Above: 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