Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the Great War – Part I: Frank E. Huntoon, “He was Universally Liked by His Fellow Soldiers”


Above: Frank E. Huntoon marker, Oak Grove Cemetery in St. Louis, Michigan.

        Gratiot County’s first man to die in the Great War was one of several who sadly never made it to the Western Front.  This story, like a few others that will be told, is best viewed as the result of misfortune or accident.

           Frank E. Huntoon was born October 18, 1877, to Adelbert and Melissa Huntoon in Bridgeville, a small village located at the southern end of Gratiot County. Frank was the middle child of at least three children (George, Frank, and Mattie). By 1880 the family was living on a farm in Emerson Township.

          Little is known about Huntoon, although he must have joined the military and served in it for several years prior to the war. In 1910, he was a member of the 8th United States Infantry at the Presidio of Monterrey in Monterrey, California. There is no evidence that he ever married or had children, so it is very possible that Frank E. Huntoon spent at least some of his life earlier in the United States Army.  However, in 1917 he again enlisted in the Army to serve his country.

           Huntoon was just short of forty years of age on August 1, 1917, when he found himself stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison. By winter there were an estimated 7300 troops of the 10th Infantry Regiment at the camp. Frank E. Huntoon was one of these men.

           The winter of 1917-18 was extremely cold and harsh and had enormous amounts of snowfall. Soldiers at camps like Fort Harrison found themselves literally snowed in, confining them to the base. The Army tried to keep them busy there with their duties.  In short, life for Huntoon could have been very boring.  It was here that fate met him on December 28, 1917.

           Records and clues as to the cause of Huntoon’s death are scarce. One states that Huntoon “Worked at (the) Barber trade, and was in that service when he died.” Upon his death, his commanding officer, Lieutenant Henry G. Sebastine, wrote to Huntoon’s mother, “Private Frank Huntoon was an excellent soldier who was universally liked by his officers and his unfortunate death is a source of genuine sorrow to us all.”

          But what led to Frank E. Huntoon’s death? The only record left in the National Archives reads, “Died Dec. 28, 1917, at Ft. Benj. Harrison, Ind.  of wood alcohol poisoning.” Is it possible that Huntoon tried to relieve his boredom with some poorly made alcohol on the base? Was someone selling bad alcohol and Huntoon was a victim? Another answer to the cause of Huntoon’s death is a clipping from the St. Louis Leader which was printed after his funeral. It read that he was “taking ill with ptomaine poisoning, which was the cause of his death.”  This suggests that he contracted bad food at the camp.

           Regardless, there is more to Huntoon’s story after he died. Upon notification of her son’s death, Melissa Huntoon was told that the only way that she could get her son’s body returned to her in St. Louis was to pay $75 to a funeral company in Indianapolis, Indiana. Melissa, who had little money, somehow scraped together the required sum and forwarded it to the Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Home and the body was shipped home. And then things came to a boil after she talked to other soldiers who were home on furlough in St. Louis.

         Mrs. Huntoon soon learned that grieving mothers or widows could be entitled to insurance policies that soldiers took out in the event of their deaths. She also learned that the United States Army did not charge families money to have their sons or husbands sent home for burial. Upon writing to the Quartermaster General she stated, “We have buried (Frank) at our own expense and we are poor and if there is such a thing it would seem acceptable to us (to be compensated for the cost)…It seems though Uncle Sam ought to have paid my boy’s expenses home. He gave his life and now not one bit of help from him.”

         An Army investigation was quickly launched regarding Melissa Huntoon’s letter.  The entire affair also somehow made it into newspapers, apparently in Indiana, and writers there accused the funeral home of extortion. Within a few short weeks it appeared that Mrs. Huntoon received her money back, all as what the funeral home and Army would call “a misunderstanding.” Years afterward, the Army conducted another investigation to make sure that Melissa Huntoon had indeed been properly compensated.

           She had been paid, but she lost Gratiot County’s first man in the Great War.




Introduction to “Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the Great War”


WWI vets names Gratiot.jpg

Above: The names of thirty Gratiot County Men who appear on the Gratiot County All Wars Memorial in Ithaca, Michigan.

   Welcome to “Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the Great War.” It is very possible that you may be the only person who will read this article (or any of the thirty to follow) regarding those men from Gratiot County who died in World War I.

    I have spent roughly the last two years looking at these names and doing the research in an attempt to bring these thirty men’s stories back to life. What you will find here is hopefully a little more than just what newspapers from that time tell us. Still, these men still do not have the full recognition for their service and the ultimate sacrifice. They were people who lived here a century ago. They lived life, they had dreams, many had families. In all of their cases, they failed to get what I did, which is chance to live out their lives.

   The first few stories will be somewhat slow in coming to you. Why is that? It is hoped that each of these stories will appear at or near the time of the anniversary (in this case the centennial) of their deaths. By next summer, because some of these men died in combat in the summer and fall of 1918, you will find stories appearing quite frequently. In between, I hope to have stories for you regarding what was going on in Gratiot County, aside from the current “Gratiot County in the Great War” series that appears monthly. (I also want to note that “Journeys with a Gratiot Cemeterian” is going to be back – watch for it)

   As in war, these thirty stories are moving, sad, inspirational, even daring (hence the title). Some of these men wanted to serve in battle and never got there. Some died in the Influenza Epidemic. Several died fighting in France. Other stories appear unbelievable, like Gratiot County’s only Naval fatality which may have taken place in the Bermuda Triangle. Another tragedy occurred with a boy who literally went to war -at barely the age of sixteen- and who died in France. A few others died literally after the Armistice was signed, examples of how war can continue to claim its victims.

    So, again, you might be the only person who reads these stories. But, these thirty men that you read about in the next 14+ months deserve to have their stories told and they should not experience “the Second Death,” which is the death of being forgotten.

   I hope you find the stories meaningful. As with all research and writing, frequently there is someone who knows something more about a veteran. Please let me know and I hope we can more fully honor these men with more information.

    So, to start the series, we meet a man who was named Frank E. Huntoon who was from Bridgeville and St. Louis, Michigan.


Gratiot County in the Great War, December, 1917: The First War Christmas


Above: Headlines from news articles in December issues of the Gratiot County Herald.

          In December 1917 Gratiot County experienced its first Christmas during World War I. The Red Cross encouraged people to show their support by hanging a Red Cross banner from their Christmas wreaths. On Christmas Eve, special Christmas candles appeared in many windows and illuminated Red Cross emblems. Church bells in several towns on Christmas Eve chimed each half hour. Earlier in the month a “Fete Patriotique,” a drama performed by local volunteers, was held at the Ithaca Opera House and it raised $68.75 for the Ithaca Red Cross Chapter. Among the many things that the Ithaca Branch completed that month included 37 sweaters, 30 scarfs, 22 helmets, 49 pairs of wristlets and 3 French caps. With a membership of 4500 in Gratiot County, the Red Cross planned a new drive for more members in each township in the county. To help with this, Red Cross booths could be found in stores in Ithaca, Alma, St. Louis, Breckenridge, Middleton and Ashley.

          A county fundraising in December involved the sale of Thrift Stamps. If individuals did not have money to buy Liberty Bonds, they could afford to invest in stamps. Francis King and H.M. Dunham of Alma volunteered to head this campaign. Thrift Stamps cost only 25 cents and when a person had enough of them they could exchange them for a $5 war bond. The bonds had another benefit in that they earned four percent interest and would be good until January 1, 1923. The only downside to buying the stamps was that no person could buy more than $100 in stamps at a time and they could not own more than $1000 worth of them. The government planned that the sale of these stamps would add two billion dollars to the war fund by January 1919.

          News articles and letters told how young men stationed in military camps came home for visits, or who had seen action in France. Walter Young of Ithaca described life at Fort Douglas, Arizona. He, like Sergeant Dallas Brock from Alma, told readers about the great Thanksgiving dinners that they had enjoyed. Brock even said some of the soldiers had their mothers, sisters or sweethearts with them at Fort Custer for Thanksgiving. Orrin Riker, later Ithaca’s first soldier to die in the war, described army life at Camp Hattiesburg, Mississippi. One of the boys who came home to Gratiot County for furloughs included Private Alfred Rhodes of Alma. Lester McAllister, “Speed” Narrance, Lester von Thurn and John A. McAuley, all former Alma College students, described military life at their camps. Gratiot County also began hearing reports about one of its clergymen who volunteered to go with the boys to France. Father John A. Mulvey, from Alma’s St. Mary’s Church, carried out his duties with the 228th Division at Fort Custer. Probably one of the most moving stories to appear in newspapers dealt with Thomas Arnold Robinson of Alma, who had spent six months on the frontlines with the French Army and who had now returned home. After being reunited with his family he signed up to serve Uncle Sam as an aviator. During the war, he served in places like the Vosges Mountains, Verdun, and the St. Mihiel sector.

        Other news from Gratiot men already in Europe was sometimes grim. Captain M.F. Devereaux, a boy from Newark Township, had enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1916 and wrote from a dugout located 1 ½ miles from the German lines. One of his worst memories happened when he tried to find his comrades who had died in combat the night before. When Devereaux returned on patrol the next morning to retrieve the remains of a soldier, there was almost nothing left of him as a result of the shelling that took place. Gil Spencer wrote a letter as one of the first Americans in France with the 9th Infantry. He fought with the French Army and tried to recover from injuries suffered when his weapon accidentally discharged. A Mrs. Foust in Ithaca received a letter from her brother, who fought with the British Army. He had been wounded and had to be sent to a hospital in Bath, England. While the treatment there was excellent, he described being moved from the front. Other stories described how the Germans often set traps for Allied soldiers in trench warfare by preying on souvenir hunters. Innocent piles of German valuables and belongings were secretly rigged with explosives to kill or maim its victims. Also, German soldiers often played dead on the field of battle to shoot Allied soldiers from behind.

         Those Gratiot men who had previously avoided the draft got some sobering news in early December. Under new rules, all exemptions could be repealed, and all men now had to fill out new questionnaires. Men had until December 15 to turn in the paper or they would be listed as a slacker and forfeit any rights to an exemption. Even if a formerly exempted man had moved to a new address, it was his obligation to fill out and return the document to the draft board. In Ithaca, Alma and St. Louis lawyers were available a selected times to advise men on how to fill out the papers. For nearly three weeks, the Gratiot County draft board called in five percent of the men each day. Still, it would take sixty days to get through all of the questionnaires.

        Other wartime events continued to take place in the county. The YMCA planned banquets and programs to promote its plans for keeping Army life “clean.” The Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense warned readers that the real reason why America fought was that Germany denied America freedom of the seas, that it despised our army and that Americans would pay to reconstruct a victorious Germany. It also spoke of a theme that continued in 1918 – Germany was plotting in our midst. If America did not fight, it would suffer the same shame, horror, butchery, and rape by the Germans that France and Belgium had already suffered.

         Two wireless outfits had been confiscated in Alma. Because they were small and had only a small range, the government deemed them to be unimportant. Still, local authorities kept track of anyone buying them and sought to find how they operated. President Wilson announced that the railroads would be under federal control by the end of the month. The President promised that all equipment would be taken care of and returned to private ownership after the war, all in good condition. People were still encouraged to help the local tobacco fund. For only a quarter, a “package of comfort” could be sent to France and offered a quality of tobacco that no American soldier could find over there. The choices included Bull Durham, Lucky Strike or Tuxedo pipe tobacco. Each packet contained a stamped postcard that told a soldier who sent the tobacco.

              Finally, food was a part of the nation’s efforts to support the war, even in the cold of December. Michigan was supposed to be getting 40 county agricultural agents to help counties to improve food production in 1918. It was not clear if Gratiot would get one or not. Bread rules appeared for merchants and bakers. Sugar prices were capped and bakeries, hotels, and restaurants were limited to how much flour they could use each month. Price gouging was forbidden and weight limits were put on the sizes of bread loaves, as well as how much sugar could be used with each barrel of flour. Pure lard for making bread became blacklisted. The government hoped that bread prices would come down and a cheaper bread would be produced in Michigan. Recipes started to appear in the Gratiot County Herald which told housewives how to engage in “War Pie Conservation.” A way to do this included the use of the “None Such” Mincemeat pie ingredient which saved meat, flour, shortening, labor, and money. The Home Lunch Restaurant in Alma offered Christmas dinner to patrons, but it commented, “Let us eat and know that we are getting value received for our money. We owe it to our GOVERNMENT to live as cheaply as possible.” The restaurant served Duck dinners as a specialty.

Copyright 2017 James M Goodspeed