteers between the ages of sixteen and forty were asked to apply (those under eighteen needed their parents permission). These first volunteers only had to be able to understand English – reading and writing  was not required. Some of the departments that were immediately open for recruits included the infantry, field artillery, coast artillery, medical department and signal corps. As another incentive to sign up, the government pledged that those who volunteered would be released from service as soon as the war ended.

Volunteering was an expectation of  men as Gratiot County went to war. True patriots were expected to willing offer their service to the country. Only “slackers” dodged the service (a term that would be used in Gratiot County as the summer and fall of 1917 went on). It was initially believed by county newspapers  that if enough men volunteered then there would be no immediate need for a draft.  Although conscription seemed to be inevitable, a draft was the last resort. Right now, in April, 1917, true patriots in Gratiot County would step up and defend the nation by volunteering.

Ordinary citizens were quickly told by the government about what they could do for the war effort. Foremost was an immediate concern about the winter wheat crop in Gratiot County. Because a national food shortage was being envisioned by President Woodrow Wilson, farmers were encouraged to plant spring wheat and to prepare for other crops for the upcoming season. One of the biggest calls for boys too young to volunteer for the war was to make themselves available to help on area farms. Wilson coined these boys “Soldiers of the Commissary” and he urged youngsters to volunteer for this farm labor. For these young boys, Gratiot County’s farms would be the battlefield that they could serve on.

Still,  sacrifices would have to be made by all  those living in Gratiot County. Another item quickly became Liberty Gardens, individual gardens grown by everyone to help supplement their own food for 1917. These included growing potatoes, beans and onions, among other foods.  A League for Woman’s Service was organized the same month in the county. Although details were unclear as to what women would be expected to do, groups formed  to foster patriotism and to cooperate with the Red Cross. It’s slogan became “For God, For Country, For Home.”

Over in Ithaca, prominent men were asked to raise money to help foster Belgian babies. Judge Kelly Searl spearheaded a drive to raise money to contribute one dollar a month to provide food for Belgian babies who had been orphaned or left destitute due to the war conditions in Belgium. On his first meeting at the Ithaca Methodist Sunday School in late April, Judge Searl obtained pledges for $20.50 a month to help these children.

Yes, things were off and moving as Gratiot County started its trek through the Great War.

Copyright 2017 James M. Goodspeed

April 6, 1917: “It is War!” Ithaca Enters World War I


Above: Headlines from April 12, 1917 issues of the Alma Record and Gratiot County Herald

It was really only a formality in Gratiot County. In the days leading up to a Declaration of War from the United States Congress, people in Gratiot County were gearing up for an announcement that came on April 6, 1917: America’s entry into the Great War.

On the day prior to the announcement a group of volunteers led what would be a stream of Gratiot men who volunteered to join up. In Ithaca, nine high school students were part of a group that left the town early on Thursday morning to go to Alma, and on to Saginaw, in order to join the Navy. The group included Watson McCall, Howard Burtchard, Peter McAdams, Ivan White, Mike Scott, Davis Summerville, Robert Rayburn and William Rayburn. Ted Kress had volunteered earlier and joined the group, but he left a week later for a different camp. Four of the boys were given their  diploma ahead of what would have been their June graduation from Ithaca High School. All of them had previously visited the enlistment office in Alma, took their entrance exam, passed it, and had been accepted for military service.

Ithaca held a celebration that Wednesday night. Early the next morning, the young volunteers were then paraded through the village and down main street past more than one thousand people who turned out for the send off. Stores displayed American flags. Windows and store fronts were equipped with colorful red, white and blue bunting. After they loaded up, twenty five automobiles and one hundred people followed the Ithaca boys as they proceeded over to Alma. As they arrived there, the fire department led the parade on through town. When they reached the Alma depot, crowds were filled with citizens from both Alma and Ithaca, as well as students from both high schools. Each volunteer was called up front and received an individual cheer from the enthusiastic crowd.

A short service then took place which included an address from the schools’ superintendents, a speech from a local lawyer, and the presentation of  gifts from an Ithaca minister. Reverend Vatcher, from the Ithaca Baptist Church,  gave each boy a New Testament, a gift from Ithaca businessmen. The playing of  “America” and “The Star Spangled Banner” opened and closed the event.

After arriving in Saginaw, the young men headed for Detroit, then Lake View, Chicago,  for five weeks of training. It was expected that they would be sent to Philadelphia and then on to naval patrols off the East Coast of North America.

What happened in Ithaca at the start of the war did not go unnoticed in Michigan. The state’s naval recruiting officer, Lieutenant W.W. Richardson, Jr., wrote a letter to the mayor of Ithaca saying that “Ithaca is upholding the honor of the state. If every city of Michigan  wold come forward as has Ithaca, we would soon have our quota of men.”

April 5, 1917: “The Great War will be in Gratiot County by the End of the Week”


Above: Front page of April 5, 1917  issue of the Gratiot County Herald

By the time that most people read their newspapers at the end of the week they already knew Gratiot County was at war. Now, their sons would be a part of it.

Some advertising in newspapers still seemed to make light of the European war.  In Ithaca, J.L. Barden advertised that “War is Declared” and that rugs and floor coverings would be going up in price. Slater and Goodes Men’s Wear warned that “The Big Guns in Europe Are Shooting Away your Shirts, Socks and Underwear.” Cotton was sure to go up in price – one should buy their clothing now. There were also advertisements that the French Army wanted horses. From April 11-14 a buyer for the Good Horse Company would be in Alma, Shepherd and St. Louis to buy good Army horses. They had to weigh 100 to 1400 pounds and be in sound condition.

President Woodrow Wilson had already asked for a declaration of war against Germany. All that mattered was that Congress had to make a formal declaration. The Kaiser had to go. The German government could not be trusted. Its use of spies, unrestricted submarine warfare and slaughter of innocent people had to stop. Wilson was expected to raise 500,000 soldiers immediately and then to increase the army until enough men were in uniform to adequately defend and fight for the United States in the Great War.

Patriotism was said to be extremely high and Gratiot County would be called upon to do its share to make the world safe for democracy.

How many men served our county in the Great War? What was the role of ordinary people in maintaining the war effort? Who were the men who died in the Great War while serving Gratiot County? What were the war years really like in Gratiot?

Follow Gratiot County’s role and place in World War I here on the blog. We start the journey here this week.




February, 1906: “A Ghoul in Seville Township”


Above: Seville Township’s Brady Cemetery as it appears today

In early February, 1906, S. B. Abbott of Seville Township discovered that there were ghouls in Seville Township’s Brady Cemetery. Abbott made the trek up the small hill which the cemetery sat on one day that winter. He then made a shocking discovery: one of the graves had been opened. Human bones and pieces of underwear were strewn about. Someone, or some thing, had dug into the old casket in such a way that the interior could be clearly seen.

Abbott worked to return the bones and belongings to the twenty year old grave which belonged to one of Seville’s early pioneers.  He then filled it back in and  went to work to find the culpit. It did not take long.

It turned out that a badger, thought to be extinct in Gratiot County by that time, had managed to unearth and desecrate the grave. Abbot trapped the badger, which weighed twenty two pounds, cleaned it and displayed the jaws and teeth of the “ghoul” as conversation pieces.

He was also surprised to find that the badger had some other interesting contents. It had managed to swallow two gold rings which had probably been in the grave.

After learning that more badgers  were at work in other cemeteries in that part of Gratiot County, Abbott said that he hoped Michigan would put a bounty on them.

It is not clear what happened to the two gold rings.