“Draft Boards, Exemptions and Farewells”: Gratiot County During the Great War, August, 1917

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Above: a World War I exemption button.

                In August 1917 both Harold Redman and Adam Peska had their names in Gratiot County newspapers pertaining to the Great War. However, each would be for different reasons.

                The first county examinations for draftees for the Great War took place in Dr. Carney’s office in Alma. Harold Redman of Alma, the son of a grocer and the first man to be examined by the draft board, was the first to be officially accepted into the Army from Gratiot County. Redman passed all of the examinations and waived any request for an exemption. Adam Peska, on the other hand, received a visit from the county sheriff and was hauled in to face the same draft board. Somehow, the draft board had been told about a slacker who did not want to serve Gratiot County. Upon his appearance, Peska quickly admitted that he was not 31 years old (which would have made him too old to be drafted). As he stood in front of the board and answered questions he “gradually…became younger” until he admitted to being the age of 28. Both men were examples of the different views of men who were called to serve Gratiot County and their country that summer.

                An important word being used that August was the term “exemption.” Just as there were many men who answered the call for the draft, there were also Gratiot County men who asked for exemptions. While Gratiot County’s draft board found most of the men who applied for exemptions to be compliant when not granting them,  other states like Oklahoma had seen strong resistance to the draft. Over one hundred men had been arrested there for failing to comply with decisions made by the draft boards.

                The names of men who did not apply for exemptions were listed in county newspapers, next to those who did. Readers were asked to look at the exemption lists and help identify those men who made fraudulent claims. They were to then report the names to the draft board. It was said, “By so doing they (the public) will be performing an act of justice and patriotic duty.”  Penalties for falsifying an exemption would result in being found guilty of a misdemeanor and facing up to one year in prison.

 Reasons for each Gratiot County man who applied for an exemption was published next to his name. Some of these reasons included having to support a wife and child, being the father of a motherless child, needed to take care of aged and infirmed parents, having a widowed mother, serving as a regular minister of religion or studying to become a divinity student, and working as a United States mail employee. At least three Gratiot County men asked to be exempted because they were subjects of Austria, one of the nations at war with the United States.

  As August went on, the government worked on improving the definitions for draft boards concerning who could be exempted. Part of this dealt with the status of married men. At first, it seemed that single men would be drafted and all married men would be exempt. Then it was believed that if a married man had children he would be exempted.  Now, draft boards were told to consider whether a married man’s absence from his home would result in his family becoming a public burden. Initially, the government hoped that a wife could live on the $15 to $25 a month that a soldier might send home and that she and her children might receive aid from family members. Another area involved drafting men who were considered important for industrial work. Regardless, in both cases testimony was needed by families, friends of families and industrial agents to convince the draft board that the man in question should not be drafted because he needed to remain in Gratiot County.  To the draft board, it seemed that the government was trying to both tighten the requirements on exemptions while allowing them some leniency with exemptions, especially in the cases of wives and children that could not support themselves.

One way that men in Gratiot County demonstrated that they were  finally exempt from the draft was by wearing “exemption buttons.” These small, round, metal badges had an inscription within a circle that read “Exempted, U.S.” The buttons were given out by the draft board and were soon worn on men’s shirts in many Gratiot County towns and communities.

County zeal for supporting the war effort continued to be evident that summer. Citizens were encouraged to mail magazines to soldiers in Europe. Each magazine, unwrapped and unaddressed, had to have a one cent stamp in the upper right corner, along with a note written on the cover telling the postal service that it was intended for a soldier or sailor. “Bounty boxes” could be found at different locations for cigarette donations to be mailed to the front. A few in Michigan questioned whether mailing cigarettes was the healthy thing to do and wondered why the Red Cross sponsored the boxes. Still, newspaper advertisements readily encouraged people to help support soldiers and sailors by sending them gifts of tobacco.

The Gratiot County Red Cross received almost $9,000 in pledges by August. Now, the challenge was in collecting the pledges for the war. Towns big and small in Gratiot County made pledges and recruited members to help the Red Cross. Localities like Middleton (306 members), St. Louis (466), Perrinton (150), Sumner (19), Elm Hall (11), and even Sickels (14) pledged to help the Red Cross. Out at the Bannister branch, the group donated two dozen towels, six draw sheets, six operating sheets and fourteen towels. Places like Fulton Center, Lafayette, West Hamilton and Wheeler also pitched in with donations of socks, sponges, compresses, bandages, scarfs, and pillow cases. All of this showed how the county supported the early war effort.

Over at Alma, one of the first meetings took place to form what would be called “The Home Guard.” These were groups of men who would take the place of the National Guardsmen who were leaving as they were called to service. Supposedly these “Home Guardsmen” were formed to protect both property and the menace of strikers, like the I.W.W. (the International Workers of the World, or “Wobblies” as many called them). Fifty men showed up at Alma’s city hall for an organizational meeting and thirty of them signed a pledge to join. Those who signed were then asked to help find more recruits. It was hoped that 150 men would form the unit, who would meet periodically at the Alma High School gymnasium for drills.

Some of the first letters that August appeared in newspapers from men who had joined the Army. Lieutenant Lewis Sarvis wrote that he would soon be transferred to what would be called Fort Custer in Battle Creek. Chris Downs, from Elwell, was in Columbus, Ohio and he was aware of a few desertions that had taken place there. One man had been shot. Leon Aldrich was at Fort Myer, Pennsylvania and he had been allowed to travel to Washington, D.C. While there, Myer saw the former residence of Edith Galt Wilson, the President’s wife. During his visit, he claimed that he could plainly see the home of General Robert E. Lee two miles away from where he stood. A couple of times Aldrich had also personally seen President Woodrow Wilson, along with his body guards, while attending plays at Keith’s Theatre. All of the soldiers whose letters appeared in the newspapers asked for people to write to them.

The Army also started to call for men from Gratiot County who were doctors, cooks, and bakers. Dr. A.A. McNabb answered the call and became an officer at the Grand Rapids hospital unit. There were also calls for volunteers for the newly formed Aviation Corps or aero squadron. Some Gratiot men would end up there during the war.

As August ended, men who were to be the September call ups were invited for a dinner at Alma High School for a chicken pie dinner. On September 4th, women from across the county were invited to come and help the Red Cross. Inside, the gymnasium displayed patriotic banners and decorations.  A farewell program with speakers and entertainment was planned. Local communities, like Elwell, also had farewell activities for their men who were leaving. Forty-four men from Elwell’s surrounding area who were going away for military service attended a Saturday evening banquet and dance at the local I.O.O.F. Hall. It was reported that a total of 210 people came to Elwell to share in their good byes.

Finally, it seemed the government was trying to calm the concerns of men and their families as the reality of war hit the nation. The Marine Corps issued an article that the fighting men of the nation were not as much at risk as many people thought. It stated that based on its findings in the French and British armies, “A careful estimate shows that only one man in fifteen is killed, and one out of five hundred loses a limb.”

Ultimately, names of men from Gratiot County that appeared in the August draft lists with names like Fields, Van Thurn and Smith would end up paying the ultimate price in France. Many others would be wounded or gassed. All of those Gratiot County men who served overseas would be shaped by the war in ways that the summer of 1917 could not yet imagine.

Copyright 2017 James M Goodspeed

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