“One Year into the Great War”: Gratiot County in April, 1918


Above: Wartime advertisements from the Alma Record in April 1918.


          One year into the Great War, Gratiot County’s support for the war effort remained strong and unyielding. Patriotic zeal was clearly evident during the first anniversary of involvement in the war.

      One of the best examples of support for the war involved patriotic meetings.  Speakers from outside the county encouraged citizens to raise money for the war. One of these speakers was Louis D’Harcklay from Belgium who told about his role in European relief work. D’Harcklay told listeners at the Alma Presbyterian Church how the Germans tortured civilians and how they treated captured, Allied soldiers. Professor Stearns, from Alma College, gave public lectures about the importance of camp sanitation at places like Camp Custer, as well as how malaria and typhus threatened soldiers. These patriotic meetings extended across the county into areas like Middleton. On one Friday afternoon, Middleton High School dedicated its service flag, complete with nine stars, which represented local boys who had gone off to war. A parade took place starting from the Masonic Hall and leading to Mertz’s Hall. School superintendent Bertha Hoxie moved to the head of the group and led the people down the main street to the beat of a snare drum. When they reached the school, children led the salute to the flag, followed by singing and a speech led by Mrs. Fred Baker, who asked the community to support the purchase of Thrift Stamps and the Third Liberty Loan.

         During April, the government launched the Third Liberty Loan bond drive and wondered how Gratiot County would respond. Newspapers pitched the idea that people should consider buying bonds just as farmers would invest in building a good fence to protect their stock and property. Did residents of the county want the Kaiser to break down their fences and loot and plunder should the Germans win the war? Readers were told “Fence your farm with LIBERTY LOAN BONDS” as “The Third Liberty Loan is your opportunity to hit the Hun.”

        Several events that month showed how important support for the Liberty Loan drive really was. Loan salespeople went door to door in Alma asking people to buy bonds before an important meeting was held. Then, the big draw was brought in – the famous Jackie Band, led by Lieutenant John Philip Sousa from the Great Lakes Naval Station. Dubbed “the greatest band in the land,” the band traveled across the county and was credited with helping to raise $750,000,000 in Liberty Bonds. The anticipation in Alma was great and this event was considered one of the largest turnouts in this area of the state. A parade, which was held prior to the entertainment, started off with an automobile that carried local Liberty Bond committee and speakers. Then came fifteen Liberty Trucks, followed by an old hearse which had a pig wearing a German helmet. On the side of the hearse was a big banner which read “Buy Bonds and Bury Bill.” Next came the Alma High School Band and the Jackies. Afterward, a Liberty Bond meeting took place at the high school followed by a dance. Another parade and meeting were held the next night in St. Louis. The results were astounding because in nine days 1,752 Gratiot County citizens subscribed to $241,250 in the Third Liberty Loan. The Alma Record described the county’s efforts by saying, “No one can accuse the farmers of Gratiot County of being slackers.”

          Residents also heard about the need to purchase Thrift Stamps. Michigan had a goal of establishing 20,000 Thrift Clubs which were groups of people who bought a certain number of stamps over a period of time. Housewives were asked to put signs in their windows stating that they would hire young people to work for twenty-five cents per hour. Payment was to be made in the form of purchases of Thrift Stamps. The Boy Scouts of America also went door to door selling stamps in what was called “The Red Post Card Campaign.” Those who bought stamps would receive a red postcard from the local postmaster for delivery. President Wilson wrote a personal letter to the Boy Scout who sold the most stamps. A  special service flag was given to the troop that had the most sales.

        The nation continued to call for Gratiot County women to play a role in the war effort. Starting the last week in April a non-compulsory census was conducted by the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. Every woman over the age of sixteen was asked to fill out a registration card. In Ithaca, women could find the cards at nine designated locations between April 27-29.   Who could work outside the home, take training for further service, or work in a salaried position? These were some of the questions that the census tried to answer.  The government hoped that women could help fill the one million jobs left vacant due to military service.

         In addition, the Red Cross also called for support. The Alma chapter moved into its new location in the north room of the Alma Masonic Home. Local schools encouraged student support for the Red Cross. Alma schools contributed $123.25 through the Junior Red Cross. Students from different classes there made and donated wristlets, compresses, bandages, and sweaters. Over at Ithaca schools, the Junior Red Cross asked each student to contribute one dollar for membership. In order to help students who could not raise the membership fee, teachers called on Ithaca residents to offer to pay students for cleaning, odd jobs, and outside labor in order to help the students earn money needed for membership. At the south end of the county, the girls in Miss Davis’ grammar class at Middleton High School raised $10 in order to become Junior Red Cross members. Eventually, primary and intermediate classes raised the required amount when they sold popcorn, homemade candy, and holders.

         There was still the issue of the draft and those soldiers who had gone off to war.  Warnings were issued about deserters who had yet to return questionnaires for the draft. A list of 95 names was published and families were asked to help locate the men. On the one hand, it was argued that some of the charges about desertion were unjust because some men probably had moved, were already in the service or had just failed to mail in their forms. Still, the title of “slacker” was applied to the names on the list. Some family members became very angry with the county newspapers when their son or husband was already in the service ended up with their name on the list. Letters and visits to newspaper editors frequently took place and retractions concerning the label of “deserter” appeared in following issues.

        Letters from soldiers told Gratiot County readers about military life and war in Europe. Ellis J. Ayers was “Somewhere in France” and lamented the lack of attention that he paid to geography and history when he was in school. Ayers wrote, “We don’t realize what it means to study those subjects until we come face to face with the objects spoke of and then it dawns upon us the real value of study.”

        John W. Doyle, a sergeant in the 32nd Division, told about his second Sunday in France. “The grass here is green though and they say the winter here doesn’t get much colder than it is now…We see all sorts of people here. Quite a few Chinamen (are) even (here).”  He added that “…we had a safe voyage and saw no submarines. All the war news we here is from an occasional Paris edition of the New York Herald and you folks at home get more news than we do here of the war.” He regretted that he could not buy candy anywhere, but one could buy all the wine and liquors he wanted.

          Those who wrote from camps inside the United States offered some insight into the changes Gratiot County men encountered. Ike Hansen wrote from Camp Jackson about the differences of being sent to the South. He wrote to his parents, “I almost forgot to say something about the cotton fields and negroes. In Georgia and South Carolina, the cotton fields in some places extend as far as a person can see, and the negroes are as thick as white people. Once in a while, we went through little towns that seemed to be mostly of negroes.” Stanley Bergen from the 424th Engineers wrote from Camp Kearny that his church attendance had been “choppy” since he arrived, but he was attending services at a little country church three miles from camp. Although Sundays were termed “Liberty days,” he could not always go to church as he had to make up engineer property returns at his office. Murl Stedman wrote from a field hospital at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia and found the food to be tolerable. “Well, I just came back from mess. We had roast beef potato salad, pudding, bread, and tea. Had a good dinner today, went back after my second dish,” he commented.

         Finally, other things appeared in the news. Over in Breckenridge and Wheeler schools, every eligible boy there applied to enroll in the Boys Working Reserve Program. Meetings for the program were also held in Elwell, Ithaca, Riverdale, North Star and Perrinton where boys enrolled to help with farm work for the upcoming season. Spring sports at Alma Schools were canceled so that boys could help farmers. Both the superintendent and principal encouraged students to join the program. The Alma Record noted that “It is quite evident that Gratiot County boys are realizing the need for food and are lining up to do their best to feed the Allies. In other words, they are patriotic.” The former secretary of the Gratiot County YMCA was now in France and told readers what it was like to operate a YMCA dugout near Paris. Men came directly to and from the front to visit his dugout. He also asked readers to send records for the men to listen to.

         As the one year anniversary of the country’s involvement in the Great War took place there was no sign as to how long the war would last. It also did not indicate the loss of life that was still to come.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed


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