Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the Great War, Part 11: “Allen, We Hardly Knew You” – Allen B. Pinkston

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Above: The only known photo of Allen B. Pinkston from the Gratiot County Herald; Pinkston’s draft card; the final resting place of Allen B. Pinkston in Richland Township Cemetery.

Allen Bernard Pinkston is one of thirty men who paid the ultimate price for serving our country during World War I. His story is one of the most tragic of the thirty for one reason: so little is known about this young man aside from his service and his death.

     Pinkston was born February 6, 1892 in Sedalia, Missouri to Thomas and Annie Pinkston. Allen appears to have been one of five sons and two sisters. At one point his parents moved to the Crystal area. Allen  listed his occupation as being a farmer before he enlisted at Camp Custer on September 21, 1917.

      Upon entering the service, Pinkston was assigned to the 338th Regimental Field Artillery, Battery B. From there, he was sent to Camp McArthur on November 2, 1917 and joined the 119th Field Artillery, Company D of the 125th Infantry.

          Pinkston became the next Gratiot County man to die in the summer of 1918 when he was wounded in the head on July 31. He died three days later from his wounds on July 2 in a hospital. He was buried in the Aisne Cemetery and it was not until late October of 1920 when his father petitioned to have his son brought home.  About this time a Detroit veteran by the name of Burgess Iseman wrote to the government asking where Pinkston and another Gratiot man, Leslie McLean, were actually buried in France. One of the situations that families of the dead faced was not knowing in 1918-1920 about where their son actually had been. Iseman’s letter, the government’s response to it, and the note that Allen Pinkston’s body was being returned started to bring some closure to the Pinkston family.  During the following spring of 1921 the government started the procedure of sending  home to his family in Vestaburg, Michigan.

        While Allen Pinkston had ties to Montcalm County, the only news article about his death that his name was placed on the Emerson Township service flag. His death, represented by a Gold Star on the flag, was one of the 31 stars on the flag. This must have accounted for why Gratiot County later claimed him as one of their losses during the war.

        After his arrival home and a funeral in Vestaburg on July 21, 1921, Allen Pinkston was laid to rest in Richland Township in Montcalm County. Allen Bernard Pinkston was twenty six years old when he died.

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 VI: Ministry and Service into the Current Era, 1983-2018

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Above: Pastor David Schwarz; Pastor James and Connie Conn; Current pastor, Tom Whitesel; the Church of God today at 624 East Barber Street in Ithaca, Michigan.

        As the 1980s took off, the county tried to recover from one of the most significant recessions since World War II. Interest rates were incredibly high and  unemployment was a challenge in places like Gratiot County. The country as a whole also took a very conservative tone in many ways, and the decade  concluded with the end of the Cold War.

         A new search for church leadership began in 1983 and the Ithaca Church of God called Reverend David C. Schwarz from Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Pastor Schwarz and his wife, Arleta, had two children: Jeremy and Joyelle. Pastor Schwarz was known as a pastor who worked diligently on his preaching. However, it soon became apparent that leadership style and the vision of the congregation did not match. After a period of almost four years, Pastor Schwarz resigned. The church went through a period of time with Pastor Earl Van Sipe, who served as interim pastor. Because of Van Sipe’s  success as a former pastor of the church, and because he brought instant credibility, healing took place and the church eventually turned to a search for a permanent pastor.

          In November, 1987, Reverend James Conn from Saginaw accepted the call to become the next pastor of the church. Pastor Conn, and his wife, Connie, had three daughters: Angie, Amy, and Danielle. Pastor Conn was deeply committed to doctrinal preaching and to Sunday morning services. During Conn’s ministry, the church first became involved with trying small groups and individual discipleship training. Connie Conn revitalized the worship service planning and led the services. She was also instrumental in starting a women’s ministry known as “Kindred Hearts.” Under Pastor Conn, the “Dare to Care Program” met bi-weekly for intercessory prayer for those in the church who had specific needs. After 26 years of service to the church, Pastor Conn retired in May, 2014.

        It was during the 1980s that the church became known in the Ithaca community for its Wednesday night children’s program, which was started by Peggy Mockridge. Eventually the program became known as “Bible Mountaineers” and it drew many children to the church. Peggy was a gifted volunteer musician and she served as the children’s program director. She also planned and directed many special events at the church such as Christmas and special children’s programs. Starting in 1996, the church felt the need to call a full time youth minister to work with youth. The first youth pastors were David and Barb Carney who came with their daughters, Rachel and Amanda. They served for 6 ½ years and were followed by Steve and Tammy Mellish, their son, Mark, and Tammy’s two daughters. In 2005,  Brent and Kaylee Dumler were called to minister and they brought their children: Kelcey, Garrett, Conner, and Josh. When each  of these youth ministers left it seemed that more young families left the church as well. There was also a question about supporting the ministry when church finances did not keep up with expenses. This issue was resolved when the church joined with the Edgewood Church of God to share a youth minister, Matthew Derby. He and his wife, Brandi, have four children: Selah, Ryah, Kitarah, and Judah. Derby was hired as a part time youth minister and currently works with both the Ithaca and Edgewood congregations. In this way, both churches could have a vital youth program  while being able to support a youth minister.

        In the fall of 2014, the church looked to new leadership and Tom Whitesel from Indianapolis, Indiana became the new pastor. He came with his wife, Denise, and the couple have two grown children. Pastor Whitesel has led the church with an emphasis on music, children and community outreach. Under his leadership, the church has adopted the message of “Love God, Love Others, Love the Community” and it has been demonstrated in several ways in Ithaca. In reaching out to the community, the church has offered snacks and meals to schools and teachers. A city project is regularly adopted, and volunteerism and community involvement is encouraged. The church also has an annual “Heroes Day” to recognize individuals in their community.

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 V: Here Come the 1970s – Another Young, Passionate Pastor Followed by A Calm, Caring Shepherd



Above: Pastor James Henegar; Picture was taken in October 1971 following “Hold Forth Your Light” Campaign; Pastor Carson Reynolds.


        As the 1970s began, the Ithaca Church of God again looked to a younger pastor, much as it had two decades earlier. This young pastor was James Henegar, who arrived from pastoring the Church of God in  Hialeah, Florida. Before that, he had been an assistant pastor in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Henegar was a graduate of Anderson College, where he majored in Bible and Christian Education. He also was a pitcher on the Anderson College baseball team and once got his former manager, Carl Erskine (a former major league pitcher) to come to Ithaca to speak to his congregation.

        Pastor Henegar came to Ithaca with his wife Judy and his daughter Michelle, and they began their ministry in Ithaca on July 13, 1970. They also had another daughter who was born in Ithaca during their pastorate. He was energetic, had a passion for evangelism, and was outreach oriented.  Henegar was very active in welcoming new people to the church and in trying new things. In the fall of 1971, he challenged the church with a Sunday School Attendance Campaign entitled, “Hold Forth Your Light.” The goal was to increase Sunday School attendance to an average of 173 people for four straight weeks, from September 12 to October 3. The program was exceedingly successful, and it brought a total attendance of 841 people (most Sundays saw 25 people above their goal). Because the church picked up the challenge, on October 3 Pastor Henegar, his wife, and daughter dressed in “Old Fashioned” style (bibbed overalls for the pastor). Henegar also fulfilled his promise that if the program succeeded he would preach a sermon from the roof of the church, which he did.

        Henegar encouraged the church to try other things which resulted in drawing in children,  younger couples, and their families. A bus ministry was started to reach children and people in the community.  Judy Henegar was instrumental in opening the basement of the parsonage for classes for children’s church and was very creative with ideas on how to reach these children.  Now, a familiar problem for the church was on the horizon: what should the church do now that it was again outgrowing its facilities? One of the issues of church growth for the Ithaca Church of God in the 1970s was that there was a sizeable group of younger adult families and also a core of “pioneers” who had been with the church for decades. Some of the older members had lived through several building projects and participating in another one seemed to be too challenging. It was also thought that younger members wanted a place where they and their children would attend in the future.    The idea of “growing pains” would be an issue for almost a decade for the congregation.

       In 1976, Pastor Henegar resigned after completing nearly six years with the Ithaca congregation.  He had a much larger vision for the future of the Ithaca Church of God, but unfortunately, the church was not ready to accept it.

       In the early winter of 1976, Reverend Carson Reynolds accepted the call to pastor the church. During the 1970s things were happening in Ithaca and in Gratiot County that had an impact on younger families in the church. These dealt with the economy and its effects on jobs in the area. Many seemed to be leaving due to this as well as attending other congregations.

         Reynolds was an older pastor who came with his wife, Katherine, from the Mt. Haley Church of God. He had pastored churches in Kentucky and Ohio before coming to Michigan. Both he and his wife were graduates of Warner Pacific College in Oregon, and they were the parents of three grown children.  Pastor Reynolds came to the church as an able, experienced pastor who was working with a church which was leveling off in attendance. Still, Reynolds could be counted on to both watch and observe his sheep, whether it was a time of a personal crisis, a hospital visit, wedding or funeral.

        There were ministries during this period that were important to the church. One of these involved the youth work that was done by Sam and Connie Price, who volunteered their time and energy as youth ministers. They started a group that involved the youth in “His Kids” that performed in many churches in the area and the state. “His Kids” involved many age groups of youth in the church, and it had a tremendous influence on many people.

  In a short time, the issue of expanding the facilities was the focus of many of the younger families in the church. A vote was taken, and the church entered into another building program in 1980-81 which added the wings to the sanctuary, more bathrooms, a larger fellowship hall with classrooms, and a larger kitchen. The church and its new, completed projects were dedicated in 1982.  Reynolds was very committed to seeing the project completed and this consumed the focus of the church so that programming and outreach suffered. In 1983, Carson and Katherine Reynolds resigned to return to a prior pastorate in Xenia, Ohio. They had served the congregation for over six years.

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 IV: A Young and Vibrant Leader, a Growing and Active Church, 1950-1970

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Above: Earl and Charlotte Van Sipe pastored the church for almost exactly twenty years from 1950-1970; a 1950s shot of the old church; a 1964 shot of the new Church of God on Barber Street; in 1970 the Board of Trustees celebrated a mortgage burning ceremony – the new church was paid off.

        As 1950 began, Ithaca, like many other towns across America, had seen great changes in society and in the world. The Second World War ended in 1945 and the church had many men and women in its midst who had faithfully served their country. In Ithaca, a terrible polio epidemic had started in mid-1949 which terrified the community because of the number of people who were stricken in the wake of this terrible disease. Nothing had gripped Gratiot County on this scale since the Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919. By the summer of 1950, another conflict in Korea threatened the United States with another world war. When would peace and stability find come? In some ways, the Ithaca Church of God needed a shepherd who would turn out to be a long-term pastor, and they found one in a young Earl Van Sipe.

         Earl Van Sipe was 25 years old. He had pastored the Church of God in Petoskey for two years, was married to his wife, Charlotte, and had a nine-month-old daughter, Judy.  He and his wife would also be the first pastors to have a child in Ithaca with the birth of their son, Rodney.  Van Sipe was originally from Alpena and he had spent 2 ½ years in the United States Maritime Service during World War II. Both he and his wife were Anderson College graduates and it was there that Earl won letters in several sports and he coached the debate team. What many did not know was that he had turned down signing with the Cincinnati Reds baseball team in order to follow his calling as a pastor. Van Sipe had a knack with people and during his twenty years in Ithaca he became well known to many in the county, whether he was an auctioneer for a charitable cause, heading the county ministerial association, being a high school sports official, a leader of the Gratiot County Civil Defense Program, or serving as chaplain for the county sheriff’s department.

         As the church moved into the 1950s it averaged 90 people a Sunday and continued its ministry within the community. Holding annual or seasonal revivals were a signature of the church and notable evangelists came from across the Church of God to Ithaca to hold meetings.  In 1952, a  special dedication service was held for the purchase and installation of new pews, which cost $2485.00. It was one of many steps in the 1950s that the church took to deal with its growth. In early 1957, the church undertook a drive to raise $30,000 to add a new educational unit for new classrooms, fellowship hall and pastor’s office.  Attendance was now reaching an average of 160 people each week.

         Still, there seemed to be more for the Ithaca Church of God. In the midst of the 1957 drive a new vision was presented to do something better:  build a new, modern church and then relocate.  Parishioners were asked to think bigger and to commit deeply to the idea of building this new church. As leaders looked for a   place to build this church, one day Pastor Van Sipe and trustee Ed Papendick ventured several blocks northeast of the church to what would eventually be called Barber Street. At the time the area was largely corn fields and there was yet to be a subdivision or a high school nearby. The church decided to enter into a mortgage for $45,000 and construction of a new church started in July 1963. In late December, the congregation moved to the church on Barber Street and another church, the Ithaca Free Methodist, purchased the old Church of God properties. Coincidentally, the two churches moved on the same day. Services at Barber Street were held in the completed sanctuary even though the rest of the church was not completed until April 1964. On Sunday, June 14, 1964, the new church was officially dedicated. The new church had a larger sanctuary which was fully carpeted,  had new pews, modern acoustics, a new fellowship area with new classrooms. The property also offered the public something that the older church never had: more than enough parking!  The congregation also took another step and purchased the house across the road which became the new parsonage. Still, many wondered, “How will we pay for this?”

         As the 1960s went on, the church grew, many well-known speakers, evangelists, and singers visited the church and the mortgage was soon paid off.  In late April 1970, the church held a mortgage burning ceremony and the church celebrated having paid off this new church. It was a time that celebrated that God was good and that his people were faithful to their commitment to having a new church.

        Within a few months, the church began a new stage when Earl Van Sipe announced his resignation to accept a call to become part of the pastoral staff at Pennway Church of God in Lansing. The Van Sipes had grown with the church and the community for almost exactly 20 years. In July, the church entered the next decade of its history with another young pastor and his family.

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 III: Navigating the 1940s


Above: Pastor and Mrs. R.T. Page pastored the church for approximately two years during World War II; Reverend B.C. Van Every had a successful pastorate from 1944-1950.

        While the Ithaca Church of God had taken root in the community, it now saw a period of new leadership. After Reverend Lewis resigned,  it was hoped that the church would start its next stage of growth in the community.

           The church called Reverend R.T. Page in 1943 to succeed Lewis. Not much is known about Reverend Page and his wife, except that they were only in Ithaca for a short time. The prime reason for this was that Mrs. Page’s health declined and they decided to move to a western state. They were pastors for less than two years and on September 24, 1944, they had their farewell service. At their last service, the Pages told the church that they were grateful for the new friends that they made, the memories they had in the short time they were in Ithaca, and the hope that would all meet again.

          Starting October 15, 1944, the church welcomed its next minister, Reverend B.C. Van Every from Cadillac, Michigan. He was a unanimous choice by the congregation and had been at Cadillac for eight years. Van Every was 35 years old, and he and his wife Arietta came with their three-year-old daughter. Van Every had filled the pulpit in Ithaca several times before his call, so many knew him. Van Every turned out to be a very good speaker, had a deep commitment to evangelism and missions, and he worked well with other ministers and congregations by being able to preach to other denominations and churches with the same acceptance.   Early in his ministry, Van Every considered leaving the Ithaca for a call to the mission field and he even turned in his resignation.  It appeared again that a recently hired pastor was going to leave the Ithaca church, however, events happened and Van Every decided to stay.

          As Reverend Van Every settled in at Ithaca, he became involved with organizations like the county’s Temperance Committee. He also built bridges in the Ithaca area with something that he owned, his camera. Whenever there certain events going on in town it seemed that Pastor Van Every was there taking pictures. On more than one occasion the local newspaper used Van Every’s photographs to go with a story, such as a tragic fire.  One of the things that the Van Every ministry would be remembered for was the building of the church’s new cinder block sanctuary and the continuing growth of the church. In April 1950, Reverend Van Every resigned from the church to answer a call to the Church of God at Otsego. However, he would return to Ithaca again during the community’s homecoming event in 1955 and he spoke at the worship service.

       As the Ithaca Church of God entered another decade it was in need of pastoral leadership that would continue to be effective in and outside of the church. It also needed a young shepherd who would deeply invest his life and many years in the church. As the 1950s got underway that is exactly what happened.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the Great War, Part 10: “I Fell Near Chateau Thierry” – Harry J. Leonard of Alma


Above: The only known picture of Harry J. Leonard from the Alma Record; Leonard’s Identification Badge; Leonard’s marker in Alma’s Riverside Cemetery.

         Harry James Leonard was born September 4, 1888, in Fenton, Michigan. His parents, Frank and Anna, also had a younger son known as C.B. Harry attended Alma schools, graduating in 1903. Afterward, he attended Alma College for two years and graduated from the Valparaiso School of Telegraphy. Prior to the war, Leonard was working in Flint where he joined the Michigan National Guard. In 1917, he was initially left out of the guards but after a few weeks, he found a way to join them. He would eventually go to France with the 125th Infantry as Sergeant of E Company, which was part of the Rainbow Division.

There were other things that people did not know about Leonard until after he died. As a member of the National Guard, he had served during a bitter mining strike at Calumet, Michigan. He also had been stationed near the Mexican border during conflicts prior to the United States entry to the war. Because of his experience, Leonard knew something about being a soldier before he ever made it to France, and he “itched” to do his part. Something else that people did not know about him was that he suffered a personal tragedy – his young wife, Helen, died shortly after Leonard left for France from a surgical operation. They had been married just over two years.

As the summer of 1918 continued, the numbers of young Gratiot County men who died in France started to grow. In late August, news of Leonard’s death was announced in county newspapers, even though he been killed at Chateau Thierry on July 31. A report filed by Sergeant Alfred Johndro stated that Leonard had been wounded by machine gun fire on that afternoon and that he died at seven o’clock that night in a first aid station. He was buried three days later on the battlefield, ¾ of a kilometer south of the town of Cierges.

On April 12, 1921, Leonard’s father, Frank, received a telegram stating that his son was being brought home to Alma. Part of the arrangements of the body and burial were conducted through G.V.Wright’s funeral service in Alma. It was an especially hard arrival for many in Alma when Harry Leonard arrived as he was accompanied by another fallen Alma soldier, Leslie McLean. It turned out that both men were buried on the same day in the same location, Alma’s Riverside Cemetery. Both soldiers also had many people attend their funerals.

Harry J. Leonard was one of the oldest of Gratiot County’s men to die in the World War at the age of 37. He left behind his father and one brother.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the Great War, Part 9: “Where is Riker?” – Orrin Riker, Ithaca’s First Enlisted Man to Die in World War I”


Above: Portrait of Orrin Riker taken before summer 1917; Riker’s marker in Clinton County; testimony of how Riker died in July 1918; Riker’s identification tag.

        On July 4, 1918, an Ithaca soldier who had recently completed his training wrote to an Ithaca family and asked about his friend. “Where is Riker? Did he make it across?” The soldier wanted to know what happened to his buddy, Orrin Riker, and if he had made it over to Europe or not. Three weeks later the Army announced that Orrin Riker had been killed in action in France. He was the first enlisted man to die from Ithaca.

        Orrin Hudson Riker was born to William and Lilian Riker in Maple Rapids, Michigan on January 21, 1897. Orrin was one of four children and his childhood was largely spent in Maple Rapids, except for a brief time on farms in Ovid and Essex townships. Up until the age of five, he went to school in the Grove District school. Afterward, he attended high school in Maple Rapids. Starting in the fall of 1913, Riker learned the trade of printing at E.B. Pilkington’s Dispatch office.  He soon moved to The Ashley World and the Middleton Record, then he spent three years at the Gratiot County Herald where he was the night linotype operator.

        Once the United States declared war against Germany Riker was among the first to join up.  On May 6, 1917, Orrin enlisted in Alma and was soon headed for Grand Rapids.  His records show that he was 5’ 9 ½” tall, had gray eyes, brown hair and weighed 139 pounds. From there he went to Columbus Barracks, Ohio and Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont. In the process, Orrin Riker was made a member of Troop A of the 18th Cavalry.  From Vermont, Orrin wrote one of his letters home to his parents. He had just received a box of gifts from a group of employees at the Herald and the letter was dated October 2, 1917. Riker mentioned that he had been placed in a field artillery formation that was practicing canon drills. The caissons that he saw each had a gun and each caisson was drawn by three teams of horses, which required certain skills to drive the team. It was also interesting to him that the guns he saw were used by General Pershing in Mexico and that they had seen action there.  Riker commented that he had been made a corporal “a while back and since then my life has been a misery. You have responsibilities you never dream of… I am no quitter and I am coming fine.”  Map reading interested Riker and he felt that his work as a printer helped prepare him for it. He did lament the weekly “maneuvers” that his group had to do, which once meant an overnight hike of 35 miles. Records show that Riker was then sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi on December 1, 1917, and that he was transferred to Company A of the 76th Field Artillery. On February 15, 1918, he went overseas to France.

         Tragedy met Corporal Riker on July 24, 1918, when he was instantly killed while standing around the gun positions of the 76th near Fismes, France. Apparently, Riker had been on his way to a listening post when he paused at that spot. It was then that a direct shell hit him in the head, shattering his lower jaw. To many who heard of where he died,  Fismes was a part of what was called the Second Battle of the Marne.  Riker was initially buried near where he fell and he was moved again until he was buried at an American cemetery near the town of Seringes. Here Riker was placed in a grave with one of his identification tags placed on his marker and another on his body.  Back in Maple Rapids, a memorial service was held in his honor in October at the Maple Rapids Christian Church.  No one knew then, however, it would be almost three years before Orrin Riker found his way back home.

       Riker ’s mother was like many other American mothers who wished that her son would be returned home for a final burial. It was not until April 1921 that the Army told Mrs. Riker that her son’s body would be returned. The following month the body was disinterred and boxed; in late July it was sent aboard the SS Wheaton with a group of twenty other Michigan men. Breckenridge’s Howard Wolverton, who died in July 1918, was also part of this group coming home. On August 4, 1921, a telegram arrived at the Riker home stating that Orrin Riker would be arriving at St. Johns. His final resting place was at Sowle Cemetery in Essex Township, Clinton County. An estimated 70 soldiers and sailors from Clinton and Gratiot counties attended the service.

         Orrin Riker was one of few men from Gratiot County who were also claimed by other counties. When Riker death was announced in July 1918, the Gratiot County Herald paid special tribute to him and placed a gold star for him on the newspaper’s service flag. After the war, he also was the only Ithaca man to die in combat and the town recognized him as such. In February 1920, well before Riker’s body returned home, a group of fifty men met at the Ithaca armory and formed the Orin H. Riker American Legion Post Number 237. The Post in Ithaca remains active and carries his name  (along with World War soldier D.C. Furgason) to this day.

        Yes, in response to an Ithaca soldier’s question in the summer of 1918, people after the World War now knew where Orrin Riker was.  He “had made it across” to France, he was killed in action but he had finally made it back home.

        Orrin Hudson Riker was only twenty-one years old when he died during World War I.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

Thirty Who Dared to Serve Gratiot County in the Great War, Part 8: Leslie C. McLean, “The Boy with the Shock of Black Hair”


Above: 1918 photo of Leslie McLean; McLean’s plot in Riverside Cemetery in Alma; McLean’s identification medal; Army telegram to Ella McLean and card she wrote to the Army; other McLean marker in Riverside Cemetery.

        He was just a boy with a shock of long black hair who begged his parents to let him get into the war. Today, he is the youngest of Gratiot County’s veterans who died in the World War. His name was Leslie C. McLean from Alma and his story is a difficult and intriguing one.

        Leslie Clifford McLean’s story starts in 1902 when he was born to Edward and Ella McLean in Bethany Township on what was called the Boyd Farm.  The McLeans worked hard to clear the land and put up all of the buildings on what was considered a pioneer farm. The family later moved to the Delbert Conley farm near Alma. Leslie’s father was a farmer and he had two brothers. Although news accounts through the years would say that there were three McLean children, it was decades later that a descendant of the McLean family told an interesting story about a very young Leslie who once brought home a young boy in need of food and clothing. Soon, Ed and Ella McLean took the boy in and raised him along with Leslie like a brother.  Later after the war, Ella McLean would share her love for flowers and gardens with the communities where the family lived.  Edward would work as a repairer at the Republic Truck Company in town. Prior to the start of the war, the McLeans moved to Alma and lived there for four years while Leslie attended Alma High School up until his enlistment.

        In 1918, young Leslie McLean desperately wanted to enter the war while he could. Three days after his sixteenth birthday, Ella McLean signed the papers that allowed Leslie to do so. How unusual was it for a boy, barely age sixteen, to fight in World War I? According to Army census records, the average age of a soldier during the war was over the age of twenty-four, and most soldiers were in the range of twenty to twenty-five years of age. There were indeed instances of “kids” who went off to war, but there was not a lot who did so. Fourteen-year-olds (a total of 16), fifteen-year-olds (140), and sixteen-year-olds (935) did serve the country. McLean was only one in less than one thousand who did so. Considering that the minimum age for enlistment in 1917 was eighteen (seventeen if one could get a parent’s permission), it is surprising that the Army took these volunteers. Yet, in a time of war, they did so. McLean must have been one of those youths who believed that the Great War was the most important event of their young lives, and they were determined to play a part in it.

        Once young Leslie was in the Army there was not a lot to his story, however, some things are known prior to his death. He enlisted January 23, 1918, at the Alma recruiting office, but because his parents had moved to Midland in 1918, both Gratiot and Midland counties would count Leslie as one of their own. Leslie was sent to Camp Hancock, Georgia and arrived in France on April 7, 1918, with Company G of the 38th Infantry. It was thought that he was fighting in the trenches in May and that he saw several battles in July, which coincided with the Second Battle of the Marne.  McLean wrote one letter home in June shortly before he was killed. “I am feeling fine and hope you are the same.” He asked for some news clippings from the Alma Record “as I would like a to get a little news of the town.” He then told about the reality of being on the front. “A few shells bursted near us yesterday, but not close enough to hurt anyone. We have been very lucky that way so far, but it is hard to tell when one will drop in the middle of us.” He explained the importance of having one’s own hole to avoid the blasts, even sleeping in them at night, however,  they were damp. He thought that men in his unit slept quite well once they had obtained straw from a local farmer. His only regret was that they needed water, had not washed for two weeks and had only received two meals each day (one at ten o’clock in the morning and the other three o’clock in the afternoon). The men did receive a cup of coffee later in the evening. “We have had the same thing every meal now for over a week. We have some kind of French meat. It looks like horse meat and we have potatoes, bread, and coffee. Once in a while, we get a little rice or bread pudding without any sugar for dessert. “  With this closing, the letter contained the last recorded words that Leslie McLean shared with his family and Gratiot County. It would not be until a month after his death that his mother shared the letter with the public.

      Leslie McLean’s death was first reported on August 1, 1918, even though he died earlier than this. The Alma Record reported that “The hand of grim death, which is stalking over the blood-drenched battlefields of Europe, has reached forth its bloody dripping fingers and called to its own the first Alma man to fall on the battlefield, facing the scourge of the earth, the terrible Hun. Leslie McLean is the first Alma man called.” A week later, the Midland Sun also reported on McLean’s death. The Sun noted that Ella McLean had been notified of her son’s death by telegram and that his parents were living in Midland. Prior to Leslie joining the Army, Edward McLean had opened a pool and billiard parlor in the city and young Leslie had spent several months there helping his father to set up the business. The Sun also noted that Leslie had given his mother’s name as his “nearest friend” and had taken out the maximum government insurance policy of $10,000.

        When McLean’s death first became clear, it was announced that he died on July 20. Once the news reached Gratiot County there was an immediate desire to have a memorial service for him, even though his body was in France. At this time in Alma, a Chautauqua meeting was taking place and the tent was going to be used for the memorial service since the number of those expected to attend could not all fit into the McLean’s church, the Methodist Church of Alma. One of the key Chautauqua speakers, Captain George Frederick Campbell,  a British flyer who had fought in the war, even promised to stay an extra night so that he could be a part of the program. Churches in Alma closed up that Sunday evening in a show of unity across denominational lines in order to pay tribute to McLean. The service also had ministers from different churches who spoke about McLean. The tent was full that evening as Alma mourned Leslie McLean.  An estimated 1500 people attended the service.

        In early September 1918, the story of Leslie McLean had what would be the first of many turns. Through all of these events, there was a family that waited for more information about their son’s death. At times these turns seemed cruel and unfair. The September 12 issue of the Midland Sun surprisingly featured an article that “Leslie C. McLean May be Alive.” Five days earlier, Ella McLean received a letter from Leslie’s commanding officer, Captain J. W. Woolridge, that he was recommending that Leslie be sent back home because “he had done his bit,” he had been wounded in a “desperate battle” on July 15 and  Leslie was slightly wounded (the telegram was dated August 5, however, it took over a  month to reach the McLeans). For Ed and Ella McLean and their family, their grief had just been turned to hope that their son was alive. On October 31 the Alma Record also reported that Leslie was alive and that he had only been wounded. Even the Detroit Free Press carried a small announcement about McLean. What had happened? The McLeans and the town of Alma had held a memorial service almost two months prior to this and now the first Alma man to be killed in the World War was said to be alive? The McLeans and many others were bewildered by this news.

        Even more details about the death (or life) of Leslie McLean now started to filter into the press. Supposedly, he had been shot in the right thigh while fighting off a German attack near Metzy, France. Another telegram, dated September 21, told the McLeans that Leslie had survived, however, it was impossible to tell which hospital he had been sent to. The telegram also stated that the Army did not know if he was wounded, gassed or a victim of shell shock. Michigan Congressman G.A. Currie entered this story as he wanted an investigation into what had actually happened. Currie attempted to get more answers to the McLean mystery. Still, the investigation would linger another three months and the McLean family was left wondering what had happened to their son.

      In early January 1919, with the war now over, news came that friends of Leslie McLean who were in the Army at the same time Leslie was believed that he was indeed dead. Even more, the first installment of the government insurance policy was paid to Ella McLean’s policy that Leslie took out in her name. Another sad event happened when in February, Colonel Charles C. Pierce of the Graves Registration Service in France sent word to the McLeans that their son was “in a hero’s grave in the American cemetery at Jouy-sur-Moin, Seine-et-Marne.” The Alma Record also wrote that Ella McLean received a letter prior to this one that a St. Louis soldier told of meeting another St. Louis man in France who witnessed a wounded Leslie McLean on July 15, 1918, who was crawling to a first aid station “after having refused assistance” for help. He claimed that McLean died from blood loss due to his wounds. For the first time the press now openly addressed the mix-ups, delays and crossed messages that played a part in determining what really happened to young Leslie McLean. This was also the first mention that Leslie had been to a field hospital.

        In all of the confusion and renewed hope that her son was alive, Ella McLean returned the first insurance checks issued to her upon the hope that her son was not dead. No further checks came to her. For the remainder of 1919 and most of 1920, Ella McClain and her family lived with the uncertainty of their son’s death or existence. Burgess Iseman, who was a former soldier from St. Louis, wrote to the Quartermaster General in Washington and asked where Leslie McLean was buried so that he could visit the grave.  The Army wrote back and told Iseman that McLean was in grave #52 in the American Cemetery in Jouy-Sur-Morin. It is unclear if Iseman made it there or not, but at least there were others who were interested in keeping the memory of Leslie McLean alive.  In December 1920 the story took another turn. The Alma Record ran an article on December 30 that read, “PREY ON GOLD STAR MOTHERS: Crooks Attempt to Secure Funds by Sending Fake Reports by Telegraph, LOCAL WOMAN NEAR VICTIM.” It stated that “Mrs. Edward McLean is suffering from the heartaches of the noble mother who has given her son for the honor of her country.” Ella received a telegram that read, “Arrived today. Coming home. Wire $100.” It was signed Leslie McLean and it was sent from Brooklyn, New York. Was it possible that Leslie McLean was alive 2 ½ years after his death was first announced? Ella sent her son Herbert from Midland to Brooklyn, New York to find out who sent the telegram. Four days later she received a telegram that “The man is a faker” and that the first telegram was a hoax.  Fate was again playing with the family’s emotions.

       It would not be until the summer of 1921 that some closure came to the McLean family. It was then that someone answered an article in the American Legion magazine regarding what happened to Leslie McLean.  A Corporal Orman Egleston,  who was from Oswego County, New York, had served with Company G of the 138th Infantry, along with Leslie. He wrote to Ella McLean and detailed her son’s last days. On July 15, 1918, Leslie had been wounded across both of his legs and he was placed in the cellar of a hotel in Merzy, France. Egleston was in the cellar with McLean and a Frenchman. All three had been seriously wounded. Anyone in the cellar was told that if anyone could walk they were told to get up and leave with the retreating American troops as the Germans were soon to surround the town.  After two or three days, the Frenchman crawled out of the cellar and a scream was heard shortly afterward. It was believed that the Germans had killed him. With little to eat or drink and seriously wounded, McLean and Egleston were in the cellar until July 20, a total of five days. It was then that Egleston decided that he would crawl out, which he did. After crawling to his former headquarters in the town, he passed out. Although the Germans soon discovered Egleston, they did not kill him. The Germans soon left the town and Egleston was somehow reunited with his commanding officer. He told the officer about McLean being in the basement and a search party found him. However, after being evacuated,  McLean died on his way to the hospital. This testimony was now the concluding piece of the story of how Leslie McLean actually died.

        After years of grief, discouragement, hope and false hope, it was during the summer of 1921  that things happened that allowed Leslie McLean to return to Gratiot County. Ella McLean had made it clear that ultimately she wanted her son to buried in Alma and not remain in a national cemetery in France.  The Army exhumed the remains and upon a final autopsy in 1921 it was noted that although there was not a lot to identify Leslie beyond his dental records. However, it was recorded that his hair was “apparently black and plentiful.”  Several times the records stated “DWRIA” which meant “Died of Wounds Received In Action.”

                On July 2, 1921, the body of Leslie McLean started home aboard the SS Wheaton.  He ended up being one of 45 men from this group to return to Michigan that summer. On July 27, the McLeans received a telegram telling them that Leslie’s remains would be delivered to them on July 27.  The journey led to Alma and the McLean family held the funeral on Sunday, August 4 at the Alma First Methodist Episcopal Church. It turned out that another Alma man, Sergeant Harry Leonard, who also had been killed in July 1918, was also being brought home on the same transport with Leslie McLean. There were two World War funerals on the same day in Alma – and both were held at almost the same time, but at different churches. Both men were buried in Alma’s Riverside Cemetery and hundreds turned out for the two funerals. This was the second Alma funeral for Leslie McLean and people still came to pay their respects. The McLean family now had closure to the tragic death of their youngest son.

       As time passed the memory of Leslie McLean’s name appeared again. In March 1934 the Gratiot VFW Post in Alma was named in honor of him. Forty veterans attended the meeting and twenty-two signed the post’s charter that night. On September 10, 1937, Ella McLean passed away. In response to her youngest son’s death, Ella was made an honorary member of the VFW and American Legion, as well as an active member of the American Legion Auxilary. At her funeral, an American flag was placed on her casket. Her obituary also told more about her. After the moves back and forth from Midland to Alma (apparently during or just after the war), Edward and Ella purchased a home on Rockingham Avenue which was in a way a living memorial to their son. They created a beautiful garden which the town of Alma knew about because of its flowers. Ella grew tulips, gladioli, delphinium and perennials which decorated their garden. They often entered them in flower shows and they also created a business that sold flowers and bulbs. Ella would frequently take gladiolas to downtown Alma businesses for their display windows. When she passed, it was said that she was remembered as “a remarkable but modest personality.” Edward McLean lived until September 30, 1942. His funeral, like his wife’s, was held in the family home.

        In the early 1920s, a call went out to ask Gratiot County’s World War I veterans to share information for posterity regarding their service.  Leslie McLean’s file was basically empty, containing only an article from the Lansing State Journal published after the war about his death in a French cellar. That was all that it said. Not even his service serial number was listed (it was identified later as #2397908). When the Alma VFW Post dedicated its new building on May 12, 1973, on Wright Avenue in Alma Leslie McLean’s story was told again. Mr. and Mrs. Clare McLean of rural St. Louis, relatives of Leslie McLean, donated McLean’s picture and a clipping about him from the 1918 Alma Record. After the end of the Vietnam War, this brought the story of Leslie McLean to another generation of Gratiot County residents.

       Yet, McLean’s story came up again. In 2014, the Alma Public Library sponsored a program entitled “Remember Me – A Walking Tour Through Alma’s Riverside Cemetery.” Local historian Dave McMacken wrote the script that introduced several interesting and important people from Alma who were buried in Riverside Cemetery to those who wanted to learn about Riverside Cemetery. Those who went on the trip to the library and the cemetery to learn these stories heard McMacken tell the background of certain individuals who featured in the tour.  A local person dressed, read and acted out the part of the deceased. One of the stories featured Leslie McLean, who was portrayed by Ithaca High School student Dustin George. Finally, during the 2017 fall semester, a Fulton High School junior who was looking for a research paper topic relating to Gratiot County’s history came upon the story of Leslie McLean. She wanted to learn more about him. Brittany Barrus sought out McLean’s grave, searched through old newspapers and wrote a research paper about him.

        Now it has been a century since the service and death of one of Gratiot County’s most interesting and tragic stories concerning about men who died during the Great War. The boy with the shock of long, black hair, Leslie C. McLean of Alma, was one of these men. And he was only sixteen years old when died in France in 1918.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed