“Come to Ithaca for a Different July” – A Time of War, a Time of Peace, July 1917


Above: Gratiot County Herald, June 28, 1917

     During the summer of 1917,  it seemed that some Gratiot County residents did not know whether to celebrate the Fourth of July or to spend time contemplating the seriousness of a nation going to war. It had been a custom in Gratiot County that the annual Fourth of July celebration would be hosted in a different town each summer. Now, with a war on, St. Louis opted not to host the event.

     Ithaca quickly came to the rescue in hope of promoting Woodland Park, a park located on the town’s west side. People were invited from across the county to come and spend the afternoon and the evening in Ithaca. The event was billed as “a day of pleasure and quietness instead of the usual 4th of July celebration.”

   The park was promoted as a place that had plenty of water, room to park one’s automobile or hitch their horse, and enough activities to keep everyone busy. The events offered baseball games, horse shoe contests, three legged races, volleyball, medicine ball, racing, singing, and music. On the spiritual side, the Free Methodists were also holding camp meetings in the park.

      That July it was a time to slow down as the county went to war.

Copyright James M Goodspeed 2017

“Journeys With a Gratiot Cemetarian” 5.6: Lester L. Smith, WWII Veteran, Ithaca City Cemetery


     Lester Leroy Smith was born June 2, 1919, to Clair and Laura Smith in Taber, Alberta, Canada. On May 18, 1944, he was one of 48 Gratiot County men who was sent to Detroit for their pre-induction examinations to enter the service during World War II. Lester served his country in the United States Army.

     He eventually met and married his wife, Harrriett. Lester also worked at Federal Mogul in St. Johns, Michigan. He died on June 23, 1990 and is buried in the Ithaca City Cemetery. Lester Leroy Smith is one of many Gratiot County men and women who served their county, state and country during a time of war.


“Gratiot County’s Animals at War, Summer 1917”


Above: Advertisements from the Alma Record and Gratiot County Herald, 1917.

     They served Gratiot County as well. They most likely had names, they were born and raised here, however, we know little about them, where they went, or what ultimately happened to them. These animals were the numerous horses who went off to the Great War in the spring and summer of 1917 from Gratiot County.

     What is known about horses in World War I is that they were used for men to ride, for transportation, to haul food, guns, ammunition, and to transport the sick during the war. Over one million horses and mules were sent to Europe as part of the American war effort in World War I. Approximately 200 returned home.

     Eight million horses and mules died during the Great War. Two-thirds of the horses used by the British and French Armies during the war came from North America.

      For many, their dead bodies often appeared in pictures and photographs depicting the barbarity and severity of warfare on the Western Front. Yet, they often served their masters faithfully.

     Just how many “war horses” were taken from Gratiot County is uncertain. Were they only sent to army camps here in the United States? Did any make it to Europe? Did any of them return to Gratiot County? We do not know the answers to these questions, however, these horses (and possibly mules) also served somewhere in the war effort in World War I.

Copyright James M Goodspeed 2017


Above: images from the Library of Congress.


“Journeys with a Gratiot Cemetarian” 5.5: Asher Birmingham, WWII Veteran, Ithaca City Cemetery


Asher Birmingham was born November 2, 1923, to Frank and Nina Birmingham of Alma. Asher served in the Navy during World War II in the South Pacific as an electrician. After the war, he married his wife Joyce and they had three children. Asher was employed for many years at Alma Products. He greatly enjoyed bowling, even bowling at the end of his life with the use of a cane. He actively volunteered by delivering meals for senior citizens, serving at the Student Activity Center (SAC) at Central Michigan University, sketching, making rugs and participating with the Pathfinders. Asher died on August 3, 2001 and he is buried in the Ithaca Center Cemetery. Asher Birmingham is one of many Gratiot County veterans who served our county, state and country during a time of war.

“Journeys with a Gratiot Cemetarian” 5.4: Harold E. Watson, Cold War, Ithaca City Cemetery


Harold E. Watson was born May 6, 1939, the son of Harold and Lola Watson in Illinois. During the Cold War, Harold served his country at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Georgia. He married his wife Yvonne, returned to Michigan and they had two sons. For 39 years Harold drove a truck for Wolverine Shoe Factory. Harold died on October 7, 2010, and is buried in the Ithaca City Cemetery. Harold E. Watson is one of many Gratiot County men and women who served our county, state, and country.

“Journeys with a Gratiot Cemetarian” 5.3: Jody J. Bloss, United States Marine, Ithaca City Cemetery


Jody J. Bloss was born in Carson City, Michigan on January 8, 1969, to Alvin and Laureen Bloss. He was a 1987 graduate of Ithaca High School. Jody faithfully served his country in the United States Marine Corps. He later worked at Bandit Industries in Remus and lived most of his life in the Ithaca area. He died on September 5, 2013, as a result of a motorcycle accident. He left behind his parents, three sons and several family members. Jody is buried in the Ithaca City Cemetery. Jody J. Bloss is one of many Gratiot County men and women who served their county, their state and their country.

“Journeys with a Gratiot Cemetarian” 4.4: Erschel H. Duke, World War II Veteran, Emerson Township Cemetery


Erschel H. Duke was born October 14, 1915, in Savannah, Tennesee to Benjamin and Sarrah Duke. During World War II, Erschel served in the Army Air Corps. On August 12, 1950, he married his wife, Wanda (Coston) and they lived much of their lives in the Harrison, Michigan area. Erschel died on September 22, 1987, and he is buried in Emerson Township Cemetery. Erschel H. Duke is one of many Gratiot County men and women who served their country during a time of war.

“Journeys with a Gratiot Cemetarian” 5.2: Louis F. McKinley, Korean Veteran, Ithaca City Cemetery

151976202_1441649737.jpg     IMG_20170526_192706953.jpgLouis F. McKinley was born August 23, 1936, near Alma, Michigan to Henry and Hazel McKinley. He was one of eleven children. As a young man, Louis enlisted in the Army to serve his country during the Korean War. After the war, he lived in the Saginaw and Bay City area and worked in construction and landscaping. At the end of his life, he moved to Ithaca and lived his last years with his sister, Julia Tinson. Louis died July 18, 2009, and he is buried in the Ithaca City Cemetery. Louis F. McKinley is one of many Gratiot County men and women who served their county, state, and country during a time of war.


Remembering Gratiot County and Pearl Harbor at 75


Above: War time poster from the National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Note: This article first appeared in the December 7, 2016 issue of the Gratiot County Herald.  

      Seventy five years ago on December 4, 1941, it was a “Window Night” in Gratiot County, which marked the start of the Christmas shopping season in the towns of St. Louis, Alma, and Ithaca. Businesses stayed open late with lighted store windows.  That weekend at the Strand Theater in Alma, viewers watched a musical movie entitled “Chocolate Soldier.” Over at St. Louis, the Boy Scouts helped the national defense effort by hosting a paper drive.  A representative from the Public Works Reserves explained to the St. Louis City Council how they could eventually adjust from wartime to a peacetime economy. These events all took place in Gratiot County just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After December 7, the county, like the rest of America, was never the same.

                As news of the attack arrived that Sunday, “general indignation” best described residents as they discussed what they had learned. Within hours of the attack, a previously scheduled group of 46 selective service men left for induction at Fort Custer near Battle Creek. Starting December 8, the telephone at the draft office in Alma rang repeatedly. Men who had previously changed their addresses now notified the office about how they could be found to join the military. Some men above the age of 28, who had been previously excluded from selective service because they were too old, now wanted to know how to enlist. In the first wave of men who immediately volunteered through the Alma office, fifteen joined the Navy, twelve went into the Army, while others headed to Lansing and Saginaw to enlist there. The Gratiot County Red Cross announced the week after the attack that the county needed to raise $5,100 for the national fund. Women wanted to sew and knit for soldiers and servicemen at the Alma Red Cross office.

      Local families worried about the fate of their sons in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. One of these involved Mervin DeMott of Pompeii, who was stationed aboard the US Dunlap. Within a week of the attack, DeMott wrote to inform his family that he was safe but he could not say more. Also, his Christmas presents had been mailed home. Marine Corporal Dale L. Peters of Breckenridge was stationed at Wake Island during the Japanese attack, along with former Ithaca resident Private Charles D. Sagash, who was at Corregidor.

                Gratiot County readied itself throughout December. Leonard and Mid-West Refineries hired extra guards and put up fences around their plants to protect against sabotage. For further protection, the companies required fingerprints and photo identification buttons for employees. The Gratiot County clerk announced a huge demand of birth certificates took place in Ithaca because those wanting work in industrial plants needed one in order to apply for a job. Amateur short wave radio operators in the county had their licenses suspended for fear of sending messages to the enemy. County firemen underwent defense training for handling bombs and volunteers throughout the county learned how to provide basic Red Cross first aid. Lobdell Emory announced that it had received subcontracts for the defense effort, but for security concerns could not acknowledge exactly what it would be producing.

                As December ended, citizens continued united in their response to the Pearl Harbor attack. The St. Louis City Council purchased $20,000 in Defense Bonds. In Alma, twenty county men quickly joined the National Guard Unit. By Christmas, one of the first painted “V” for Victory Signs appeared in the east window of the Alma Main Cafe.

Copyright James M. Goodspeed 2016


“Journeys with a Gratiot Cemetarian” 4.3: Duane C. Dancer, World War II Veteran, Emerson Township Cemetery


      Duane Carl Dancer was born July 13, 1919 to LeRoy and Clementine Dancer in Breckenridge, Michigan. Duane grew up in a large family near Wheeler with eleven other siblings.  On Christmas Eve, 1941, Duane was one of 35 men who left Alma by bus for induction into the Army at Fort Custer. Before each man got onto the bus, members of the Gideons gave them a copy of the New Testament.  By the time the United States invaded North Africa Duane was in the Coast Artillery. He then was transferred to the Italian war theatre. By October 1943, word came to Duane’s wife, Virginia, that he had been wounded somewhere in Italy. He went on to serve honorably in the 5th Army and was discharged in 1945.

     After the war, he owned his own milk hauling business and operated the family farm in Arcada Township. He also worked for over 25 years for the Cooper Chevrolet dealership in Ithaca and retired from there in 1989. Duane served many years as a trustee for the Beebe United Methodist Church and he was also a member of the American Legion Post #256 in St. Louis. He and his wife had two children. Duane passed away on September 1, 2007 and is buried in Emerson Township Cemetery.  Duane C. Dancer is one of many Gratiot County men and women who served their county, state and country during a time of war.