“From the Corner of St. Johns and Emerson to Barber Street: 100 Years of the Ithaca Church of God, 1918-2018″ Part II: Putting Down Roots During Boom and Depression, 1921-1943”

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Above: Pastors George and Effie Lewis in 1955; “George Lewis, This is Your Life” at Ithaca High School, 1961.

         Under Reverend Lewis’ work, the Ithaca Church of God congregation slowly grew in numbers. The times were not easy. The 1920s were generally a “boom time” economically for parts of the nation, however, it presented many social problems and challenges. Gratiot County had an active Ku Klux Klan unit from 1922-1930 and made appearances in Ithaca. The 1920s were also the period of Prohibition and Ithaca dealt with illegal liquor, bootleggers and the quest to “stay dry.” Diseases such as tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and diphtheria were present and claimed the lives of both young and old in Gratiot County. By the end of the decade, an economic crash took place, unlike anything that was ever seen in the county’s history.

         Throughout the period Reverend Lewis faithfully continued his work as a pioneer minister. At one point during the Depression, a motion was made by some in the young Ithaca congregation to raise his pay ( from $ 3 a week to $4) because some felt that their pastor should not be the lowest paid minister in Ithaca. At the start of the Depression, Lewis listed his occupation as “working on own account” or “decorator” and he still carried out his duties as pastor. The Lewis family also had a member who lived with them for fourteen years that would be devoted to the Ithaca church throughout her life: Miss Lottie Ruehle. After her mother died, Lottie came as a young lady to live with the Lewis family.  She was devoted to the church and was known to many in Ithaca because she was one of the Ithaca’s telephone operators.

         In 1937, a 12 by 30-foot addition was added to the south side of the Chapel. Another addition was made in 1940 in similar size to the north side in order to give the congregation more Sunday school room. By this time, people began to know this place of worship as “The Little Brown Church.” The church was growing in size but it still lacked one thing throughout this part of his story: it needed places to park.   Throughout this part of its history people had to park up and down the streets in front of the church in order to find a place to park their cars.

        Through all of this, Reverend and Mrs. Lewis faithfully oversaw the growth of this church. During the summer of 1942, Reverend Lewis resigned as the pastor but stayed on until a new one was hired in early 1943. After leaving the Ithaca church, he served as a supply minister in the county.  On October 16, 1955, the church held a special service to honor their work.  After Reverend Lewis’ sermon, the church had a formal presentation for the shrubbery that was planted along three sides of the church. It was dedicated as a living tribute to Lewis’s work and service.   In the years after they left, many in and around Ithaca continued to call on “Pastor Lewis” for help such as funerals. He continued to be well respected and wrote a regular column for the Gratiot County Herald right up until his passing.

         In September 1961 Reverend Lewis was a guest of honor at a surprise “This is Your Life” program that was held at the high school. Three hundred people turned out to pay tribute to Reverend Lewis in the words of then Pastor Earl Van Sipe as “minister, counselor, community figure and beloved friend of many hundreds in Gratiot County.” It was said that Lewis had married approximately 500 couples and conducted 1,000 funerals. “The Little Brown Church” had been launched and was on its way as it entered the 1940s, new pastoral leaders came and the church faced and endured another world war.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the World War, Part 7: Richard N. Willoughby, “No One Seemed to Know What Happened to Me.”

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Above: The marker of Richard N. Willoughby which is in Fulton Center Cemetery in Fulton Township; Willoughby’s 1917 draft registration card.

         He had a mother who desperately wanted to know how he died, where his belongings were and when his body would be brought home. It took over two years, however, Richard Willoughby eventually made his way home after dying for Gratiot County in the Great War.

Richard N. Willoughby was the youngest of three children; he was born February 24, 1895 to William and Anna Willoughby. In 1900, he was listed as living with his family in Owosso where his father was a farm laborer. By 1910, when Willoughby was only 15 years old, he lived with his aunt and uncle. Something around this time happened in the family: possibly his father died, his mother remarried, and the family may then have moved to Perrinton.

Richard grew up to be a tall, young man who had blue eyes and light colored hair. He also worked in the office for Libby, McNeill & Libby of Perrinton as a time keeper. It appears that Willoughby enlisted in the Army on June 5, 1917 and was sent to Columbus Barracks, then to Syracuse, New York and in the process he became a Private in Company I of the 23rd Infantry. Not much was said or written about Willoughby’s service in the local newspapers. Only one, the Alma Record, noted in late September 1918 that “there is a strong probability that (Willoughby) is a prisoner in the hands of the Hun. It is also possible that he has paid in full his debt to this country, by giving his life in aiding to promote its success.” It ended up that the Alma Record was correct on the second part of its statement.

In reality, Willoughby had been killed in action on July 19, 1918 when he was hit and immediately killed by shrapnel that shattered his head and his left arm. Private Guiseppi Guarino of Cambridge, Massachusetts was a witness to the incident. Willoughby was given a chaplin’s funeral in Ploisy Aisne Cemetery, near the spot where he fell. Back home, his mother, Mrs. Anna Herrick, heard nothing other than the news that her son was dead. For almost two years she did not know where her son died, what actually happened to him, where he was buried or where his belongings went.

In November 1920 Mrs. Herrick wrote to her Congressman asking for answers to these questions. She eventually filled out a request for his removal and final burial at home, but she also wanted to know when he was coming home and how he died. In January 1921 some of her questions were answered when the government notified her that that the remains of her son were finally being sent home. Mrs. Herrick was adamant that her son be sent to Perrinton for internment. In early May 1921 she was told that her son would arrive on May 13, accompanied by Private Robert F. Coles, an attendant with the 28th Infantry. Willoughby had first been placed on the USAT Somme, then once he arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, he was ultimately placed on the Grand Trunk Railroad.

Once Richard Willoughby returned to Perrinton, Michigan he came home with only two things: a ring with the letter “R” stamped on it and his serial number (51,464), which no one back home seemed to know. Willoughby did, however, leave a legacy in southern Gratiot County. In 1921, he and another fallen soldier from Perrinton in the World War (Lyle Smith) had the American Legion Hall named after them in Perrinton. Today, a marker is all that exists for the sacrifice that Richard N. Willoughby made for Gratiot County. Richard Willoughby was only 23 years old when he died in the Great War.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed


Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the World War, Part 6: Howard C. Wolverton, “I Was the First from Breckenridge to be Killed”

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Above: Newspaper articles from Gratiot County newspapers in the summer of 1918; Howard C. Wolverton’s burial marker.

         “He was, I can unhesitatingly state, one of the best men and best soldiers under my command. Cheerful, intelligent, ready, willing, and without a trace of personal fear. My highest regards to you who brought him up…”

        These words made up part of the letter that Howard C. Wolverton’s commander wrote to his  parents as he tried to talk to them about the loss of their son. Wolverton had been killed early in the morning at Petit a Beaux, France on July 15, 1918. A witness said that he and a corporal were resting outside their tent near their gun position, awaiting their morning breakfast. Then, a direct hit from the enemy early that morning  killed both soldiers instantly.

        Howard C. Wolverton was born in 1895 in Gaylord, Michigan to Mr. and Mrs. W. G. Wolverton. The family moved different times before settling in Breckenridge. At one point, after moving from Sheridan in Montcalm County, they operated the Pompeii store. Howard then went to work for the Republic Truck Factory in Alma. He was of medium build and height, had blue eyes and brown hair. He also worked at an auto plant in Detroit, got sick but then went and enlisted in the Cavalry on May 6, 1917, shortly after war was declared against Germany. He was sent to Fort Ethan Allen and by January 1918 and he became a sergeant at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Wolverton sailed from Camp Merritt, New Jersey for France in April. His commanding officer told his parents in his letter of consolation that it was a goal of sending Howard to Officers Training camp in the future. Howard was that good of a soldier.

           In late September 1918, services were held at the Breckenridge Congregational Church, even though Wolverton’s body was in France. The Gratiot County Herald recorded that at the service “There was a large crowd turned out to do honor to our first Breckenridge boy to fall for democracy on the field of battle.” Upon his death, Wolverton was buried near where he was killed, then he was moved in 1919 to the American Cemetery near Belleau Wood.

        At some point either near the time that their son died, or shortly thereafter, the Wolvertons moved to Fenton, Michigan. It was here in 1921 that Mr. Wolverton wrote to the government to ask that his son’s body be sent home for a final burial. After traveling from Antwerp, Belgium to Hoboken, New Jersey, the Grand Trunk Railway brought Howard C. Wolverton’s body to his final resting place in Oakwood Cemetery in Fenton. Records state that there is a marker in Breckenridge’s Ridgelawn Cemetery. Probably the marker was erected shortly after his death in 1918 to commemorate a son who could not come home at that time.

          Regardless, one of Howard C. Wolverton’s legacies is that his name was joined with another Breckenridge native who was lost in the World War. Together they formed the creation of the Wolverton-Sawvel American Legion Post, which still exists today.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

Gratiot County During the Great War – July 1918: “The Summer of Saving, Sacrifice and Blood”

Enlist A.jpgBAnk A.jpgWSS A.jpgWheat A.jpg Above: news advertisements from the Gratiot County Herald and Alma Record from July, 1918.

        During July 1918 some advertisements appeared through the newspapers in ways that they had since the United States entered the Great War (now referred to many as “The World War”).

       The Ithaca Commercial Bank asked people to buy “Baby Bonds” (War Savings Stamps) because “Every member of the family should have a BABY BOND.” The same bank imitated the pressure put on people in 1918 to be loyal Americans: “War Savings Certificates Will Certify Your Patriotism – And Pay You Handsomely.” Other businessmen like H.B. Thompson told people they should buy military watches for their soldier boy because “The hardest item in the Jewelry line to obtain is to get a good Military watch.” People also were asked to “Be Patriotic: Attend the Big Day and Night Fair” at the county fair as a portion of the proceeds of ticket sales would be given to the Red Cross. Then there were advertisements that loudly hammered the theme of doing one’s best in wartime, and then asked individuals to buy the merchants product. The Middleton Farmer’s Elevator shouted to people to “SAVE FOOD” because the United States Food Administrator, Herbert Hoover, urged conservation and self-sacrifice with food products. The elevator had a supply of Number 4 Yellow Corn for sale, and this type could be fed to livestock. C.H. Corwin in Ashley also told readers to “SAVE! SAVE! SAVE! And Help Feed the Allies” by buying groceries and provisions from him. Still other advertisements from the government repeated “Be an American! Enlist in the Marines!”
The county was continually asked to buy war bonds and stamps in July. Known as “Baby Bonds,” War Savings Stamps became the way that all people, regardless of how much money, could support the war effort. Every person in Gratiot County could purchase War Savings Stamps and they were expected to do so. Simon Messinger of Alma tried to encourage 98 boys to buy stamps. If any of them showed a card with three stamps on it, he would provide the fourth, which would eventually be redeemable for one dollar after the war (an increase of 25 cents). Fred Slater, William Rogers and Otto Sanderhoff all purchased an advertisement in the Alma Record entitled “A Call to Every American.” It encouraged people to invest in the five dollar stamp plan. When Alma held another stamp drive in July, employees of Republic Truck Company Plant Number Three purchased over $2000 in stamps. Mrs. F.W. Ruggles, the company owner’s wife, purchased the limit of $1000 worth of stamps. Mr. and Mrs. Henry Kuhn also bought a total of $500 in stamps.

       Rationing continued and there seemed to be no end to the warnings by the government that leaner times were here. Gratiot County just needed to prepare and persevere. In Alma, there were attempts to start rabbit clubs in order to provide extra meat for families. Boys and girls from ages ten eighteen were invited to participate. War time recipes involved what could be done with cottage cheese dishes. Egg candling was required for anyone selling eggs by the case. Wheat harvest was imminent and already people were being told how to use whole wheat flour in efficient ways. Macaroni, noodles, spaghetti and many wheat breakfast foods all contained wheat, therefore as one advertisement read “SAVE WHEAT – EAT POTATOES – EAT OTHER CEREALS.” Dr. J.H. Kellogg from the Battle Creek Sanitarium even tried to convince the public that “There is no necessity for eating wheat at all.” Kellogg recommended a total meatless diet and encouraged using more peanuts and soy beans. He also argued that using more corn with milk would be a great substitute in the diet. New sugar rulings took effect starting July 1 and one could not buy more than three pounds of sugar per month and grocers could have no more than a thirty day supply on hand at any time. Those who still had a sweet tooth for cake were told by the government that wheat flour substitutes could be used to make barley sponge cake, corn (flour) sponge cake, oat sponge cake, spice cake -and even chocolate cake – with barley. Other conservation that summer came when elevators across the county announced that grain bags would no longer be loaned to farmers. An impending gas shortage seemed to be on the horizon. Drivers were urged to drive at an “economical speed” of 12 to 20 miles per hour. Running a car while it sat idling was frowned upon and maintaining brakes, oil and tires helped a car to be most efficient. Hard coal was going to be in short supply for the upcoming winter and people were urged to buy and save coal now. Also, starting July 29 lightless nights would be in effect on Monday and Tuesday nights in the county in order to conserve fuel.

        The Red Cross continued its work in the county, especially by encouraging support for a membership drive. Two benefits were held in Alma. One of these, the Artists’ Red Cross concert, was held at the high school and raised $300. At the Ruggles home in Alma, those who attended the benefit there found electric lights draped across the large lawn. Morton’s saxophone orchestra provided music for dancing for those who came to support the Red Cross. The Red Cross also had a large parade in Alma in mid-July. As a band made up of locals led the way, a group of 35 ladies followed in the shape of a large Red Cross. Then came the Alma branch of the Red Cross, followed by high school cadets and Michigan State Troop Company 87. When the parade finished there was a stand set up at the corner of State and Superior streets for speakers to address the crowd about donating, pledging and supporting the organization. Still, the Red Cross was active in many other parts of Gratiot County. The New Haven Red Cross chapter had 31 ladies present at its regular July meeting. The group completed work on hospital jackets, socks, quilts and waist clothes. During that month, the chapter added ten senior and three junior members. Readers of local newspapers also saw more and more drawings and images that showed the important role that the Red Cross had in the war effort.

         For a while, the county newspapers continued to focus on the status of soldiers who were still going off to war via the draft. Those who enlisted on their own found their names on the front page of the newspaper, such as six Alma men who had done so voluntarily (Clifford Link, Theodore Snydes, Elmer Markham, Russell Burrows, Elton Durkee, and Anthony Trendell). Then there was the story of Francis Zone of Lansing, a deserter, who was caught at the Alma Post Office. Zone skipped his final examination in Grand Rapids and was discovered in Alma. Sixty-four men were called for duty to Camp Custer on July 25, however, the number requested from Camp Custer was well short of the 190 Class One men that were required. The draft board was looking at the reclassification of some eligible men. There was a list published of 34 men on the Alma Company of Michigan State Troops (Company 87) along with 10 who were reserves. Sometimes when a soldier married a local girl before going off to war the announcement made the news. This happened when Lieutenant Joseph Baldwin married Irene McCall of Ithaca. The wedding was simple and the honeymoon was short, then Baldwin left for Camp Custer to train troops. He was not expected to head to France until October.

        During July, newspapers now started to publish the addresses of soldiers in camps and those who were in France. Families began to turn in the addresses as they learned where there son was located. It was hoped that people would write to Gratiot County’s young men. One of the letters that appeared in the Gratiot County Herald from Sergeant George H. Dolloff simply came from “Somewhere in France.” Dolloff wrote about being able to see over a trench into No Man’s Land into the area belonging to Kaiser Bill. One of the men in his company had just returned from a raiding party and brought back an enemy helmet. Dolloff expected to leave his trenches very soon on similar patrols.

        News reports about area soldiers changed from being informative pieces and letters from young men who were just starting the army life to the horrible reality of war. Clarence Gruesbeck of Hamilton Township was reported as being severely wounded in France in late June. The family awaited details of his condition. Grimmer still were the first stories of Gratiot men who were killed in combat. July was a bloody month as soldiers like Howard Wolverton, Richard Willoughby, Leslie McLean and Orrin Riker all fell in France. For the families and friends of these men the war took the highest possible price, Gratiot County’s youth. Sadly, there would be still more that would die from Gratiot County.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

“From the Corner of St. Johns and Emerson to Barber Street: 100 Years of the Ithaca Church of God, 1918-2018” Part I: The Birth of a Church, 1918-1920

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Above: Announcement for the Revival Meetings held in Ithaca in July, 1918; George H. Clingenpeel, Evangelist of the meetings; Reverend George W. Lewis, taken in 1943; a very young George W. Lewis taken in 1905.

Author’s note: This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Ithaca Church of God in Ithaca, Michigan. The following is the first in a series of articles about the history of this church, its pastors, events and  some of the people who were used by God to bring this church through its first 100 years.

          It was a time of change and challenges. Ithaca, Michigan in the summer of 1918 was, like other communities across the United States, at war. The United States had been at war against Germany for nearly a year and news of those young men from the area who died in service to their country started to reach Ithaca. That fall, the Flu Epidemic hit the United States and many in Gratiot County became seriously sick and also died. There was also heavy pressure to show one’s patriotism and to support the country during World War I. A postwar recession in 1919 would hit the area that made times tough for people. These were some of the things happening in Ithaca when a small congregation was born that eventually became known as the Ithaca Church of God.
On July 4, 1918 a notice appeared that a revivalist was holding services one block north and one east of the Methodist Church. The first meeting was held in the Revival Tent under the direction of George H. Clingenpeel, a Church of God evangelist from Wheeler Township, who had held similar meetings in Alma. These meetings took place for approximately two weeks. At end of one of the advertisements for the meetings was an almost prophetic phrase that would be one of the legacies of the church through its history in Ithaca: “Everybody Welcome.” The Gratiot County Herald reported, “The Revival meeting in the Gospel tent, is a grand success from the beginning. The crowds are filling the tent each night and are very much interested…Clingenpeel …is a plain speaker, and has something interesting for everyone.” The meetings were so successful in Ithaca that the Herald noted that people even came and listened to the meetings from their automobiles.
Two key events took place after the meetings concluded: land was donated and the first pastor of the church was called. First, William Kennett, a well known resident who was born in England and who lived in Lafayette Township and in Ithaca for most of his life, agreed with his wife to purchase a lot at the corner of St. Johns and Emerson Streets (where the tent meetings had been held). He then donated it to the church. This would be the location of the Ithaca Church of God until 1963.
The second important event dealt with the calling of the first pastor, Reverend George W. Lewis. Lewis was from New Haven Township and his grandfather was instrumental in the creation of the Lewis School, located in Newark Township. Born in 1882, George W. Lewis was converted at age 17 and began active gospel work less than a year later with the Crusaders, a group of evangelistic workers who visited area schools and Sunday schools. In 1905, he became officially ordained in the Church of God ministry and he led the church in the teachings of the Church of God Reformation Movement. Lewis met his future wife, Effie, at the Burlingame School in New Haven Township and they married in 1903. Together they had six children. On November 5, 1919 the family moved to Ithaca and purchased the Frank Shaver property on Shaver Street. He officially became the church’s pastor in 1920. Lewis supported his family by working as an interior decorator, as well as serving as minister for 23 years.
The earliest meetings of the church were held in the homes of Pastor Lewis and Mrs. Chriss Lehner. Others who were drawn to the church also hosted meetings. For example, notices appeared in the newspaper that a group of ladies “were in Newark Tuesday evening to attend a Church of God prayer service at the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Bosley.”
In 1920, the first building was built on the corner of Emerson and St. Johns Streets. The building was simply known to many in Ithaca as “The Chapel.” It is also important to note that the young church was almost on the edge of Ithaca at that time, only a few blocks from the city limits. On top of this, the main line churches in Ithaca had been in existence for decades. This was truly going to be a new church. If one wanted to know where the Ithaca church was at that time they were usually told to look for “The Chapel.” As the church started its journey, Reverend Lewis continued to work, raise a family, and to pastor a church. “The Chapel,” as it was originally built, would continue until late into the Great Depression.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the Great War, Part 5: Paul M. Srode, “I Wanted to Fight, but My Health Failed Me”

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Above: the only known picture of Paul M.Srodes from the Gratiot County Herald; the Srodes family plot in Ithaca Cemetery; All Wars Memorial in Ithaca.

      There were many young men who eagerly went off to war from Gratiot County and who wanted to do their best. Paul M. Srodes, who was from Ithaca, was one soldier who wanted to fight, but in the end, his own health failed him.

     Born April 28, 1896, in Chicago, Illinois to John and Eunice Srodes, Paul was a telegraph operator before he entered the war. Not much is known about the Srodes family, however, his father came to Ithaca in 1886 and purchased two lots on North Main Street. The nice home there became known to many in Ithaca as “The Srodes Home.”

     Paul Srodes entered Fort Leavenworth in Kansas on December 12, 1917, as a telegraph operator. In January 1918 he wrote home to his family, thanking them for the sweater that they had mailed to him. He now had four sweaters, but he needed them all to combat the cold weather in Kansas. Paul was only in need of more gloves to wear, however, he knew that his family was preparing to send him more.  He also told his mother that his unit was hiking twenty to thirty miles a day in order to practice how to string telegraph wires and set up telegraph posts. His letter ended with a detailed account of the death of fellow soldiers. He wrote, “We buried one of my best friends here Sunday. He died of pneumonia. He and I used to make our beds up together to keep warm. We took another fellow to the depot today, a man from our section of the company. He also died of pneumonia.”  Srodes explained how a funeral march followed the bodies to the train depot, playing songs at the station like “Nearer My God to Thee” as the train pulled out of the station. All of the men stood at parade rest as the bodies departed for their homes. “It is a beautiful site and believe me that band can make wonderful music,” he said in closing.

       Paul Srodes left with his unit, the 5th Field Artillery Signal Corps, for France in February 1918. He was in France for just about one month when disaster struck – Srodes was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In March 1918 he was sent back to the United States, entering through Ellis Island, then to Baltimore and then to an Army hospital in West Haven, Connecticut. On July 15, Paul Srodes died. He was only 22 years old.

      Newspaper accounts of his death said that several years before the war started, he moved to Colorado and then Arizona to live because he feared he had contracted “consumption.” Over time, Srodes seemingly recovered his health. When the war broke out, Srodes enlisted from Ithaca. One thing that his Fort Leavenworth letter did not tell readers was that he too eventually contracted pneumonia, had recovered and then was sent to France. Did this bout with pneumonia trigger his next encounter with tuberculosis?

       Once Srodes’ body returned to Ithaca it was the first military funeral to take place in the town during the war -and a big funeral it was. The State Troops of Ithaca led the service and the burial service had full military honors. The funeral assembly started at the home of his mother and walked all the way to the Ithaca Methodist Church.  from the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches all participated in the funeral service. The Gratiot County Herald recorded that at the church “the company of six hundred (people) were permitted to look for the last time on the form of Ithaca’s first sacrifice to the cause of human liberty.” After the conclusion of the service, the Ithaca band led the Bearer Sergeants, which was followed by the funeral car that was decorated with a United States shield and flags of the United States and her allies. Following the funeral, car were the ministers, family and friends, all on foot. Others followed behind this group in their cars.  The procession from the church to the cemetery was a distance of roughly eight city blocks.

      The State Troops and their leaders formed perfect lines around the grave as the body was laid to rest. After the final spoken words and funeral dirge, a firing squad fired three volleys. And then it was over,  Ithaca had buried its first man to die in the Great War.

      Today, all that is left of the story of Paul Srodes is his cemetery marker, two newspaper articles and one very short page in his military burial record about the story of an Ithaca boy who wanted to serve his country and who did the best that he could.

Copyright 2018 James M. Goodspeed

Remembering the American Protective League in Gratiot County During World War I

spyglass.jpgBadgeAPLSecretServiceF_small.jpgdownload.jpgWalker.jpgAbove: American Protective League newsletter,  and badges. The membership card  belonged to George Herbert Walker from St. Louis, Michigan.

“Why are you not buying more Liberty Bonds or War Savings Stamps? Are you unpatriotic?”

“We had a parade in downtown Ithaca yesterday. Why didn’t you attend?”

“We heard that you think that the German soldiers are better than Americans. Why did you say that?”

“You are from Germany and you have yet to take out your (naturalization) papers. Why has this not been done?”

“You have been reported for hoarding sugar. Do you want to be reported? ”

“Someone has said that you will not sell your grain and our nation is in crisis. We are here to look into this. Do you not understand that this is against the law?”

“We are looking for slackers. Do you know the whereabouts of Joe Smith?”

        Any of the above questions could have been asked of Gratiot County residents during 1918 by a somewhat secret group of men. These men privately kept their eyes and ears open to people during the heart of American involvement in the Great War. They were a part of the American Protective League and there was a unit in Gratiot County.

         Who these men were and what they did is a little-known part of Gratiot County’s  World  War I history. Their work involved “watching” for German spies, subversives, those who complained against the war. They also were aware of those who were critical of President Woodrow Wilson’s governmental wartime policies. Also, anyone who appeared to be lax in unpatriotic behavior like failing to support the country by failing to buy war bonds could have been their target.

         This group, known as the American Protective League (APL), was an organization based in Chicago, Illinois that worked with the United States Department of Justice. In 1917, A.M. Briggs, a wealthy Chicago advertising executive, helped convince the Department of Justice that it needed help watching German spies. The Bureau accepted Briggs’  idea as long as members of the APL understood that their service was to be purely voluntary. The organization was believed to ultimately have 250,000 members in over 600 cities.

        What exactly did these APL members do? In addition to paying for all of their personal expenses, they received no pay. Supposedly, members who were chosen to join an APL unit had to be able to use what the APL deemed to be “good judgment.” Most of the members had been exempt from the draft in 1917-1918 or were too old to serve in the military. Those who were members in 1917 carried a nickel plated badge which cost them fifty cents. In 1918, some of them carried a gold plated badge which cost them three dollars. The organization kept members aware of some of its nationwide activities by publishing a newsletter called “The Spy Glass,” which was published for a nickel or obtained as a yearly subscription for $1.30.

         Today, such an organization may have seemed unbelievable, however, events before and during the war made them appear necessary. One of the key fears that many Americans heard about during the war in the press dealt with the number of German spies that operated in the United States and that there were not enough American agents to observe them. Also, the country had been rocked by the Black Tom Explosion in 1916 in Jersey City, New Jersey. German agents had successfully sabotaged a plant that made American munitions that were being sold to the Allies. After American officially entered the war in April 1917, the focus on Germans as spies and saboteurs increased.

            Probably the biggest impact that the APL had in Gratiot County (and in Michigan) dealt with the organization’s attempts to help crack down on “slackers” or draft dodgers. Being a slacker in 1917-1918 was a serious accusation which meant that men who were eligible to be drafted were avoiding it, either by refusing to answer and turn in draft registration forms, or they were just on the run. These “slackers” often tried to stay mobile and avoided capture by using assumed names. One of the most famous stories in America involving a “slacker” on the run was the story of Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, the wealthy son of a Philadelphia brewer who did not want to serve in the Army. His story of being on the run, teasing the authorities that he could never be caught, and the government’s attempt to catch Bergdoll both entertained and angered readers for several years.

            The government’s attempt to catch “slackers” took the form of “slacker drives” that took place in 1918 in several major cities. American Protective League agents, along with federal, state, and county authorities would try surprise “round ups” at locations where young men were thought to be. On July 11-14, 1918 a major raid took place in Chicago’s Lake Michigan beaches. The group caught 100 “slackers.”  A number of “drives” took place up through June of that year caught 308, 489 “slackers,” or enough for 25 divisions of soldiers. Another key raid took place in New York City in early September that rounded up or questioned 20,000 – 25,000 suspects.

            While these events took place, Gratiot County was a target of a “slacker raid” in late August 1918 on the last day of the Gratiot County Fair.  The APL, county and state police all surrounded the fairgrounds on that afternoon in one large circle and did not allow any young men to leave. APL members then went through the crowd and stopped every man and asked them to show them their registration card. Anyone without a card was arrested and sent to the county jail in Ithaca. In some cases, some of those arrested simply forgot to carry their card and they were held until someone at home brought the card to the jail, then the young man was released. Antony Chowak, Ernest Allen Dunn, and Dewey Wonnacott were three men that were caught who were not registered for the draft. Only Wonnacott was from Gratiot County. The other two men were not Gratiot County residents and happened to be attending the fair.  Each was eventually returned to their respective county to face the draft board.

            The Gratiot APL probably was most active at draft registration meetings when area men came to pick up registration forms in anticipation of the draft. It was readily advertised that help was available at the Alma draft board office in filling out forms. Anyone could ask questions and receive help. These “helpers” were none other than APL members – and most Gratiot men who asked for help may have never known that the APL was in the building.

             APL members also targeted unpatriotic behavior. John Stake, a farmer in Wheeler Township in 1918, came under the focus of the APL when he was accused of hoarding and refusing to sell his wheat. He was also said to be pro-German and he refused to sell his wool clippings from his flock of sheep. The hoarding of things necessary for the war effort, as well as foodstuffs, was taken seriously.

          However, there is still the question of who belonged to the Gratiot County chapter of the American Protective League. Who were they and what did they do? Existing records show that thirteen men were members, but there were probably many more. We do know that the Chief was Clyde E. Pinney of Ithaca. The Assistant Chief was Carl H. Washburn, who was a cashier at the First State Bank in Alma. The group included bank officers, businessmen, a city or county commissioners, a postal carrier and a broker.

        The APL only really operated from late 1917 until the signing of the Armistice in early November. After the war ended, most units had been dissolved by January 1919. Still, there those people in Gratiot County who during the war had interactions with the APL, for either good or ill.

 APL members from Gratiot County included:

Karl R. Adams, from Alma, National Guard Director and a bank officer.

A.J. Davison, from St. Louis, a businessman.

Floyd H. Glass, from Alma, a First Commissioner.

Alexander Garvin, from St. Louis, joined the APL on October 5, 1917.

Lloyd Johnson, age 42, from Alma, a building manager for a gas company.

Earl O. Parker, from Alma.

Clyde E. Pinney, from Ithaca, the Chief of the Gratiot County APL.

Wilbur F. Price, from Alma, a postal carrier.

George Hubert Walker, from St. Louis, age 43, a broker/partner for G. Walker Company. Joined December 4, 1917.

Carl H. Washburn, from Alma, a cashier at First State Bank in Alma, Assistant Chief of the APL. Joined February 2, 1918.

Edgar M. Wood, from Alma.

George V. Wright, from Alma, businessman (furniture and undertaking).

Carl H. Washburn, from Alma, served on World War I Campaign Committee, also treasurer for the YMCA Campaign in 1918, Secretary of Merchants Building Committee.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed