Gratiot County in World War I: “July, 1917: The Coming of the Draft”


Above: Headline from Gratiot County Herald, July 5, 1917

     In July 1917 Gratiot County could no longer talk about its participation in the Great War. It was a time for action.

     The talk of the county that month, as it was across the United States, concerned the first draft since the Civil War. On June 5, men were ordered to register for the draft and those who did not found themselves in trouble with the law. Names were published in county newspapers of those men who failed to comply with the draft. A new title was assigned to each one: “slacker”. Walter Dorman of Reed City and William Hoover were arrested for failing to comply with the draft (three men had been arrested so far as of early July).  However, the overwhelming majority of Gratiot men did their part in registering for the draft in June. The Alma Record remarked that “It proves that the young men of the country are not slackers, and having lost in the game of chance in the lottery they will go forth, many not to return.”

     The goal in Washington was to register approximately 10,000,000 men between the ages of 21 and 30. Each was assigned a serial number for their registration card and a selection was planned to start September 1, 1917, with a goal of drafting 675,000 men. Local draft boards, like the one in Gratiot County, still did not know the specifics about how the draft was to operate. Their first job dealt with the issue of exemptions. Initially, over a dozen reasons were accepted for an exemption. These included: men who were vital to war industries, men whose families were dependent upon them, members of religious sects that were unable to bear arms, political office holders, and aliens who were not citizens and who were subjects of Germany. All were the start of exemptions. The draft board had to hear and make a decision on all draft exemptions within three days of the claim. Those who wanted to be exempted had to provide two supportive affidavits by heads of families. Appeals for those who were initially denied claims were ruled on by the board within five days. Many of them had their final status determined by the district board in Lansing. Not all who applied for exemptions were accepted.

    The first lists of registered men were published in newspapers but they created confusion. The first registration lists contained approximately 80 men from each township and the long lists of names covered several pages. According to officials in Washington, D.C., the numbers assigned to each man had been pulled from sealed capsules and were drawn by twenty different men. Each number was recorded in the order it was drawn. The first name by order of township was C.R. Andrew from Arcada Township. On still another list, Manual Amos Chapin of Bannister was the first man listed. The actual numbers assigned to the registered men in Gratiot County ended with number 2480 and belonged to C.C. Orcuitt of Alma Number Two. When readers looked at the registration lists by township they saw each name in alphabetical order. Regardless of the confusion, the government informed Gratiot County that its first quota would be 276 men. Because 21 men had already volunteered the previous month and had already left the county, 255 men would be sent on the first call with 550 men appearing for the first examination. Later in the month, the number dropped to 224 as more men enlisted.

    Once the men were chosen for the first call, the draft board had some responsibilities to get the men to their camp. If necessary, a draft board had to make sure that each man had meals provided for him and a place to stay prior to their arrival at camp, unless the men were allowed to stay at home until called. For many of these Gratiot men, it would be Camp Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan. Initially, these men were told to only take light baggage on their trip. While the Quartermaster Corps looked for men who would serve on the battlefield, in July 1917 it also sent out a call at that time that it was looking for bakers, cooks and even veterinarians (an Ithaca man, Dr. McNabb, served as one).

     Other things with civilians also were happening in the county. The Red Cross continued its drive to recruit more members and raise money for the war. By mid-summer, well over 3,000 Gratiot residents had joined the Red Cross and donated time and money to the war effort. Branch chapters sprung up around Gratiot County , even in the smallest of communities. Over in Middleton, 290 people joined the chapter and raised $131.50 in a short period of time.  Counting all of the county’s memberships, over $9000 (valued at $18000 today) would be raised in Gratiot County by the end of July.

     Some helped the Red Cross in other ways. Historian Willard D. Tucker reduced the price of his newly written history of Gratiot County to $2.00 and gave forty cents of each sale to the Red Cross. Over at the Idlehour Theatre in Alma, the proceeds on one day from the play “Snow White”, starring Marguerite Clark, a  well-known stage and silent screen actress, were donated to the Red Cross.

    However, there more serious issues that summer. Farmers begged for help in the fields. The summer wheat harvest was being delayed in Gratiot County due to heavy rains. The county asked men who had time and who were not employed in factories to help local farmers with the harvest. Local newspapers, like the Gratiot County Herald,  offered to connect willing workers with farmers in need.

    The tone of the county gradually would turn to the seriousness of the war. A voice from Newark Township lamented, “There are many sad people in this neighborhood on account of the draft. It has touched nearly every family in this community. We all earnestly hope that this dreadful war may stop before any of our boys are called to leave the dear old U.S.A.” It would not happen.

Copyright 2017 James M Goodspeed

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