Gratiot County and the Great War in October, 1917: Our Boys at Fort Custer – The 2nd Liberty Bond Drive –The Next Draft – Food Preservation


Above: Liberty Bond advertisements from Gratiot Count newspapers from October, 1917

        During October 1917 Gratiot County residents continued to read about their boys who were going off to war. Frequent visits, reports, and stories about Camp Custer, located near Battle Creek, Michigan were local news. Henry McNamara, a farmer from Alma, wrote in the Alma Record that “a trip to (Fort Custer was) beneficial to every citizen” in the county. McNamara then went on to buy $1,000 worth of Liberty Bonds and he encouraged young people to send boxes of food to local men who were at Battle Creek.

         If people were unable to drive down to see the camp, some rides were available in “jitneys” for only a quarter. Writers claimed that it was relatively easy to get into Camp Custer, however, knowing where to go on base was extremely important as over 1600 buildings had just been built. Only the newly painted green YMCA buildings were easily identifiable to visitors.

        Different kinds of visitors from Gratiot County went there. The Republic Motor Truck Company made a visit possible for the Alma Boy Scouts for an overnight trip on October 12. All Boy Scouts were encouraged to go and it proved to be a good public relations move by the company.  The Alma College football team also made a trip to Camp Custer. They played the officers from the 85th Division, but they were defeated 7-0. Even though Alma lost a tough game, playing against a “genuine football team” made up of Army officers showed Coach Helmer that he had one of the fastest Alma football teams ever assembled.  Even local clergymen, businessmen, and doctors traveled to examine and learn about Camp Custer, many at the invitation from the YMCA. Names like Reverend Mumford and Byron Kinney from Perrinton, as well as John Hudson, Roy Dodge, and Will Traub from Middleton, went and listened to calls for funding of the YMCA on future battlefronts.

         The names of local boys frequently appeared in the news, most asking for letters and correspondence from home. Alfred Rhodes, who was the first Alma man to enter Camp Custer, made it home to visit his parents on one weekend.  Theodore Strack, from Elwell, was also awaiting his first call to the camp. His parents were both born in Germany. Strack was to be joined by other Elwell boys including Lee George Loomis, August Junda, and Clare Mallory. The county also began to lose doctors and clergymen who went off to war. Doctors Cyrus B. Gardner and A.A. McNabb from Alma left the city. Gardner headed for Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia and McNabb for a hospital in Grand Rapids. Father John Mulvey, from Alma St. Mary’s church, also volunteered to serve in the Army. Mulvey was assigned to the 328th Field Artillery at Camp Custer. Eventually, Father Mulvey would journey with the troops to Europe, serving on the Western Front. Sometimes other boys were said to be at other camps in New York, Texas or even on their way to France. Orrin Riker (who would eventually be Ithaca’s first man to die in the war) wrote and told about being sent to Fort Ethan Allan in Vermont. Merlyn Hamilton wrote to remind readers that there were also young men stationed along the Texas border.

      Still, Gratiot County called more young men to service. Early in the month, 150 answered the draft. From that group, 65 asked for exemptions, while 53 failed to pass the physical exam. One of those men who asked for an exemption and who was in the news was Orrie Brown from St. Louis. Brown’s status garnered state attention when he claimed a hardship that his wife was encountering on account of his enlistment. As Brown fought for his exemption it was pointed out that he had failed to file necessary exemption papers on time. His wife was taken care of by people in St. Louis and Brown went on to the service. New draft rules came down from President Wilson during October. Four different classes of draft-eligible men now existed, each defined by their own categories. It became more important for each man to properly fill out his questionnaire in answering the draft call. At the very top of the list were single men who had no dependents, at the bottom were licensed pilots. Still, the mayor of Alma issued a proclamation asking young men to join an already estimate of 6,000 Michigan boys who had previously answered the state’s call to enlist in the United States Navy.

          On the home front, Gratiot County prepared to enter the Second Liberty Loan drive. With a goal of raising $480,000 by the end of the month, the question was asked by the Alma Record, “Is (Gratiot) to go down in the records…as a slacker county?” Michigan Governor Albert E. Sleeper appointed a chairman in Gratiot County to lead the campaign and Francis King of Alma accepted the position. Rural communities, in addition to places like Alma, were targeted to help raise the quota.  Monday, October 15 was set aside as “Liberty Loan Monday Night” as school houses across the county were opened to encourage people to come and buy bonds.  Subtle pressure was applied to citizens to support the bond drive as “It was better to buy a bond than to take orders from Berlin – wake up, hustle to the nearest bond sale and buy a Liberty Bond.” Ithaca proprietors such as Henry McCormack stepped forward and purchased $1500 worth of bonds. At 4 percent interest, payable over 25 years, and free from taxation, citizens were encouraged to buy all they could.

        A new, voluntary movement that took off that fall in Gratiot County involved conservation of meat and wheat. Every housewife was asked to sign a pledge card saying that their household would go meatless on Tuesdays and wheatless on Wednesdays. It was hoped that housewives in the county would support the Hoover Food Pledge and sign a card indicating that they would conserve food and support the war effort,  democracy, and Uncle Sam.

           As October closed, the tobacco fund for soldiers continued to grow. Tobacco offered soldiers “the pleasure and contentment” from a break from war in the trenches. The Red Cross in Ithaca held its annual meeting in the courtroom of the courthouse. Miss Etta Stuckey answered the call for service and left to work in the War Department in Washington, D.C. The first call for German aliens to register with the United States Marshall in Alma was issued and ten people showed up. Finally, it was announced that if anyone wanted to send Christmas mail to the Sammies in France they had to do so by November 15. All packages had to be labeled “Christmas mail.”

Copyright 2017 James M Goodspeed

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