Downtown Ithaca on September 20, 1917 – A barbecue for the Boys.
In September 1917 the second group of men prepared to go off to fight in the Great War. While more left, there were disagreements over the issue of who should and should not have to leave Gratiot County.
Across the United States, there were people who believed that America could raise its quota of an army of two million men without drafting married men who had children. The Gratiot County Herald argued that men with families should only be called if it was clear that the quota could not be reached. Part of this argument rested on the idea that farm families had their own hardships. Who would take care of the wife and children? Who would feed and clothe them? How many families could actually take in and care for the family that did not have a husband and father to provide for them? This argument reflected a hopeful view that America could still raise an army during a time of war without calling this group of men. It seemed that there were many who believed that Gratiot County families would not send their husband or father until it was absolutely necessary.
In one local case, Orie Rubben Brown of St. Louis openly challenged the issue of wanting to be exempted from the draft. Brown had been negligent in providing affidavits that he was needed at home and therefore was not eligible for an exemption. His protests and his case became news throughout the state as he debated his status with the Gratiot County draft board. Eventually, Brown joined the Army and served until his discharge in early 1918. His case was an example that there were still many in Gratiot County who hoped that not every man would have to fight in the Great War.
As the September draft list came out, 172 names appeared on it. One of them included Elind B. Sanchez, an Alma College student who would be the first man to die in service for Gratiot County. Another Alma College student who was also listed and who would later die was Dwight Von Thurn. As some of these young men left Alma College, it was announced that the college would return tuition to all those who would be called by the draft. They also would receive proportional credit for the classes they were in prior to being drafted.
Some very impressive send-offs for these men continued to take place. To honor those leaving Gratiot County, Ithaca planned to have an ox roast to honor 200 men on September 20. The barbecue was headed by Postmaster C. M. Brown, F.L. Wheeler, and George Lanphere. At three o’clock that afternoon, Ithaca held a grand parade which started at Pine River Street. The parade was led by the Owosso band and included men from the G.A.R., National Army representatives, county draft board members, Ithaca’s new fire truck, floats, Red Cross volunteers, Camp Fire Girls, and the Boy Scouts. Citizens were also invited to drive their own decorated automobiles at the end of the parade. As soon as it concluded, a band played between McCormack’s and the Home Goods store. The public crowded the newly cleaned pavement to hear a series of speakers talk of patriotism, the call for bravery, and the goal of defeating the Kaiser.
Afterward, the boys who were headed for the Army, along with their families, joined Civil War veterans in Center Street to enjoy barbecued beef, potatoes, and other dishes. Mrs. Wheeler from the Seaver House was in charge of the cooking. The rest of Ithaca was also invited to “enjoy Ithaca’s treat” as Ithaca “want(ed) the boys to go with vivid remembrances of hospitality and the good wishes, not of Ithaca alone, but the entire county.” The weather that day was threatening and overcast, however, it was estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 people came to Ithaca for the event. Eventually, it was said that 4,000 people were served meals.
The call came for 109 men to leave Gratiot County came quickly within a twenty-four hour period. At one point, the men left at the rate of three or four per day from Alma. The Gratiot County draft board was in charge of taking care of them while they waited for the train.
With their departure, Gratiot County residents started to hear about their destination, which was known as Camp Custer. The camp was actually being both constructed and used as newly drafted soldiers appeared at its gates. Covering over 6,000 acres near Battle Creek, those who arrived there that fall wrote home to tell parents and wives about the accommodations and the new life of being a soldier in training.
Walking on the roads across the freshly constructed drill fields, weaving in and out between barracks, William C. Searl wrote his father that it took him almost two hours to find the nearest post office in the center of the camp. Each barrack was one hundred feet long and forty feet wide. One-half of the bottom floor was a kitchen area and had ten tables to feed approximately twenty men. The second floor was for sleeping quarters. Each man slept on an iron cot, which had a straw tick and several blankets. Several windows, which needed to be opened at night, let in enough light. Each barracks had a nearby bathroom or bathhouse for shower baths, washstands and a place to wash clothes. Each company had its own headquarters building. One of the most important places in Fort Custer was the exchange or canteen building. Here a soldier could obtain tobacco, candy, or ice cream. It always seemed crowded in the evenings. For another diversion, the men could visit the newly created Y.M.C.A. (Young Men’s Christian Association) building. Paper, envelopes, postcards, magazines, and newspapers were all available for the soldiers, all for free. Men could also receive equipment on loan to play baseball, football or other sports. Also present were places for religious services for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Searl also wrote that a quarantine for sickness was already becoming a practice of the Army. Men frequently had to stay in their barracks until everyone received the necessary medical shots.
Searl then stated that Army life was becoming more serious. Awakened at 5:45 in the morning, roll call started fifteen minutes later, followed by breakfast. Drilling for the day lasted three hours, followed by a break, dinner and then another two hours of drills in the afternoon. When dinner and the day’s end came at 6:00 that night, men were free for a few hours. However, lights went out at 9:00 and there was nothing else to do in the camp. Most of the men found that they had little trouble sleeping after all of the training took place.
That September many parents and families started traveling to Fort Custer to visit their sons. Directions appeared in local newspapers describing the best way to drive to Battle Creek. Soldiers also wrote back to tell how they could be found once families arrived at the camp. Those who went by car found that it was a full day’s trip there and back using a route from Ithaca through Pompeii, St. Johns, Dewitt, Lansing, Charlotte, Bellevue before arriving at Battle Creek. While the roads were very dusty, they were considered to be good for the times. Those who visited made sure to let their son know that they were coming ahead of time and hoped to find a pass waiting for them at the gate, which was helpful due to Camp Custer’s size. Equally important was that the family knew what barracks number to look for once they got on the campgrounds. Before entering the camp, cars often were searched for intoxicants.
As September closed, help with the war effort continued. The Red Cross Society in Ithaca organized a knitting club to teach women how to knit articles for soldiers. The Domestic Science room at the high school had been open during the summer to encourage volunteers to use its sewing machines. It only cost twenty-five cents to help pay for yarn. People were encouraged to send Wrigley’s gum to soldiers headed to the front. “S.O.S, Send Over Some Wrigley’s” was an advertisement proclaiming that gum could protect thirst and help a soldier’s appetite and digestion. The British chewed it, why not Americans? The Alma library had a goal of raising $400 worth of books to send to soldiers.
The first “Meatless and Wheatless Days” were coming and it was announced that they would start in October. It was planned that Tuesdays would be a meatless day in Gratiot County homes and that Wednesday would be a wheatless day at the family dinner table. Both were done to help conserve food for the war. Also coming on the horizon was the second Liberty Loan drive. This time the goal would be to raise three billion dollars in America, one billion more than the first drive. It was said regarding the second drive that “Gratiot will be asked to go into the thing harder than ever.” Finally, an outcome of the physicals given to men headed to the Army yielded an ominous warning for places like Gratiot County. Tuberculosis was sometimes discovered with draftees. Detection and prevention of this dreaded disease would be a major health issue as time went on.
Copyright 2017 James M Goodspeed