Gratiot County During the Great War: “May, 1917 – Food Shortages, the Red Cross and Liberty Bonds”

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Above: Advertisement from Gratiot County Herald, late May, 1917.

      In May, 1917 Gratiot County started to act like it was joining a world war. Early in the month conscription was announced, although it would be a month before it actually took place.  On May 7, a letter was sent from the County Clerk to all township and precinct supervisors telling them that they would soon be the ones acting as registrars for making lists of all men eligible for military service.

      Each week the names of those young men who first volunteered  to enlist appeared in the newspapers. Names like Cecil Stockwell of North Star and Louis Hetzman and Orin Riker of Ithaca left for the army. A year later, Riker would be the first Ithaca boy to be killed in the war. The government established officers training camps in anticipation of the draft that was to come.  Gratiot County donated $1,000 to help the YMCA toward establishment of a building in each military camp. Places like the one in Fort Custer would give soldiers opportunities and libraries to write letters home, a place for them to spend their leisure time,  and a place for “clean living campaigns,” which supposedly encouraged religious values.

There were also plenty of things that Gratiot County residents could do and were expected to do to support the United States in wartime. The Gratiot County Herald warned readers that every citizen had to do something to meet the crisis. Every foot of land that could be used as gardens had to be cultivated. Farmers also needed to receive extra farm help and the necessary seed to grow more crops.

In response, a large crowd of people came to a meeting at the Ithaca court house to address what citizens could do about an impending nationwide food shortage. Although farmers were being encouraged to plant as many crops as possible, the cost of seed had skyrocketed, making it too expensive for some farmers to purchase. One topic at the meeting was how to make bean seed available to farmers through loans.

The head of the Gratiot County YMCA,a  Mr. Curtiss, said that he had organized 300 boys who would be willing to help cultivate plots of land a half acre to acre itself. Vacant lots in Ithaca were also discussed as places where residents could grow more food.  The YMCA group offered to help residents put up gardens in these locations.

Other things were in the works to support the nation at war. War taxes were coming. In addition to a raise in income taxes, taxes on movie tickets, railroad tickets, whisky, railroad freight, cigars, heat, light and telephone bills, telegraph messages, even the purchase of musical instruments – all of these were imposed to help raise revenue for the war.

It was during May, 1917 Gratiot County’s involvement with the Red Cross started.  On May 18, another group of people met in the Ithaca court house to officially form the Gratiot County chapter of the Red Cross. A temporary committee  set up the chapter and accepted 43 applications from people in Ithaca who wanted  membership. It was intended that local units would spring up across Gratiot County and that a yearly membership would cost only a dollar.

Liberty Bonds became another way citizens could participate in the war effort in Gratiot County. Local bankers in the county wanted residents to buy bonds, whether they lived in the larger towns of Ithaca, Alma and St. Louis – or the smaller of hamlets of Perrinton, Middleton, Bannister, North Star or Pompeii.  A $50 bond was offered to a buyer at 3 ½ percent and helped the government  to buy shoes, clothing and munitions in Europe.  Any bank in the county sold the Liberty Bonds. In some cases, people like James Anstey of Ashley Encouraged fellow citizens to buy these new bonds. At age 83, Anstey went out on one Friday morning managed in two hours to talk to forty people and sold eleven bonds.

Preparation for war was on.

Copyright James M Goodspeed 2017

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