November, 1917 in Gratiot County: “Patriotic Pressure: Pledge for the YMCA – Turn Out to Help the Red Cross- Use Food Conservation”


Above: Newspaper advertisements from the Alma Record and Gratiot County Herald, November, 1917.

       In late 1917, Gratiot County’s commitment to supporting its boys in the Great War continued. The Second Liberty Loan drive in the county proved to be another success. Gratiot was responsible for raising $715,200 in Liberty Bonds. Committees in each community were formed and recruited people to do their part. Ithaca aimed for $50,000 and appointed recruiters in all four of its wards. Advertisements urged that “To meet Gratiot’s quota, $25 worth of bonds is required for every man, woman, and child in the county. Let us not be slackers.” In the end, Gratiot County fell well below its goal (as did several other mid-Michigan counties), but Isabella County was above its target. The Republic Truck Company was the biggest subscriber and it bought $30,000 worth of bonds. At the same time in Ithaca, Francis Kellogg purchased $600 worth of bonds while J.L. Barden bought his share with $200. There would be even more bond drives in the county during and after the war.

       Better results in raising money took place in November regarding the YMCA. General John Pershing proclaimed to Americans that “You must have the YMCA to win the war.” The Young Men’s Christian Association offered various resources for soldiers at each camp and it would continue with the men as they went to Europe. At Fort Custer, supporters of the YMCA told how it was “a place for homesick boys to hear music and play games and read.” Families who went there also found a nice place where they could meet and visit. Former Alma Doctor Cyrus B. Gardner, now a Lieutenant at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, wrote a lengthy letter for publication that explained what he saw and experienced at the YMCA. He concluded that the YMCA “takes the place of home and church, and even the school.”

         With more American boys headed to France, Gratiot County was told that it needed to raise $10,000 for support – all within a week! Meetings were held in nearly every township, often with a public speaker to help gain public support. Advocates for the YMCA said that this drive “(was) the greatest movement before the American people today for it means home comforts and clean lives for the boys.” In Ithaca and Alma, Lieutenant T.A. Loughery, a Canadian soldier who was wounded at Vimy Ridge, France, was one of the key speakers.  Some of the smallest places in the county also had similar meetings. Locations like Rathbone, Sickels, Sethton, New Haven Center, Pompeii and Beebe had “Round Up Evenings,” all in the hope that Gratiot County would pledge and even raise more than their assigned amount. Support for the drive came from all walks of Gratiot’s society. Students at Alma College gave $1665, which was remarkable since only a few hundred students attended the college at that time. School teachers in Ithaca pledge $100. Ithaca students became involved as well. Each of Ithaca High School’s classes raised a minimum of $10 per grade (the school would ultimately raise $249.62). At Perrinton High School, students in the junior high gave $4 and also sold bottles, rubber, tin foil, rags, and magazines in order to also raise money. At the end of the week, Gratiot County had indeed gone “over the top” with this drive by raising upward of $15,000! Canvassers were praised by local newspapers who noted that they had sacrificed their time “and generally (had) found few slackers” who refused to pledge support.

     The Gratiot County Red Cross also continued its work in helping Gratiot County’s soldiers. At one point a call from the Gratiot County Herald urged more members to attend the work sessions in Ithaca. With a membership of almost 500, only 20 ladies showed up each week to knit. It was estimated that five times that amount was required in order to meet the needs of soldiers as winter approached. The ongoing need for socks, surgical dressings, and garments compelled members to complete as many articles as possible to get them to camps like Camp Custer by Christmas. For instance, a box of surgical dressings could quickly be used by one surgeon for one injured soldier, therefore, more were needed. Instructions were issued by the Red Cross for making knitted socks with a semi-double heel and a “Kitchener” toe design. Once completed, volunteers needed to wash each pair with Lux soap, keeping the foot fashioned down to stop shrinkage.

     More patriotic pressure was placed upon Gratiot County women regarding food conservation. They were encouraged to sign “Hoover Pledge Cards” and to give them to John T. Matthews, Gratiot County’s Food Conservation Chairman, in Ithaca. This program reminded women that “The people of the country have a moral duty to perform, and a patriotic duty also to perform.” The county kept track of all of those who promised to conserve food for the war effort through these cards. Public places got into food conservation. The Republic Restaurant in Alma advertised Tuesday as meatless day (only serving fish, macaroni with cheese and eggs) and Wednesday as a wheatless day (by serving rye, cornbread, and muffins). “Milkless days” had not been scheduled yet in Gratiot County, however, milk was becoming scarce in some places like Alma. All of the food conservation efforts were promoted as ways to assist the Sammies in their fight to defend liberty.

     More Gratiot men continued to be called into military service. By the middle of November, 200 more men appeared before the draft board. A total of 82 men and 5 alternates were chosen and within a week they were sent to Fort Custer. On the early morning that they departed the mood of the group was described as being “in high spirits.” As they left, each man was given a housewife kit complete with buttons, needles, and thread, courtesy of the Republic Motor Truck Company. Red Cross girls and ladies handed out the kits. However, the Alma Record castigated readers the next day for the poor public turnout that took place at the depot. It turned out that the few dozen supporters who showed up consisted largely of family members of those headed to Battle Creek. Even though some people attempted to advertise the need for public support for this goodbye, the Record lamented that “because of lack of (public) cooperation, the sendoff fell flat.” The question was asked, “Were too many Gratiot County residents more worried about making a living than in showing support for those who were placing their lives on the altar of patriotism?”

     Individual stories were received and printed in newspapers from those men who either were on their way to Fort Custer, who had been promoted, or who were headed to France. Robert Sawyer of Ithaca received a surprise send-off and a gift of a new fountain pen, courtesy of the “Goodfellow Club” in town. Lyle Smith from Perrinton quickly married his wife, the former Susie Fraker, and then had to leave for the Army. However, over 200 people from Perrinton met at the village hall in order to honor Smith, along with Elmer Fessler and Guy Baker, who had all been drafted. Lyle Smith would be one of Gratiot County’s men who later died in France in the summer of 1918. Three Alma College men were all given commissions at Fort Sheridan: Ralph Henning, Maurice Cole and John A. McAuley. Henning and Cole had attended the college; McAuley was an Alma College graduate. Howard Burchard was the first Ithaca boy to arrive in France as a gunner on a merchant ship. His letter home came approximately two weeks after he left the United States. Seven other Ithaca boys were on a convoy that was one day from arriving in France, but for some reason, the ship then turned around and came back. Another piece of news was not so good. Frederick J. Hagen of Breckenridge deserted his division at Camp Custer after being there less than one month. He was soon located and taken back to face trial. Hagen, originally a farmer, was then sentenced to ten years imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth, was dishonorably discharged, and forfeited all of his pay.

     Finally, those sending things to soldiers in France were now told that their packages that they sent could not weigh more than seven pounds. Little gifts and “eats” could be packed and as an example a group of Elwell women, led by Mrs. William Shong, all sent Christmas gifts to men at Camp Custer. An anonymous letter appeared in the Gratiot County Herald telling people that not all soldiers wanted to receive tobacco and some soldiers believed smoking to be unhealthy.  The ongoing, serialized story of “‘Over There’: The Thrill and the Hell of the Trenches, Described by an American Boy” had a large readership. Sergeant Alexander McClintock was from Kentucky and he had served in the Canadian Army.  His experience of being at war, his recovery after the Battle of the Somme (after being wounded with 22 pieces of shrapnel in one leg)  was the last of a six-part episode that appeared in the Gratiot County Herald.

Copyright 2017 James M. Goodspeed

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