Gratiot County Goes to the Movies: Breckenridge’s “Gratiot Theatre,” 1948-1956

Above, clockwise from upper left: The Gratiot Theatre debuts in 1948; Fourteen cents Wednesday movie nights; Howe Memorial Library, the former theater; 1948 Opening Headline; Earl Peterson plays at the Gratiot, 1950s; the front door as it looks today.

It was constructed with a Quonset hut over seventy years ago, but today it serves as the village library. For almost ten years, Breckenridge’s village had one of Gratiot County’s newest movie houses, known as the Gratiot Theatre.

Before World War II ended, some businessmen already had the idea of opening a new movie theater in Breckenridge. In March 1945, they announced tentative plans to construct an L-shaped building with an entrance on Saginaw Street, situated between the Chisolm store and village hall. A shortage of building materials during the war, such as lumber, meant that this movie house would be built with cinder blocks. Builders also hoped that the new theater would have new shops go in around it.  However, three years would pass before the idea of a movie theater came to being.

Building a new movie theater in Breckenridge was crucial to improving the business district after the war. In early March 1948, a $70,000 theater debuted, made from a large Quonset hut and first called “The Gratiot.” This time, five local businessmen sponsored the construction and leased the building to Jack McCluskey, who also operated the Central Theater in Merrill.  The Breckenridge theater’s entrance measured two stories high, with a 40 by 100-foot auditorium and an 18 by 40-foot lobby.

The entrance featured a $5,000 marquee, and inside the main floor sloped toward the screen, which allowed easy viewing for 500 people. A crying room existed for mothers with children. There were also hearing aids available for the deaf, and the Gratiot Theatre had modern restrooms. A new, current air conditioning system costing $6,000 changed the air every ten minutes.

In the early spring of 1948, flyers encouraged people to come and see “Central Michigan’s finest small-town theatre.” One of the first movies featured “State Fair,” starring Dick Haymes, Jeanne Crain, and Dana Andrews. Anyone wanting upcoming movie programs could have them mailed to them upon request.

Owners frequently used promotions to get viewers into the Gratiot Theatre. During Christmas 1949, the theater gave away free turkeys on one Wednesday night. Barbershop quartets benefiting the American Legion held performances beginning in 1950. Another regular  feature was “14 Cents Wednesday Nights.” In late 1952, Earl Peterson, “Michigan’s Singing Cowboy,” appeared on stage. Peterson and his group, Sons of the Golden West, came to the Gratiot more than once to give performances.

In early February 1953, Cassidy Theaters Incorporated of Midland took over the Gratiot Theatre operations. The Gratiot then became the fifth theater in the Cassidy chain with the Strand Theater in Alma. Keith Musser, who headed the Strand, came to Breckenridge as manager. Musser also brought some of the ideas for promotions that he used in Alma to get people into the Gratiot Theatre. One of these near Easter 1953 advertised that ticket purchasers could win a free baby Lepus from the stage. Curious and excited people around Breckenridge who went to the show that night found out that Keith Musser was giving away free rabbits.

While management tried to continue to make the Gratiot Theatre successful, it apparently could not compete with a new drive-in theater in Gratiot County and movie houses in both Alma and St. Louis.  Although movies continued in Breckenridge for a few more years, by early 1956, the Gratiot Theatre closed its doors.

After it closed, the former theater became known as the village “Civic Center” and housed the firehouse, a library, and the city restrooms. The old lobby of the Gratiot became the village library and held some 2,000 books in the early 1960s. Some find it surprising that Breckenridge ever had a movie theater, but it did.

Today, from the street, the village library in Breckenridge has a large front that partially covers the  Quonset hut roof, a reminder that movies played there in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Copyright 2021 James M Goodspeed

We Remember 1920: “When John Barleycorn Died in Gratiot County”

Above: Gratiot County Herald Headline, October 1920

On January 17, 1920, many people in Gratiot County celebrated National Prohibition and its ban on producing, transporting, and importing alcohol. One Gratiot County newspaper wrote that “Old John Barleycorn, one of the nation’s greatest enemies, if not the greatest, was laid away without a tear or a pang of regret, and America has taken a great step forward.”  Unfortunately, not every Gratiot County resident agreed, and Prohibition led to some interesting events.

Most  Prohibition offender’s stories ranged from tragic to humorous; however, from 1917-1920 (the period of Michigan’s Prohibition of alcohol), only a handful of cases came to trial. In July 1918,  Alonzo Hart of Ithaca was among the first in the county to be prosecuted under Violation of the Liquor Laws.

                Although there had not been many cases of Prohibition brought to trial, things quickly changed starting in May 1920 when the first trial took place concerning Norman Boody of St. Louis, who attempted to brew raisin whiskey. Boody received what became a standard sentence for first offenders – six months to one year in Ionia Reformatory, along with a hefty fine. That summer,  Adolph Sykora got caught on the Edwards Farm, southeast of Alma, which marked the start of county “Still Hunts.” Sykora’s arrest would be the first time newspapers described a still, and with warm summer weather, the stills went into full operation. The Steele Swamp in Hamilton Township contained a still operated by Monta Coss, who planned to sell his booze at county fairs until he was arrested. Carl Bruer and his father also ran a still in Washington Township. However, Sheriff Willert grew suspicious of “a lot of half-drunken foreigners” hanging around Bruer’s shack. Willert caught Bruer, making raisin whiskey, corn whiskey, and wine.

By September, Gratiot County experienced the first murder during Prohibition. Four local men, returning from a fishing trip, stopped on the bridge over the Maple River in Bridgeville to examine the river bottoms. One man spotted a body along the riverbank, partly submerged in the water. After arriving at the scene, Sheriff Willert reviewed the contents of the body, who was identified as James Rossa.  Willert found $120 and a loaded Colt pistol. Rossa had a crushed skull, was believed to have been killed elsewhere, then dumped into the Maple River. Both the Lansing police and the sheriff’s department surmised that Rossa, an unemployed Italian from Lansing, had been killed as a result of receiving his money through dishonest means. Recent Italian gang activity in Detroit and Pontiac could also have been related to Rossa’s death.

The roles of foreigners (or the foreign-born) became a constant theme during Prohibition in Gratiot County. Two Belgians in Alma, Leo DeKiser and Barnard Fandell, both were caught in a large operation that involved 200 gallons of corn mash. The men were paid $11 a bottle for their product, which was pretty good money in 1920. There were many, like J. L. Thompson and Joseph Brennan of Detroit, the first downstate bootleggers to be arrested in Gratiot County, who sold alcohol in the county. The two men, who had 74 quarts of Canadian whiskey inside their Cadillac Roadster, arrived on a Saturday night and parked in front of Burkheiser’s Store in Alma. However, the nice car, their strange faces, and gossip in town soon led to their arrests during their delivery. Both offenders received six months to a year in Ionia, along with fines, and the police confiscated their car. These stories from 1920 marked just the beginning of Prohibition in Gratiot County.

Copyright 2021 James M. Goodspeed

Gratiot’s Finest Hour, March 1945: “Will the War Ever End?”

Above: American Red Cross poster in Gratiot County during March 1945; Paratrooper Bernard Marin of Alma was only one of several Gratiot County men who were MIA (missing in action); butter and oleo were controversial topics for creameries, dairy farmers, and the public; Private Donald Good is pictured in action near Whalerscheid, Germany. 

March 1945 seemed to be a mix of wartime feelings in Gratiot County. Could people have helped but been mixed up as the fifth-year of war continued?

The rationing board and the government told people to think about summer by growing more food through Victory Gardens. Yes, there would be more rationing.

Tin and paper were most in demand. Residents were urged to collect and contribute paper and tin to different drives in the county.

The war in Europe had turned a corner – or had it? One could read how towns and villages prepared for what life could be like in Gratiot County after the war ended. However, the war still dragged on, and fighting in the Pacific continued.

People read more about the consequences of the December 1944 fighting in Europe and the increase in Gratiot County casualties. The names of more men who died in Europe and the Pacific seemed to be growing. Among them, there were prisoners of war, as well as those who were missing in action.

Many hoped for an end to the war.

It was March 1945 in Gratiot County.

Farming in March 1945

Farmers that March appeared most concerned about losing their farm labor to the draft and facing the issue of raising sugar beets. Also, farmers were concerned about who would help in the fields by the time harvest took place in 1945.

Some farmers like C.L. Kent of Ashley sold his herd of fifteen head of cattle and all of his implements as he could not find help. The news told readers that more men could come back to the farms after working in the war plants during winter. However, there were concerns that many of these men would not return to their farm jobs as the money was better in the factories, and many disliked farm work. These men had until March 1 to return to the farm, or they faced the draft. As the date of reporting to the farms approached and the war took more of these men away from Gratiot County, voices like the one belonging to Edna Ropp spoke up regarding taking the young farmworkers. Ropp lamented, “Since most of the able-bodied young farmers have been drafted, how are we going to keep production on Gratiot  County farms up to par to feed our boys?” She also commented that men involved with local horse racing, night clubs, and pool rooms had been left alone. Now it would not hurt the Gratiot County Draft Board to start looking “to draft the loungers from local poolrooms and beer gardens for forced farm labor.”

It seemed that the state and the county urged farmers to come on board and raise sugar beets for the war effort. The War Food Administration warned farmers that labor would be available with Mexican nationals and  German prisoners of war. The WFA also said that the same payment of $17 per acre was to be paid for those who blocked, thinned, and hoed each acre of land planted with whole seed. The WFA recommended a harvesting bonus of $3 per job with a minimum of $7 per acre. Gratiot County had only reached 62% of its goal in beet contracts, and more farmers were urged to sign up.

There were other issues involving farmers that March as well. The OPA told farmers to make applications soon for non-highway gasoline due to rationing. Farmers had to state their anticipated use of gas from March 1, 1945, to March 1, 1946, then fill out a form and submit it for consideration at the OPA office. The first artificially inseminated calf in Michigan was born at the Darwin Munson farm in Newark Township. The calf, a bull from out of the Blythefield Mooie Triune Holstein bull, was born February 20. Farm get-togethers, like one held at the Beebe town hall on March 7, offered a free lunch that evening, with a talk on “Culling Poultry for Greater Profit.” There was no admission charge. The county agricultural agent, C.P. Milham, noted that Breckenridge was gaining ground for important certified seed production. Eight growers within a ten-mile radius were growing different types of certified seeds. Basil McKenzie of Breckenridge and Guy Federspiel of Wheeler were just two of those raising these seeds.

It was turning out to be a warm and dry March in Gratiot County. Farmers planted more oats and barely this month than in any other time in the county’s history. The dry soil did make it a challenge for farmers who plowed in anticipation of planting corn, beets, and beans.

Rationing in Gratiot County

There continued to be orders to observe rationing in the county during March 1945. L.J.Loesel of Alma served as the County Salvage chairman, and over at St. Louis, Fred E. Himes served as town chairman.

 Orders from the Office of Price Administration (OPA) forced the Gratiot County war price and rationing board to hold meetings at the Gratiot County courthouse. All retailers who dealt in apparel, dry goods, and home furnishings had to turn in three copies of a pricing chart that showed how much items cost them and what prices they charged the public. Starting in early May, every item covered by government regulation had to be charted and documented to comply with ceiling prices.

People could sense a new urgency to collect tin cans in the county. Tin now became as needed as paper, and both items were in short supply. Another problem was that the tin which citizens contributed often was not useable because it had not been cleaned and properly prepared. Over in Bay City, a compulsory city ordinance fined people as much as $100 or 90 days in jail if they did not comply with requested salvage drives.

The tin had to be thoroughly washed because leftover food formed a chemical that destroyed the can. People had to flatten each tin, leaving one-eighth of an inch of tin exposed on each side. To help with the shortage, the Alma Boy Scouts conducted Saturday drives, complete with eight supervising adults. Galo Chew led the operation on the last Saturday of March, and the group asked that a special tag be placed on each door in Alma, signifying that the household had tin or paper for pickup.

Paper collection was another area of concern for the war effort for flares, containers for blood plasma, and field rations. To combat the waste of paper, Alma passed Ordinance 123, which sought to curb the trash and clutter caused by loose papers that blew off of porches and yards.  A person could even be fined or imprisoned for posting or pasting things to telephone poles, trees, or alleys in town.  As a result of this ordinance, Alma sought to get residents to take better care of paper for rationing purposes.

Food rationing came with warnings that the civilian meat supply appeared to be headed to its lowest point in ten years. As a result, the government announced a twelve percent cut for meat supplies and wanted help in conserving fats. The  8,475  families in Gratiot County could take care of the medicinal needs of over 3,000 casualties if each home saved one tablespoon of waste kitchen fat. One pound of fat could process 260 quarts of blood plasma, and helped with burns, insulins for shock victims, and ointments for treating abrasions. Coinciding with this announcement, the Alma Freezer Company received permission to open on East Superior Street. A total of 628 lockers would be rented to store meat, fruit, and vegetables for people who wanted to take meat conservation seriously. The Gratiot County rationing board also announced that a twenty percent cut in the reduction of sugar would take place for home canning.

Everyone in Gratiot County was urged to create and maintain their own Victory Garden in 1945, as those who did so would be eligible for extra gasoline rations. Gardening plans appeared in the Alma Record courtesy of Michigan State College and the Victory Garden Section of the Michigan Office of Civilian Defense.

Other things faced rationing. The rationing board issued certificates for 110 tires, most going for grade one tires. Oleo margarine started to come into the news as places like the St. Louis Co-Operative Creamery warned customers that the creamery was not responsible for butter shortages. Dairy farmers were concerned about how the use of oleo affected the butter market. On a positive note, Alma businesses did very well in their observance of brown-out orders (the regulated use of outside and display lights). The Alma business community was said to be in 100 percent compliance. Finally, a notice appeared in the paper that young people collected 4,781 bags of milkweed in the county last fall.

The Red Cross at Work

It was March, and it was time for the annual Red Cross War Fund drive in Gratiot County.  On March 1, the campaign began with the goal of raising $27,500. Many of the ladies in the groups would call at residences as many as five or six times to ask Gratiot households to do their part and give to the Red Cross.

Over in Alma, neighborhood war clubs started fanning out into neighborhoods to raise over $8000 by March 15.

In Ashley, which was part of Red Cross district number five, Mrs. Ralph Tweedie acted as chairman and urged people to give to the goal of $4,000.

People worked in various ways to raise money for the Red Cross. In St. Louis, the Czechoslovak National Alliance Branch held a benefit that raised $477. Consumers Power Company employees pitched in $131.50, while employees at the Michigan Sugar Company ($70) and Swift and Company ($163.55) also gave. Alma Piston Company and its employees gave $510. Mid-West Refineries and its employees also gave $284 to the cause. Over at the Strand and Alma Theaters, collections took place each night for a week when Boy Scout collectors went through the aisles asking patrons for contributions, which raised $747.36.

 No effort was too small as the St. Louis Evening Extension Group met at Mrs. Louis Dines’ home. The group voted to donate $2 to the Red Cross. The Meet-a-While Club outside of St. Louis met at the Rose McLean home, and the ladies there voted to give $5. The Mission Circle in Emerson Township met at Bonnie Kozler’s home and donated $5.

A county-wide canvas outside of Alma and St. Louis took place from March 20-22. When giving stalled in St. Louis, the city considered a Tag Day to raise money. Going into the third week, Alma was still short of its $8000 goal. However, Alma raised its goal by March 22. The newspaper recorded that in one part of Alma, “clubs in which a small women’s army of canvassers of the residential districts (which) served with gallantry.” They exceeded their goal of over $500.

Although things looked tight, Gratiot County raised more than its target and ended up with more than $30,000. Alma and the townships of Sumner and Arcada raised well over $2000 beyond their aim. Elba Township oversubscribed, as did the village of Perrinton. St. Louis also eventually met its goal. The good news was that by March 29, the county raised $29,324, almost $2000 beyond its goal.

The Red Cross in Gratiot County also contributed to the war effort through its different works. By March 1945, the Alma branch had created 6,000 garment bags, 1,000 kit bags, and 181,000 surgical dressings. Volunteers there worked hard to reach their quota of 144 kit bags. Only $1 was all that was needed to equip a kit bag fully.

Students at the North Star School received a letter from an American Red Cross unit in Italy. The unit thanked the North Star students for the Christmas Card Menus that they made. The cards had been used for an enlisted men’s club where some of the soldiers wrote messages inside and sent them to friends for Christmas. The Red Cross club pointed out that cards were uncommon in Italy, and the donation had been used and much appreciated.

Over at Ithaca, the Red Cross Home Service widow displayed  Mrs. Roland Crawford’s artwork. The painting followed the theme, “Now more than ever, your Red Cross is at his side.” The Home Service also asked Gratiot residents to consider displaying war trophies sent home from the war front.

Letters Home to Gratiot County

Many men and women continued to write home to their families and loved ones during March. These letters showed that the war continued to be a worldwide event.

A pair of letters from the Pacific reflected American invasions in the Philippines. Corporal Paul Flowers from Breckenridge and Private Al Goodrich from Ithaca both wrote about their experiences. Flowers recorded that days were very hot with cold nights. Civilians appeared happy with the arrival of the Americans, yelling and asking for cigarettes. Flowers soon visited one family and enjoyed eating ham, eggs, and rice with them. Flowers wrote that it “Seemed strange to talk to girls again” and how the family invited them to come back the next day to play rummy. There were plenty of flies where he was at, but no mosquitoes. Private Goodrich also commented that on his 23rd birthday, he spent time at the nearby cub strip to watch airplanes. He pledged that “When I get to earning my own money, I’m getting me one of those crates (planes).” By reading newspapers, he kept up his interest in flying and what was happening at Johnson Field in Ithaca. Goodrich could not wait to return home, walk into an Ithaca restaurant and order a T-bone steak, complete with fries and vegetables. At his location, a Filipino served Goodrich as a valet and only cost a few pesos a week. Goodrich found that the native huts like the one he was staying in were incredibly cooler than any tent the army provided.

Private David Swigart, a Marine on Iwo Jima, was wounded on the eighteenth day of fighting on the island. Although Swigart had been in the Pacific since November 1944, Iwo Jima was his first combat experience. As a rifleman in the Second Platoon, Swigart wrote that “I saw all the horror of war, and it was not pleasant.” Near the front lines, Swigart had to dig a foxhole every time his platoon stopped for the night. At least two or three Marines stayed in each foxhole with at least one of them on the watch for concern that the Japanese would attack them. On the eighteenth day on the island, Swigart’s foxhole was hit by a Japanese mortar, allowing shrapnel to go through his helmet and lodging above his right eye and left temple. He rode in a jeep for the first time and was taken to the hospital, where a doctor took out the shrapnel, gave him a shot for lockjaw, ordered a warm meal, and put Swigart to bed. Swigart then went from the field hospital to a ship hospital, where he shaved off his thirteen day-old beard. Swigart then moved again to another base hospital on an island where each hut held twenty men. Although his jaw was sore and his cuts were numb, Swigart joined the rest of the men who mainly rested and awaited transportation back to Pearl Harbor.

Lieutenant Carl Sackett of Ithaca was another Marine who saw action on Iwo Jima, arriving at “D+1.” After giving his mother a vivid geographic description of the island, he told how the island was bombarded for three days straight  “to soften it up.”  Sackett wrote, “It is beyond doubt the best fortification in the whole Pacific, but we are taking it.” Sackett added that there were 13,000 Japanese on the island, hidden in caves below the surface. He had been a Marine for almost three years during his service, and he had been overseas for 18 months. As an engineer, Sackett worked on road construction. In the process, he had met four admirals, receiving recognition for devising a plan to lay a roadway on a beach at 100 feet a minute.  Sackett concluded, “It’s known pretty well throughout the Pacific right now by my name.”

Seaman Jim Howe, Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class, wrote to his mother in February about his experiences. Howe had been in New Guinea, Bora Bora, Guadalcanal, and Leyte in the Philippines. While serving in New Guinea, Howe became lost in the jungle for three days before finding his way. At the time of his writing, Seaman Howe commented about spending much of his time painting and touching up rust spots on his ship’s decks. He lamented that he did not receive enough mail and that it came to him via V-Mail, which resulted in reading letters in tiny print. Even Time Magazine copies came to his ship in reduced size. Howe did get to see the movie “It Started with Eve” until the machine burned up the picture’s last reel and shut down the film.

Lieutenant Carl Baney wrote a very long letter from Africa to his sister in Alma. When commenting about the African coast, Baney described the “faint misty shorelines,” which he liked most when seeing them from a distance. Plenty of lovely palm trees marked the roads that led to towns that he visited. When approaching Casba, it smelled of crowded homes with goats, cats, dogs, chickens, and the family. No bathrooms existed, sanitary conditions were deemed poor, and Arab women appeared to be dressed in American bedsheets, with only an eye peeking out. Tattoos on the face and legs of some women showed a blue sign indicating which tribe they belonged to. Black market traders quickly walked up to Baney and asked, “Business, Joe?”

Private Fred Snellenberger wrote to his parents from Germany. Snellenberger said he was in the United States Third Army, and he had been in Belgium. When payday came, Snellenberger rejoiced that he had just been paid 4,000 Francs ($101.00). Most of his money was headed home. He asked his parents to bank one half of it. After enjoying part of a friend’s package from home, Snellenberger asked his parents to send him Polish sausage and sardines in catsup sauce.

Many Served Gratiot County in March 1945

Stories, updates, and pictures made their way into county newspapers to remind the public about where Gratiot County’s men and women were at war.

Private Martin Walker of Alma appeared in a picture of three men conducting reconnaissance patrol in the Philippines. Along with forty other men, Walker stormed a Japanese bivouac area and found 24 Japanese soldiers dead from artillery fire. Russell Augustine, also of St. Louis, served with the 37th Infantry Division in Manilla. He earned the Bronze Star for heroic achievement during the battle on Luzon. Out in the Netherlands East Indies, Private John Cresswell from the 13th AAF was marooned on a tiny island. Cresswell, a radio operator, was stranded with three other men because of a hurricane. All of the men were reported to be in good condition. Robert L. Brown of Ithaca got the Bronze Medal for heroic achievement in Germany in late November. Brown helped to administer aid and remove wounded men while under fire.   

Private Donald Good of St. Louis appeared in a picture taken near Whalersheid, Germany. Good, holding his light machine gun, appeared with a collection of captured German material. He previously had been wounded in October near the city of Aachen. Over in England, Private Elliot Myer of Ithaca served in the United States Army General Hospital as a surgical technician. Sergeant Tom Cavanaugh from St. Louis was stationed at an ordnance depot located in southern England. Cavanaugh claimed to have seen London at least fifty times and proclaimed that the city had the best tube systems in the world. Private Henry Hein of Breckenridge served with the 3833rd Gasoline Supply Company in France. Keeping the motor vehicle units operating oil, grease, and lubricants was Hein’s job. Private William Boyd of St. Louis had been wounded in action while in Germany in late February. His brother, Seaman 1/C Donald Boyd, managed to get news home to his parents that he was okay. The Boyd parents were happy to hear that both sons were safe.

At Casablanca, North Africa, Sergeant Donald Breidinger of Alma served as a Air Transport Command Cadre member. Breidinger was part of a team that planned President Roosevelt’s air route to the Crimea Conference, a distance of 2698 miles along five different airbases. Staff Sergeant Max Turner from North Star received the Bronze Star for helping his fellow soldiers under mortar barrage in Italy with the 135th Infantry Regiment of the 34th Red Bull Division. Lieutenant Jack Eastman of Ithaca flew his first combat bombing mission to the Nazi oil refineries in Vienna, Austria. He was with the 15th Army Air Force. At far off Kiska, Private Mason Grossett of Alma served with the Army Quartermaster Corps. Grossett was in his second year of service at Kiska. Emerson House of Alma came home on a two-week leave after serving three years in Iceland. He was unsure what his next assignment would be

News came that Lester Eyer of Alma had been promoted to first lieutenant at Victorville Army Air Field in California. Pharmacist Mate Allen Vallance came home on a 30 day leave after seeing combat in the South Pacific. Luther Greening of Breckenridge was able to visit his family as he enjoyed leave from the Navy. He was the focus of a family dinner held in his honor. Private Charles Marrin of Alma was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky with the armored division. He was able to get home for one weekend to visit his wife and two children. Private William Barnes of North Star came home to visit his wife and mother on a 24 hour pass. Barnes returned to the United States after being overseas three years in England and France. He also noted that he came home to America while accompanying a group of German prisoners of war.

Several Gratiot County women appeared in the news. Ruth Ostlund of Emerson Township joined the WAVES on her twentieth birthday in October. She was now stationed at Gunners Mate School Office Receiving Station at Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. The Ithaca IOOF Hall hosted a family dinner for Arlene and Margaret Fortney. The two sisters joined the WACs and prepared for their trip to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. A total of 46 people attended the dinner.  Doris Jean Hall was sworn into the Women Army Air Corps with the WAC Medical Technician Training Program. She left on March 15 for Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Marjorie Olie Street of Ithaca was a Pharmacist Mate Second Class as a member of the WAVES. Street was in the news as she married William Urban, Jr., in a ceremony Norfolk, Virginia. News came that Private Mary Cowles of Alma finished her training in the motor transport school of the First Women’s Army Corps Training Center at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Private Donna Eyer of Alma returned to Walker Field, Kansas, after an eight-day furlough. Mavis Bosley of Middleton came home to visit her family while serving as a WAVE in Washington, D.C. It was also announced that Dorothy Dionise of Ithaca was appointed to the Army Nurse Corps and was assigned to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. Dionise was a graduate of the St. Lawrence School of Nursing. Lauribelle Simmons, also of Ithaca, passed her entrance exam to the United States Marines and left for Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Sergeant Georgianne Peet from Ithaca continued her service in the WAC Group in Italy. Peet was now in her third country of duty.


The numbers of Prisoners of War continued to grow. Private Bruce Meade returned home to Riverdale after being held in both Italy and Germany for two years. News that Sergeant Joseph Thomas of Alma had been freed from a German POW camp reached his parents in Alma. This news was relayed home through the United States Military Mission in Moscow. Sergeant Duane Murdock was confirmed to be in a German POW camp after being listed as missing in action. His wife was living near Elwell. A card from Sergeant Ted Barton arrived in Ithaca on a Saturday in March. On the card, Barton said he was okay, and he was in good condition. Barton had been missing since December. The wife of Sergeant George Jenkins of Breckenridge received a letter from her husband. The letter was dated December 2. Jenkins commented on how cold it was and hoped his father would get a deer while hunting. A similar message also came to the parents of Sergeant Nolan Howe of Breckenridge.

Those who were wounded also were in the news. Private Howard Lord of St. Louis was in a hospital in North Carolina. Lord wrote that he would lose all of his toes and part of his right foot due to suffering frostbite in Europe. Private John Reed was at Percy Jones Hospital after being wounded in the arms and legs. Reed served with the 75th Division starting last October. Sergeant Walter Mutchler, former manager of the Miller-Jones Shoe Store in Alma, had to return to Percy Jones to treat trench foot. Mutchler was in the Saar Basin near Metz, Germany, when he contracted the illness. Also arriving at Percy Jones was Private Robert Wolfgang of Breckenridge, who was wounded near Metz, Germany, in early December. Family members drove to Battle Creek to see Wolfgang, who experienced wounds below his elbow and had his arm in a sling.

 Lieutenant Eldon Adams was wounded in Germany, but he recovered after a wound to his forehead and his fractured right arm. Even though Private Leroy Shaver returned to the front lines after being wounded, he faced a third operation now that he was in Italy. Shaver earlier suffered wounds to his stomach and hip while in France. Private Calvin Swett of Alma was wounded and hospitalized near Paris, France. Swett, who had been general superintendent of Lobdell-Emery Company, was said to be with Patton’s Third Army when he was wounded. Another Alma man, Private Victor Abbott, suffered severe wounds to his chest and kidneys while in Belgium. Still, doctors considered him lucky to have not experienced a fatal injury. An orphan, Abbott attended Alma Schools and worked at the Strand Theatre as an usher. Sergeant Warren Larry of Ithaca came home to New York after suffering shrapnel wounds to his left hand and fractures of the wrist. It was announced that Private Frank Galvin of Alma was wounded while fighting in Germany’s Rhine area.

Private Lyle Bouchy of Alma was wounded in his left arm while in Germany in late February, as was Sergeant Charles Humphrey of Alma, who was also wounded in Luxembourg in January. Humphrey’s exact condition was not known.  Lieutenant Frank Shimunek, who had been wounded in combat somewhere in Europe, came home to Alma to visit family after being released from a Chicago hospital. While Private Ivan Coleman of Breckenridge was wounded in France on Christmas Day and was taken to a hospital in England, he now had recovered and returned to his company. Another Breckenridge man, Private James Fookes, had been sent to a hospital in England for wounds to his right foot. Fookes was expected to be in the hospital until at least May.

Out in the Pacific Theater, Seaman 2/C Arthur Lover of Bannister contracted a severe form of acne, forcing him to hospitals in Hawaii, California, and then New York. Private Barney Knapp of Alma was the first Gratiot County casualty at Iwo Jima. A Marine, Knapp suffered shrapnel wounds to both legs and his right arm on February 21, the third day of battle. Still, Knapp wrote home that “I figure I have only God to thank for my being here (in the hospital).” Private Dan Davis of Pompeii also was wounded on Iwo Jima after being on the island for seven days and nights. Davis was hit by shrapnel in his left jaw, but it was healing. He now suffered from tonsillitis. Seaman 2nd Class Leman Ingalls of St. Louis, who served as a gunner aboard the USS Bunker Hill, was suffering from mumps.

There was another story about a Gratiot man who was wounded in the Pacific in 1943, Frank Chapman of  Alma. He had previously experienced severe wounds as a Fireman first class at Guadalcanal. After Chapman’s ship, the USS Strong was sunk, he was injured and in desperate need of a blood transfusion and was sent to a hospital. Another injured man in his ward, Corporal James Moss of Gary, Indiana, immediately offered to help Chapman with the transfusion. The two men had the same blood type. After their ordeal, Chapman and Moss agreed that when they either got out of the service or when the war ended, they would get together again. To seal the pact, the bet $5 to the man who traveled the longest distance to see the other. In mid-March, Frank Chapman received a mysterious phone call from a stranger – it was Corporal James Moss, who came to Alma to collect the bet. Although Frank Chapman had been home for over one year and worked at Leonard Refinery, he was exceedingly glad to see Corporal Moss. The two spent time in Alma recounting their time in the service and their friendship. The story of Chapman and Moss appeared on the front page of the St. Louis Leader.

Then there were the very sobering and sad stories of Gratiot County men who paid the ultimate price for serving the country during a time of war. These stories continued to remind people of the ultimate costs of war.

Private Fred Huntoon, Jr., of St. Louis, was pronounced killed in action on January 1, 1945, in Belgium. Previously, Huntoon was said to be missing in action. Corporal Pete Earegood, also from St. Louis, was killed in action in Germany. He had been in Europe since May 1944. His wife was a teletype at the 2135th Army Air Force in Panama City, Florida. Alma relatives of Captain Robert Greenhoe learned of his death in Belgium on December 21. Greenhoe was previously listed as MIA. Corporal Orin Patterson of Ithaca met death in Germany on March 10. In February after serving for over two years in the military police in Savannah, Georgia, Patterson was sent to Europe.  Private Richard Lover of Bannister was killed in action in Germany on March 3. Previously, Lover had been wounded in France in July, and he spent time in a hospital in England. A picture of Private Robert Lucas of St. Louis appeared on the front page of the Gratiot County Herald. Lucas had been killed on December 28 in Belgium when his jeep was fired upon at an enemy roadblock. Lucas tried to turn his jeep around when he was hit. News of the tragic death of Sergeant Edgar Lyon reached Ithaca. Lyon was killed in a plane crash on January 2 in Slaidburn, England. Lyon was headed to Scotland when the plane crashed into a mountain.

In an attempt to remember those former Ithaca High School students who had died in service to their country, a plaque was to hang in the gymnasium with their names. The names listed David Furgason, Russell Criswell, Edwin Salden, Miles Douglas, and Myrl Putnam. Another name would soon have to be added to the list: Ed Kalinowski.

On top of all of these casualties was the status of those Missing in Action (MIA). Francis Gall of St. Louis was missing in Europe since February 9. In an earlier letter to his sister, Gall said that he landed in France around January 24. Private Bernard Marrin of Alma, a paratrooper, was missing since February. Robert McCreery of Alma had also been listed as MIA since February 9 in Germany. So was Jack Colter of Breckenridge, the former Standard Oil dealer in the village, who was reported missing at the same time and area as Robert McCreery. Private Melvin Thrush of Alma was also reported as missing in Italy on March 7.

And So That We Do Not Forget…

Chester Robinson served as a full-time counselor for the Gratiot County Council of Veterans Affairs. His office was directly above the Ithaca Post Office…A column in the Alma Record entitled “Recognizing the Need for Prayer” mentioned a resolution out of Lansing that all schools begin the day of school asking for divine guidance. The column concluded that prayer united men of all creeds to combat foreign forces was a habit that no one in Gratiot County should be ashamed…A farm group meeting at the Beebe school house discussed items such as the drafting of farm workers, the outlook for livestock markets, and the market for sugar beet plantings…The Breckenridge Blue Star Mothers sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day party in the Breckenridge High School gymnasium. Proceeds went to the construction of a new community center…Tragedy took place in Wheeler when Theresa Ann Conklin, age four, died instantly from a home accident on the Conklin farm. The child climbed up a newly purchased cupboard when her parents stepped away from their porch. She died instantly when the cupboard fell on top of her, crushing her skull…The Betty Barry Shop opened as a new ladies store in St. Louis at 109 North Mill Street…Employees at the Alma Trailer Company for the third time voted down joining the CIO-UAW. The vote was 3-1 against forming a union…The new Fulton School farm shop repair opened each Monday and Wednesday morning in Perrinton for three hours. A class offered farmers help with welding, repair of farm machinery, and forge work. Walter Deitrich and Paul Andrews oversaw the work…Harold Putnam flew his plane solo on one Sunday. Putnam became the youngest solo pilot at Johnson’s airport…An Infantile Paralysis fund campaign in the county raised $1997.59. Mrs. Robert Johnson served as county chairman of the woman’s activities…Ithaca Public Schools announced a general salary increase of $100 for each teacher. A few teachers received another $50 for salaries that “were out of line.” Hiram Becker was hired to return as coach, along with Mable Sowle (mathematics) and Leah Frump (English), among others…Safe crackers who attempted to rob the safe at Breckenridge Bean and Grain Company met resistance one night when a concealed smoke bomb inside the safe went off in their faces. No money was stolen…Michigan Central Airlines announced that it would bypass Gratiot County. The closest stop would be Mt. Pleasant…The George Myers American Legion Post in Alma announced that widows and orphans of  World War I veterans were now entitled to pensions. Widows received $35 a month, those with one child would receive $45, and $5 each for every other child. However, childless widows were exempt if they had a yearly income topping $1000…Adams Grocery in St. Louis advertised that it paid the highest marker prices for eggs…Breckenridge High School’s basketball team won the district tournament held at Alma College. Breckenridge defeated Edmore by the score of 57-29.

For the first time since 1941, the R.L. Polk Company published a new city directory of 12,000 names in Gratiot County. One of the features of the directory was the name of all Gratiot’s men and women who were serving in the country’s service…Alma Freezer Company planned to soon open on the east side of the Harris Milling Company building on East Superior Street. A total of 628 lockers would be available for rent for those who wanted to store meat, fruit, or vegetables…In another sad story, Maude Aumaugher, age 58, drowned herself on the family farm east of Ithaca. The woman, who was a deaf mute, was in despair when her 87 year old father was forced to sell the family farm…Eight St. Louis High School students participated in a speech contest at Coleman. Donna Fisher, Phyllis Himes, and James Cavanaugh led the winning St. Louis team…Representative T. Jefferson Hoxie of St. Louis introduced a resolution in the Michigan House of Representatives to make it compulsory for state agencies and state sponsored schools to comply with slow time (Central Standard Time). School aid and vouchers were to be withheld from those who did not conform…Breckenridge had plans to build and open a new movie theater between the Chisolm Store and Village Hall. Most of the building was to be made of cinder blocks… The Dave Kirker gas station in Sumner burned to the ground.  The Ithaca Fire Department arrived too late to save any part of it…The American Legion hosted twenty legionnaires from county posts on one Monday night for the regular monthly meeting of the Gratiot County Council. After adjournment, the St. Louis Legion Post voted to help with local efforts to collect used clothing for shipment overseas to people in need in Europe…The twelfth annual Easter Seals campaign was about to start in Gratiot County…Representative Hoxie announced that the state of Michigan had many post-war highway improvements with goals of making improvements throughout Gratiot County. Widening of bridges, roads and pavements were mentioned in the report…Three St. Louis boys under the ages of fifteen all pled guilty to stealing $24 from the basement of the Alma JC Penney store. A purse was found by one of the boys as they cleaned the basement. The take? A total of 36 cents and two packs of cigarettes. However, the boys were linked to thefts from two local elevators in the county…Approximately 100 FFA members from five area chapters attended Alma High School to take part in FFA training. Subjects included public speaking, parliamentary procedure, and demonstrations about loss of livestock…Victory gardeners who could start growing plants indoors were urged to start doing so. County Agricultural Agent C.P. Milham published a column about how to get started and what seeds to plan in March…Blue Star Mothers Chapter 108 in North Star met in late March. The group read letters from local service boys and then voted to donate $10 to the Red Cross…

Sam Fortino became the first Michigan and Alma born basketball player to win the 1945 Detroit Free Press Trophy given to the most outstanding collegiate player in Michigan. Fortino played for Michigan State College after entering the V-12 Program and attending Central Michigan for one season…St. Louis Superintendent T.S. Nurnberger gave a message at the St. Louis Rotary about possible training programs for men when they returned home after the war ended. One aspect of the presentation dealt with the topic of compulsory military training once young men reached the age of 18…Twenty members of the Alma Veterans of Foreign Wars met in its monthly meeting in their hall above the Alma J.C. Penney store. Alva Cook was chosen as commander…The Alma Commission received a letter asking for Alma to establish a public honor role for those men and women who were in the service. Funding for building the honor role was the main issue…Miss Cecil Wolf, Alma’s public school nurse, might be deputized by the city. Wolf had found many local business owners to be opposed to her orders for cleaning up areas and operations after inspections had been made. Possible fines and jail sentences awaited those who continued to defy health orders…A column in the Alma Record warned readers that even though the war in Europe could end soon, the danger of war weariness could not stop the fight against Japan. While there might be a period of ease and rest after Nazi Germany surrendered, the war against Japan had to continue. Beware war weariness…Alma Air Raid Wardens organization had several hundred dollars left in their funds considered donating the money to a war memorial. While a dozen of the wardens would keep the organization together until the end of the war, any money donated to a memorial must be more than just a list of names…Abbot and Costello were on the way to the Strand Theatre starring in “Here Come the Co-Eds” on April 1-2…

The Michigan House of Representatives defeated a bill that proposed instituting the death penalty. It fell by a vote of 55-38 against the measure…Mrs. Simon Messinger, the wife of one of Alma’s pioneer families, died at the age of 86. Mrs. Messinger was one of the few remaining pioneers left in Alma and she had four grandchildren serving in the military…A pheasant caused a ruckus at the home of Doctor Kirschbaum’s home at 707 West Center Street in Alma. The bird broke a window and flew into the bedroom, then turned around and flew out the window again. Footmarks were left by the bird on the bed and dresser…St. Louis firemen received a pay raise to $2 an hour when on duty. This was a raise of fifty cents with the goal of attaining $2.50 an hour in the near future…The Redman Trailer Company received a contract fro the United States Ordnance Department to build one ton cargo trailers. Deliveries were to start in May…and Alma’s George Myers American Legion Post Number 164 celebrated its 26th birthday as a national organization with a family pot luck style dinner.

And that was Gratiot County’s Greatest Hour in March 1945.

Copyright 2021 James M Goodspeed

Reflections on “Gratiot County, North and South,” Summer-Winter 2020

This past summer, I did something I have not done since 1986 – I stayed home and spent my entire summer in Gratiot County.

 With exceptions of “big trips” to places like Saginaw, Midland, or Mt. Pleasant, my wife and I opted to play it safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Things like movie theaters, archives, and museum trips were all closed. For health and safety reasons, even our local libraries in the county had restrictions on what people could and could not do.  Previously, summer had meant a time to travel, even if it meant in-state, out of state, or even out of the United States. However, this year the pandemic meant no travel. What should I do over a long summer with limited choices and a lot of time?

Sometime in late spring, I came up with the idea of trying to travel every main north and south road in Gratiot County. The project became known as “Gratiot North and South,” and I started it in June, beginning with Gratiot East County Line Road.  Over time, I decided that if there was a main road that ran from the south end of Gratiot County to the north, then I wanted to travel it.

Many of the roads were familiar by name to me, but some led to Gratiot County areas that I had not seen before. On Wednesday, December 16, I finished the last Gratiot County segment and what had been my way of dealing with the COVID -19 crisis.

There were a lot of things that I tried to do throughout the travels. First, I looked for what seemed to stand out, whether it was a building, the countryside’s contour, or something that someone did to the land. It soon became apparent that I was in a “6-8” problem – I missed about 6-8 shots on a road because I either lost an angle, I was going too fast, or “I just missed that shot.”

However, there were some memorable days on Gratiot County’s roads. I remember a hot July day in northeast Gratiot when long-haired Scottish steers stared me down as I took their pictures. Just down the road, a bunch of alpacas did the same thing. At the end of the journey in early winter, I found a good-sized boulder in Seville Township that someone got off of the ground and had it hanging by a set of chains. How does anybody lift a boulder, put a chain around it, and get it to hang there that long?

I grew up with the image of Gratiot County being a place with straight roads and sharp corners. Placed neatly in the middle of the Mitten, Gratiot County appears on maps a tightly drawn square box. In the 1980s, when I lived in south-central Ohio for one year, I could not fathom why anyone in Ohio had to drive three to four miles east or west in order to go one mile north or south. While Pickaway County was very similar to Gratiot County in many ways, the Ohio roads were not. It was enough to call me back to sanity and return to Gratiot County, which my wife and I eventually did.

  Over time I found out that the Gratiot roads did not always fit that “straight and sharp” pattern. If you head to the southeast corner of Gratiot County, you will find that a curve meanders beyond a cemetery before it goes north again, making it impossible to drive a straight line as one thinks it appears on a map.  I found out that not every main road in the county runs on straight lines and many have their “jog” in the road. The roads aren’t perfectly drawn or laid out, possibly as a message that none of us in Gratiot County are perfect either.

I also learned that the countryside still contains old barns, many of which are still standing from when they belonged to a time when agriculture was the county’s primary way of life. Some of these barns, which are falling into disrepair, probably were built before World War I.

Old schoolhouses can still be found in Gratiot County; at least schools that operated independently before school consolidation in the 1960s caused them to close. I saw one old schoolhouse in North Shade Township that had been remodeled but appeared to be used for deer camp. Then there are the remains of Gratiot County’s “burgs” – places like Sickles, Beebe (Emerson), Sethton, New Haven, and Newark, among others. Places that had formerly been the center of rural communities are now largely abandoned. At the time, these “burgs” had only an old store, township hall, or school building to mark a time which passed decades ago.

The trips up and down Gratiot’s roads were also reminders of struggles that we still face in Gratiot County. Some may be surprised to learn how much water we actually have. A large stretch of state land to the south of the county fosters the Maple River. Then there are rivers like the Bad and the Pine. There are also several bodies of water in the county, many that are mapped, but they are inaccessible by roads and appear to be on private property.   Places that have become known as gravel pits now draw large numbers of people to swim, camp, and fish. Another thing that has grown is the presence of large scale dairy farms that can be found in both the north and the south of Gratiot County. The idea of water, how to use it, and who uses it are still questions and issues that Gratiot County faces in the 21st century.

The trips also taught me that while there are many nice homes, not everyone in Gratiot County lives the same way or can afford the same type of housing. Is there blight in Gratiot County? I would say yes. But it also reminds me that not everyone can build the house or buildings of their dreams – or at least like their neighbors.

Still, it is the only county I have really known: “Gratiot North and South.” And now for an encore?

Writers note: You can see pictures from a collection known as “Gratiot North & South” over on Facebook under “Gratiot County Time Machine.”

Copyright 2021 James M Goodspeed

“Hey, Ithaca! Santa is Here!” – Santa Claus in Ithaca, 1946-1970

Above Top to bottom: Santa arrives in Ithaca in early December 1949; In 1964, Santa came into Ithaca courtesy of the Ithaca Fire Department: By the end of the 1960s, children stood in lines several blocks long in downtown Ithaca, just to visit with St. Nick.

Whether he flew in by airplane, arrived by taxi, or was pulled by reindeer, the arrival of Santa Claus in Ithaca has a vivid history, especially for Ithaca’s baby boomers.

In December 1946, Santa made his appearance in Ithaca by arriving at Johnson’s airport along with nine other planes that accompanied him.  Thousands of people soon lined up in downtown Ithaca and watched the Ithaca High School band lead Santa to the village hall. For this occasion, the Ithaca Chamber of Commerce provided 1300 sacks of candy and nuts to children. As an incentive, prizes totaling $25 could be found inside some of the sacks. During his visit, Santa spent time receiving letters from children, and some ended up in the Gratiot County Herald.

One year later, on December 6, 1947, Santa chose to parachute into Ithaca. Santa assured Warren Larry, chairman of Christmas activities in Ithaca, that Old St. Nick would be okay. He had practiced his landing drops and planned to touch down in front of the village hall. However, to be safe, the Ithaca Fire Department stood by to make sure Santa did not get hung up in a tree. Santa made the drop safely into Ithaca and then came the official turning on the business section’s lights. Christmas 1947 was also the first year that a contest for the best-decorated home took place in Ithaca. The theme that Christmas was “A wreath on every door and a tree in every window.”

The official lighting of the Gratiot County Courthouse coincided with Santa’s arrival in Ithaca that year. Strings of lights from the top of the building extended down to Center Street, creating a “blanket-like effect.”  Specially designed wreaths all appeared on the light poles in the downtown area.  It was also the first Christmas that people could see Santa and his sleigh on top of the courthouse.

Starting in 1949, Santa appeared in Ithaca each Saturday in December.  To prepare for his arrival on that first Saturday, he sent a telegram from his workshop to the Gratiot County Herald announcing his arrival time. This year Santa flew in a plane over Ithaca and then came into town via taxi after landing at the airport. It was also the first Christmas in Ithaca where new plastic street decorations appeared upon all the downtown light posts.

Other changes began taking place with Santa’s arrival in Ithaca.  Before he showed up on November 26, 1955, the Ithaca Ministerial Association conducted a downtown Ithaca program to stress the religious aspects of Christmas. This year, Santa arrived in Ithaca aboard a specially designed wagon, carrying candy and nuts for the children. A new tradition also started when Mrs. Ethel Gibbs, owner of the Ideal Theatre, offered free matinee movies for children each Saturday in December. Gibbs continued to provide free matinees during the Christmas season for several years to come.

By this time, more and more letters to Santa poured into the Gratiot County Herald offices. One picture showed Santa trying to sort through many letters that area children sent to him. Despite a very blustery and windy winter day in early December 1959, children still turned out in the wild weather to hand letters to Santa. This time he stood behind a winter snow fence and greeted the children. Afterward, the Ithaca Veterans of Foreign Wars Post invited 150 young guests to the high school gym to receive candy, cake, ice cream, gifts, and clothing donations. Morrison’s Shoe Store donated 80 pairs of new shoes for the children who attended the event.

Another decade did not slow down Santa. During Christmas season 1960, teacher Randall Johnson and his high school shop class built a new throne for the courthouse lawn’s northwest corner. The throne measured eight feet tall and sat on a decorated platform. For his first appearance, a public address system allowed people to hear the conversations between Santa and those children who sat on his lap. An estimated 600 children came to Ithaca that night to see Santa. Afterward, someone threw a ceremonial switch, and the lights in downtown Ithaca came alive with the Christmas spirit. During that December,  merchants held a “Price is Right Contest,” which gave away over $500 worth of gifts in Kernen’s Department Store window to the person who could guess their total price. John Smolka won the contest by guessing the exact retail total of $530.34. The Ithaca Chamber of Commerce stated that over 3,000 entries took place.

Going o into the 1960s, more Ithaca residents participated in events with Santa’s arrival and the start of the Christmas season. The Ithaca Jaycee Lighting Contest awarded a $25 Savings Bond to the first place winner.  In 1962, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin McGillis won the contest after cutting out and painting over twenty figures for the Nativity scene in front of their home.

A year later, in 1961, people started to become aware of the work of Glen Rhines, building superintendent at the courthouse, who continued the Ithaca Christmas tradition each year with his work. For the next few Christmases, one could see Santa atop the Gratiot County Courthouse, along with his sleigh, decorated Christmas trees, and elves. A Nativity scene sat in front of the courthouse. Each year, Rhines added to the year’s previous display. Rhines’ work made the Gratiot County Court House one of the most important places to see in the county when it was lit up in the evenings.

It was also in the mid-1960s that Santa started a tradition of arriving in town aboard a sleigh pulled by Hollis Cooper’s ponies.  Sometimes the ponies wore antlers.  

However Santa arrived in Ithaca, it seemed that the children in town kept turning out in larger numbers. By the end of the 1960s, well over 1,000 children turned out to greet Santa on his first trip to town. It now became common to see lines of children measuring over two blocks long, each with their desire to tell Santa what they hoped he would bring them for Christmas.

For many children born after World War II, the arrival of Santa Claus in Ithaca was an essential part of the Christmas season.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

We Remember the 1940s, “When it was Turkey Festival Time in Gratiot County”

Headline from the October 23, 1941 issue of the Alma Record.
Herman Pinter, a St. Louis turkey farmer (on left) and employee Bob Campbell promote the coming of Turkey Festival to Alma in October 1948.
The 1947 Turkey Queen and her court give the largest dressed turkey in Michigan to Governor Kim Sigler. From left: Belva Thum (Ithaca), Donnavere Abbott (Fulton), Governor Kim Sigler, Turkey Queen Elda Crittenden (Breckenridge), and Donna June Cook (Ashley).

Author’s note: This article is a follow-up and an expanded piece based on a column that I wrote for the Gratiot County Herald earlier in November 2020.

When people hear about festivals that have taken place in Gratiot County’s past, not many people think about turkeys. However, during the 1940s, many throughout Michigan knew Gratiot County and Alma as the turkey capital.

It all started in 1941 when the Central Michigan Turkey Growers and the Alma Chamber of Commerce joined to hold the first state Turkey Fest in late October. A group of 200 people gathered at the Alma Odd Fellows temple and attended the first meeting thrown together in less than ten days. Upon the platform that night in the Odd Fellows Temple, a majestic tom turkey, weighing over fifteen pounds, sat inside his cage and oversaw the festivities. Judges crowned Ithaca High School students Colleen Townsend and Wanda Gabrion as the first Turkey Queens. The Gratiot County agricultural agent, C.P. Milham, was the person who endorsed the idea of a Turkey Fest, and he served as chairman of the program. On that night, H.S. Babcock, editor of the Alma Record, served as master of ceremonies. A professor of Michigan State College told the audience that Gratiot County then served as the largest turkey and chicken producing county in Michigan. He then added that an estimated 30,000 turkeys had been raised on 129 turkey farms in Gratiot County in 1941.

One of the things on the program that night in 1941 included demonstrating the proper way to carve a turkey. A magic show entertained the audience, then came the crowning of the two Turkey Fest queens. Participants who attended received balloon squawkers, and they could see balloon-shaped turkeys that sat on the decorated tables. Frank Cross, who owned the tom turkey on the stage that night, was given another big turkey as an award. Mrs. Carrie Cole, another area turkey farmer who did work with the program, also received an award. A total of sixteen turkey farmers who donated turkeys for the feast received recognition for raising more than 3,000 birds in 1941.  The hastily prepared first Turkey Fest appeared to be a success, and plans were launched for another one in 1942.

However, what Turkey Fest promoters failed to consider was how World War II would affect meat supplies due to the war. In July 1942, organizers started the plans for another Turkey Fest, and by late summer, the organizers set it for October 29. The banquet took place at Alma’s Odd Fellow Hall, and it was open to anyone who could pay the $1 admittance ticket. Those who supported the second Turkey Fest hoped that the Alma festival would eventually grow to rival the Tulip Festival or Cherry Festival. A total of 236 people attended despite tire rationing and a 35-mile speed limit due to the war. Miss Mildred Stehlik, one of three daughters of turkey growers who received nominations, was voted Turkey Queen. The evening’s surprise came when one of the fifteen donated turkeys went to auction and received a premium when bidders moved to purchase war bonds. Mrs. Homer Fulton of Alma first won the large turkey with a bid of $305. However, she returned the bird for a second auction. When the bird’s re-auction raised another $355 worth of bonds, the winner gave it back, and a final winning bid brought in another $315.  Suddenly, a member of the audience raised the bid on one of the auctions so that the second Turkey Fest raised $1,000 in bond sales for the war effort. After the meeting, a list of turkey farmers showed that Gratiot County had close to 40,000 turkeys in 1942.

Unfortunately, what Turkey Fest followers failed to imagine was how World War II would affect meat supplies due to the war. The government froze the turkey market, and that dashed plans for a 1943 festival. A similar situation happened the next year. Hopes were high that the Central Michigan Turkey Growers would hold the Ithaca festival in 1944, after being held in Alma the first two years. The Ithaca Chamber of Commerce and Ithaca Methodist Church planned to host and feed crowds on December 5. Within two weeks of the initial announcement, another notice ran in the Gratiot County Herald. It read that “due to events which were unforeseen a short time ago,” Ithaca had to cancel the program.

  Gratiot County would not see the “Turkey Festival” (the new name) return for another three years, but in 1947 things began to change. With the end of World War II and no more war ration and restrictions, Turkey Festival returned to Alma bigger than ever. Because of this, the Alma Chamber of Commerce sent out an announcement asking if anyone had extra rooms to rent for the many people coming to Alma. The advertisement for the 1947 Turkey Festival also was carried by WJR in Detroit. The fest also coincided with the annual meeting of the Alma Production Credit Association, which brought 750 stockholders to town.

For the first time, Turkey Festival debuted as Michigan’s first dressed turkey show, and it took place between the holidays. In this manner, the festival’s timing allowed turkey farmers to conclude Thanksgiving business and yet display finished birds. The Michigan Turkey Growers Association also canceled its tour through southwest Michigan. Instead, it merged with Gratiot County for the festival. Notices of a Turkey Queen selection went out to high schools at Ashley, Fulton, Alma, St. Louis, Breckenridge, and Ithaca. In each school, the student body would vote and choose their school nominee. Unfortunately, because Alma hosted the event, the high school decided not to elect a candidate. St. Louis High School then had a policy of not selecting a queen for any purpose. As a result, this year’s Turkey Queen candidates included Donnavere Abbott (Fulton), Belva Thum (Ithaca), Donna June Cook (Ashley), and Elda Crittenden (Breckenridge). In the end, judges chose Elda Crittenden as the 1947 Turkey Queen.

New events at the 1947 fest included the planned arrival of Michigan Governor Kim Sigler to preside over the activities. However, plans changed when Sigler underwent emergency surgery in Lansing. Hence, Lieutenant Governor Eugene C. Keyes came to Alma in Sigler’s place. After the Turkey Festival ended, Queen Elda Crittenden and her court traveled to Lansing to personally deliver the governor’s winning dressed bird. A picture shows the four girls with Governor Sigler wearing what appeared to be a hospital coat over his dress suit.

Activities welcomed those who entered the contests and those who just came to observe the festivities. Entries for the various turkey contests took place at Exhibition Hall, a recently constructed Quonset hut on the corner of Superior and Pine Streets. On the afternoon of December 4, a parade took place down the main street, led by the Alma College and Alma High School bands. Following the parade, a turkey race for boys and girls featured youngsters chasing their birds down the main street to the finish line.   Norman White and Bill O’Boyle claimed the $25 savings bonds as prizes.

  A turkey banquet and the crowning of the queen took place in the evening. On December 5, judging classes took place throughout the morning, followed by a demonstration for ladies on holiday foods.  For the first time, judges gave out premiums totaling over $600 to contest winners. Also, over at the Strand Theatre, anyone could get a free turkey sandwich.

When the 1947 Turkey Festival ended, a total of 130 turkeys had been on exhibit. Zeeland Hatchery had the largest bird at 37 ¼ pounds. Soule’s Turkey Farm of Jackson won four out of six championships. Gratiot County winners included Deloy Henney of Middleton, the Hoyt Turkey farm, Joe Pinter of Alma, and Mrs’ Clark Howland of Ithaca. Since Turkey Festival opened itself to more people from around Michigan, more non-Gratiot County turkey farmers entered and started winning more contests. Because of its success in Alma, Turkey Festival was again would place in 1948.

The Alma Chamber of Commerce proclaimed that “An even bigger and better Turkey Festival is destined for Alma in 1948 than (was) the one of 1947.”  As planning for the 1948 festival began, Turkey Festival attracted attention from places outside of Michigan. LIFE magazine inquired about the possibility of sending photographers to capture the event. A Chicago motor company contacted the city and asked for information about the Turkey Festival, and they were not alone. The Chamber of Commerce also reported that organizations from Ohio, Illinois, and California showed interest in the upcoming festival. There were even companies that asked for permission to help decorate the city. However, the Chamber proclaimed that the Turkey Festival’s focus would be to show that Michigan turkeys were as good or better than those anywhere else. Michigan could become the leader in turkey production.

The next Turkey Festival took place on December 7-8, 1948, and the banquet at the IOOF Hall drew over 300 people. The evening’s high point took place when judges chose Fulton High School senior Dorothy Ramsey as Turkey Queen. Her court included Doris May Kinney (Ithaca), Doris Neitzke (Breckenridge), Evelyn Shaw (Ashley), and Pat Anderson (Alma). Don Hoyt of Jeddo had the largest turkey, which weighed 37 pounds 8 ounces. Mary Haines of Vassar won grand champion Tom, New York dressed. For local winners, H.J. Pinter took reserve champion full drawn bird.  Again the Turkey Festival gave out $600 to winners in various contests. Most of the categories had as many as nine or ten entries, both locally and from around the state. Demonstrations took place on how to prepare turkeys. Panels taught farmers how to keep Michigan turkeys healthy. After presenting the awards on the second day of the exhibits, an auction sale for the winning turkeys took place.

In all, the 1948 Turkey Festival enjoyed another success as it had tripled in size from the previous year.  Entries came in from all over the state of Michigan. The downside of the festival’s success was that fewer Gratiot County turkey farmers competed in the contests.

Although people in Gratiot County did not know it at the time, 1949 would be the last time that a Turkey Festival would take place in Alma. Billed as being “still bigger and better than before,” this festival took place over three days (December 7-8-9). Alma College’s Memorial Gymnasium hosted the activities.

                Organizers emphasized educational events such as cooking demonstrations at Alma High School gymnasium where women learned how to cook a turkey by the piece. An informational meeting about turkey marketing in Michigan followed this demonstration. People who wanted free turkey sandwiches could get them at the high school. Twice as many exhibit booths as the previous year meant exhibits now had to be viewed inside the banquet hall.

                Early in November 1949, Fulton High School senior Connie Sanford became Turkey Queen. Her court consisted of Phyllis Kinney (Ithaca), Marilyn Stine (Ashley), Mary Anita VanAtten (Alma), and Leta Conklin (Breckenridge). This time Governor G. Mennen Williams came to Alma for the crowning of turkey queen during the banquet. Williams had his picture taken with the queen and her court. Governor Williams also auctioned off the grand champion and reserve champion turkeys. Williams’ auctioneering met with success when he sold the 32-pound grand champion for $9.50 a pound to Grant Hess of the St. Louis Park Hotel. For his help with Turkey Festival, Governor Williams received the largest bird at the show, a 43 pound Tom raised by Henry Preston of Quincy, Michigan.

When it came to contests, dressed birds remained the focus. After choosing the winning birds on the first day, they went to be dressed. On the third day, the turkeys appeared on display. For fun,  a 1949  “Fashion Show” took place with turkeys and chickens wearing different costumes.

Attendance increased so much that more people had to be turned away from attending the banquet. However, there had been whispers that the festival would soon move away from Alma. While many Michigan turkey growers said they would return in 1950, local officials feared that the festival would end. The officials were right.

When 1950 rolled around, Turkey Festival no longer was a part of Gratiot County. Newspapers appeared to be silent about the reasons why it would not be held in Alma. Probably the Michigan Turkey Growers Association and Michigan State College’s Agricultural department wanted other parts of Michigan to benefit from moving the festival. What had started with an idea in the early 1940s and then grew to an annual event to celebrate turkey farms in Gratiot County and mid-Michigan, quietly passed away.

Still, for a brief time, Turkey Festival had been the thing to see and do in Alma, and it became a part of Gratiot County’s history.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

Gratiot’s Finest Hour – February 1945: “The Cost of War, The Cost of Life”

Above (clockwise from left): shoe rationing in St. Louis; Red Cross advertisement from February, 1945; Private Ed Kalinowski of North Star was one of several men whose deaths were announced that month; hardware advertisement from Alma; Professor Hans Richter’s death took many in Alma and at Alma College by surprise.

Gratiot’s Finest Hour, February 1945: “The Costs of War”

As Gratiot County continued into the fifth year of the war, the costs continued to mount. More Gratiot County men continued to die in service to the county and nation. The results of the previous December’s fighting in the Ardennes in France and places in the Pacific, like the Philippines, illustrated the price paid to end the war. 

There would be no end of rationing soon. Farmers needed to grow more crops in 1945, even though they risked losing farm help due to the draft. As more and more young men left the county, letters home to wives, parents, and family members described the loneliness and dedication needed to win the war.

It was February 1945 in Gratiot County.

Rationing Goes On

As the War Production Board demanded that towns comply with energy conservation, Gratiot County tried to follow suit. On February 1, the St. Louis City Council ordered all display lights turned off. Theaters like the GEM in St. Louis were allowed to light up as long as they only used 60-watt bulbs. The single biggest issue dealing with energy conservation in February dealt with “brownout enforcement.” Consumers Power Company officials revealed that 22 businesses in the county were slow to enforce “brownout.”  However, the officials reported that Gratiot business owners usually did not understand the provisions of the brownout order instead of being openly disobedient. The Alma Chamber of Commerce worked diligently to inform business owners of the goal of one hundred percent compliance. Shop windows could not be lit; neither could honor rolls, church lights, clocks, or gasoline pumps.

Ration calendars with county office hours in Ithaca and point values appeared in the newspapers. The county rationing office in Ithaca operated six days a week with reduced hours on Saturday. Anyone turning in waste fats could earn up to two meat ration points and four cents per contribution. While inspections on tires were no longer compulsory, they were required if a person wanted new tires. Commercial vehicles were supposed to be inspected every six months or 5,000 miles, depending on which occurred first. In one week in early February, the rationing board issued 87 grade one tire certificates. At the end of the month, the board gave 145 more. Rationing continued  even as the government limited passenger tire quotas due to “military necessity.”

Various other things continued to be rationed  as ways to support the war effort through conservation. Ration free shoes were available for three weeks at Strouse’s Shoe Store in St. Louis. People in the county needed to enjoy their current meat supply as they may disappear by midsummer. The St. Louis  Boy Scouts went and collected almost five tons of waste paper during their wastepaper drive. The Michigan Office of Civilian Defense set a goal of one million Victory Gardens in Michigan for 1945.

Then there were some unpleasant things about rationing. Gratiot County, along with the rest of the nation, entered a midnight curfew starting February 26. To comply with the “brownout order,” theatres, dance halls, saloons, and sports arenas all had to close by midnight.  Many people debated the current status of Eastern War Tie versus Central Standard Time in Michigan. Which was better? Detroit wanted Eastern, but Gratiot farmers wanted “Sun time,” a half-hour faster than central time. The debate went on. Finally, Morris Goldfelder of North Star changed his plea in Bay City Federal Court. Goldfelder admitted that he had diverted 40,000 pounds of cheese and sold it to civilians, rather than keep it for the Armed Forces.  It was unclear what Goldfelder’s penalty ended up being.

Farming in Gratiot County

Gratiot Farmers needed to raise beets for the 1945 farming season to help with the war effort. All county farmers heard that the War Food Administration made growing beets the highest goal in Michigan for that summer because of low sugar stocks. Even if the United States liberated the Philippines in 1945, it would send little sugar to the United States. Cuba also anticipated a short supply of sugar in 1945.

The St. Louis Beet Growers Association held its 14th annual reorganization meeting at St. Louis High School. It re-elected Frank Oberst of Breckenridge as president. Almost 600 farmers came and received a complimentary meal and heard that there were “patriotic reasons” to grow more sugar beets in the county. Three local churches –the Methodist, Lutheran, and Christian churches in St. Louis – fed the crowds.  Beet farmers heard that if they paid cash and purchased fertilizer, it meant saving between three and six dollars per ton. At this meeting, a total of 3200 acres in Gratiot County were under contract to grow beets. Also, farmers heard that Texas and Mexican Nationals would be available to work in the fields. So would German prisoners of war.

In another instance, 400 farmers and their families met at the thirtieth annual St. Louis Co-Operative Creamery Company meeting. This group also met in the St. Louis High School auditorium.

The Gratiot County Farm Bureau held a Victory Meeting at Muscott’s Hall in Ithaca. A total of 578 Farm Bureau families had paid memberships in this organization.

The main concern for county farmers was the news that 175 farmers faced military examinations in January for induction.  Even more, recently went in February. Farmers left behind worried about the effect of the loss of these men for the upcoming farming season.

In other news, one hundred county farmers met at the Gratiot County Conservation League’s park cabin. They heard  Gratiot County conservation officer Harold Barrow report that hunters took approximately fifty foxes since the five-dollar bounty started. Parks Allen analyzed nine of the animals to determine what the fox had been eating. Allen said the county’s fox diet appeared to consist of rabbits, pheasants, mice, and domestic fowl. Fox hunting during the winter of 1943-1944 became the county’s number one outdoor sport and earned the nickname “the sport of kings.” As a result, hunters from outside Gratiot County poured in from places as far away as Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor to hunt fox, especially Sundays.

The Work of the Gratiot County Red Cross

As news proclaimed that over 10,000 trained men and women served overseas in the American Red Cross, local Red Cross efforts continued. In Ithaca, the Red Cross Service Window displayed souvenirs from places like India, Turkey, Iran, the Pacific, and France. The Klein Brothers from Ithaca sent several items to their parents, and these things, in turn, appeared on display. Anyone in the county who wanted to display war souvenirs only had to call Telephone 158 in Ithaca and leave word they had items to share. Several Red Cross meetings in the county during February took place to anticipate the upcoming March Red Cross Fund Drive.

The Draft in Gratiot County

The Gratiot County draft board continued to struggle with the issue of Gratiot County farm youth and the war. The board had to decide which young men, ages 18 to 26, went into the Army or the Navy. The board, in turn, considered the extent to which these young men were irreplaceable. Were they essential to the war effort, and did their absence from a farm affect food production? By February 12, the board had to send another contingent of men to Detroit for their inductions. If they could not fill the quota, the board had to consider farm youths classified as 2A and under the ages of 26 to 30. The next step would be to take men who were 2A over the age of 30.

Some state politicians reacted strongly to the enforcement of the Tydings Amendment. This legislation urged draft boards to do everything necessary to take all physically fit farmers into the armed forces. One legislator cried out in the press, “Those boys were just shanghaied into the military. Some day the draft board may wake up and find out they want something to eat for breakfast, and at noon, and night.”

The Gratiot County Herald ran a column entitled “The Draft and Farmers Rights.” The editors informed readers that farm youth had certain rights after complying with registration with the board. Deferments took place in three ways: first, if the youth had continuous farm history; second, if he could not be replaced on the farm; third, if he was needed on the farm that due to anticipated production would be average or above average. However, the paper informed readers in bold print, “EACH FARMER MUST PRESENT HIS OWN CASE before the draft board.”

In another column, the Herald also urged readers to remember that those Gratiot County men and women who served on the draft and ration boards were “unsung heroes.” These men also deserved a pat on the back for carrying out their duties during times of controversy.

  Gratiot residents learned the names of the 45 men who left the county in January. Thirty-four went to Fort Sheridan to join the Army; eight went to the Navy, and three to the Marines. Among those sent to the Army included Dionicio Perez Sanchez and Edward Ralph Goggin of Alma. Duane Ruehle of Ithaca entered the Navy, and Clare R.V. Craig of Perrinton went into the Marines.

Letters Home to Gratiot County

Private Charles Starry, Jr. wrote home he had walked 500 miles in India just before Christmas. Also, he stated that planes in his area dropped turkeys in boxes for Christmas and that the natives suffered from different diseases. Starry’s mother believed her son had walked the Burma Road and probably made it to China. His diet at that time mainly consisted of rice, bananas, and cocoanuts. Corporal Donald Wright of St. Louis came home after two years in the Pacific. He had lost all of his personal effects in the Philippines. A newspaper reported that Lieutenant Colonel William Kyes of Elwell had just completed eleven months the India – Burma Theater. In all, Kyes completed 91 missions and 766 flying hours. He flew with the 7th Bombardment Group of the 10th Air Force.

  Jerry Carlson also wrote to his parents from somewhere in the Pacific that he missed pumpkin pie and fresh milk, having long since grown tired of powdered milk. Upon crossing the equator, Carlson joked that he received a close haircut, a paddling, and a bath in salt water. All of this was a ritual for those at sea. Chief Petty Officer Robert Ode could not write in detail about being in the Philippines. Ode saw General MacArthur come ashore and stood next to MacArthur’s jeep, onshore when movies were taken of the General’s arrival. Ode urged his family to look in the background of any footage they saw as he wrote his name on the front of his helmet. A photograph of Marine Private Wayne Sowers of St. Louis appeared on the front page of the St. Louis Leader-Press. Sowers had been wounded at Guam and received the Purple Heart. Cardwell Hoard of Pompeii wrote home from aboard the USS Bunker Hill. He saw action at Ellice Island and Saipan. Hoard enlisted in the Navy on March 1, 1944, but later would be killed in action in 1945 aboard this ship.

The news came in about the three Wright Brothers from St. Louis, Max, Dan, and Gordon, each of whom was in different war areas. Max had been in Marseille, France; Dan served in the Fiji Islands and was now discharged, and Gordon served in New Caledonia. Another brother, Lawrence, awaited training at an airbase in Iowa.

Private Don Randall returned to Lafayette Township from Luxembourg, France, after being away for three years. Sergeant Charles Brennan wrote to his sister about the snow in France, making him homesick for Gratiot County. Brennan noted that the snow in France was the most the country had received since 1907. While he had seen Paris, Randall still longed to see Wheeler, Michigan. Corporal Archie Houden of Breckenridge wrote home from Belgium that his unit rebuilt ten large railroad bridges in one month, a record for his company. Houden arrived in England in 1942, cleared mine patches and booby traps at Normandy, and now cleared the rubble in French cities as the Germans retreated. Another letter from Private Howard Comstock of St. Louis arrived at the Comstock home in St. Louis. In it, Private Comstock enclosed a clipping written by Buck Dawson. The latter moved along with the 82nd Airborne along the Dutch-German border. The clipping warned that the Germans still had plenty of fight left in them and that the war was far from over in Europe. Staff Sergeant Willard Haag of Sumner arrived home on leave. Haag received his orders to come home while in a foxhole along the German front. He started for the coast within 15 minutes of being notified. Haag served with Patton’s Third Army and enlisted in 1940, having been overseas three years and wounded three times. Haag was one of a group of 835 men sent home on the Army’s recuperative plan.

Sergeant Robert Hamilton wrote to his wife in Alma about being a chief cook with a B-24 Liberator group in Southern Italy. Air raids took off from this location into places like the Ploesti Oil Fields, as well as cities like Munich and Regensberg, Germany, and Vienna, Austria. Sergeant Donald Breidinger of Alma served as an aircraft loader at Gazes Air Base in North Africa. Breidinger said he had visited cities like Rabat, Dakar, Marrakech, Atar, and Agadir. Staff Sergeant Max Turner of North Star came home on a thirty-day furlough. Turner served 34 months in North Africa and saw action at 609 Hill, Bizerte, and Tunis. Turner also saw action in Italy, which culminated in fighting at the Anzio Beachhead.

  Private Doyle Plank of Alma sent home a program from the “Spaghetti Bowl” football game recently played in Italy on New Year’s Day. Plank was a radio gunner with the 12th Air Force.

Those Dreaded Initials:  WIA, KIA, MIA, and POW

The cost and results of  Gratiot County’s men at war continued in February 1945. Most of the news dealt with the Battle of the Bulge results, which took place in Europe during December.

In Ithaca, the parents of Private Neil Litwiller learned that he had been wounded in Luxembourg on January 12. Several other Gratiot men also suffered wounds while in Belgium. These included Private Philip Fockler, Captain Robert Greenhoe, and Private Melvin Lutz, all of Alma. Still others among the wounded from Alma were Lieutenant Norman Northrup and Lieutenant Eldon Adams. Northrup suffered back injuries and damaged vertebrae when his jeep was blown up while dodging German mines and maneuvering while under fire. Private Stanley Worden of Alma sustained wounds to his right arm, had one operation, and probably would have another. Worden expected to be moved to a hospital in England. Private Mercer Cook of Alma also was wounded in Luxembourg. Still, he had been sent to a Paris hospital due to having frozen feet. Private Alfred Ueberroth of Alma, who served with the combat engineers, injured his left arm. Private Webster Mayle of Ithaca faced a slow recovery in a French hospital due to serious abdominal wounds he suffered back in early November. It was not known where Mayle was recovering.

  Merton Peacock of St. Louis, and one of five Peacock brothers in the war, had been seriously wounded in Belgium and was in a hospital there. It proved to be Peacock’s second time in a hospital with combat wounds. On Christmas Day, Sergeant Daniel Dafoe of Alma suffered an injury to his upper right arm from a shell fragment. Now in an English hospital, it was thought that Dafoe would make a normal recovery.  Elmo Badder’s wife of North Shade Township received the Purple Heart in the mail that her husband was given for being wounded on December 16 in France. Harold Huntoon of Breckenridge sent word to his father that the younger Huntoon had been injured in the hand while fighting in France.

Lieutenant Norman Keon came home to St. Louis on a 21-day service leave pass. Keon had just been released from an Indiana hospital where he had been since August. Keon suffered a serious jeep accident in New Guinea in April 1944. Private Eugene Jellison of Alma came home on sick leave from a U.S. Naval Hospital in North Carolina. Jellison wore two gold stars from being in major battles that included Bougainville and Guam. Jellison had been stationed in New Zealand before this, and he received the Purple Heart.

Private Kenneth Cole of Bethany Township also was in the news. Cole was wounded in November, and he sent a letter home in January that his leg still bothered him. Cole got married in February 1944,  went to training camp in May, and made it to France by late September. Upon landing, Cole was hit by a German .88, causing him to be placed in three different English hospitals.

In February, the hardest news to reach Gratiot County dealt with those men who paid the ultimate price for the county and the nation. Private Henry Iler was killed in France on January 3 and was buried in a cemetery in eastern France. Iler’s brother also suffered wounds while in the Pacific in 1943. Sergeant John Townsend of Ashley died in Northern Luxembourg a week later while trying to attack a house in a small town that held 50 Germans. Some tough news came to Ithaca with the death of Private Volney Loomis. Loomis was a paratrooper who died of his wounds in Belgium on January 4. Loomis’ wife died six weeks after he was inducted into the Army, and the paratrooper’s death left behind his small son. Private Edward Kalinowski of North Star, also a paratrooper, died in Belgium on January 20. Kalinowski received citations for gallantry in action when he served in Italy. Corporal Gordon Willoughby of Elba Township was also killed in action on January 19 in Belgium. Private Howard Joley lost his life in France on January 25. Joley was from Ashley.  The news came to St. Louis that Private Robert Lucas, a member of the 298th Engineers Battalion, died in Belgium in late December. Lucas’ jeep approached an enemy roadblock in Belgium and then tried to turn around when the enemy fired upon him. He was laid to rest in a Belgian cemetery.

Those who died in other instances of service also made the news. Private Clarence Orr, formerly of Alma, died when his C-47 transport plane crashed due to catching fire while in midair in Robinson, Illinois. A funeral for Private Howard Berry, originally from North Shade Township and a student in Ashley and Alma, took place through a “solemn and impressive service” in Carson City. Berry died in late November in France. The wife of Captain Arner Douglas, who was killed on June 2, 1944, over France, received three more letters explaining how her husband died in service to the country. One letter explained how Douglas had just been promoted to Captain before his death. 

Newspapers also mentioned those who were missing in action or were held as prisoners of war. Private Arthur Wilson of Breckenridge had been missing since December 28. Sergeant John Parrish of Alma went missing on January 9 while serving as a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber in England. Technician Walter Moore of Alma was also missing in action. Mrs. Paul Paulson of New Haven Township told the newspaper that her husband was missing in Belgium with the 9th Armored Division.

One Prisoner of War now included Howard Baker of Ashley, who had been missing since October 6, 1944. He was now in a German POW camp. Good news came to the family of Private Bruce Meade of Riverdale. Meade had been repatriated and would soon be coming home from Germany. Meade had been a prisoner of war since February 18, 1943. The War Department encouraged the family to send a message to him in 25 words or less. Meade had written home in November that he got the box from the family, which contained maple sugar.

The family of Sergeant Benny Zamarron of Ashley traveled to Selfridge Field to receive his decoration medals. Sergeant Zamarron received recognition for meritorious achievement, even though he too was a prisoner of war somewhere in Germany. 

And So We Do Not Forget

The Gratiot County Ministerial Association held its February meeting at the Seventh Day Advent Church in Ithaca…Leonard Refineries opened its new administration building on East Superior Street. It measured 188 feet by 45 feet, with a terrace and broad walkway…The two-story school in Maple Rapids was entirely destroyed by fire on February 1. Total losses amounted to $50,000…State Street Residents in Alma saw their first Robin on February 18…the Gratiot County Courthouse would be closed two days, February 12 and 22, for Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays…Ten marriage licenses had been issued in Gratiot County as of February 15. One license belonged to Frank Mikus, age 23 of North Star Township, and Thelma Chmiko, 21 of Elba Township….A memorial service for Professor Hans Richter took place at Alma College. Richter, a German-born native who fled Nazi Germany, took his own life. His disappearance had caused a stir in Alma until his body was found. Richter was well liked by the student body at Alma College…Swift & Company of Alma gave praise to workers who helped the company set new records in 1944 for distributing food and other products. The company had forty employees join the armed forces since Pearl Harbor…”Arsenic and Old Lace,” starring Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and Jack Carson played for three nights at Alma’s Strand Theatre.

The Alma Record ran a column about marriage and divorce in Gratiot County. Factors in the number of increasing divorces included hasty marriages between servicemen and women before going off to war, as well as liquor problems…The St. Louis Community Center opened to young people in town. Table tennis and dancing were two features for the young crowd. Strict supervision was expected of youth…Only slight repairs in St. Louis could occur for the city’s lighting system. The problem centered around shortages of materials…A total of 35 students from Gratiot County enrolled at Central Michigan College for the winter semester. Edward Lawson entered the V-12 Program…Clayton Sias, age 55, a World War I veteran, a barber for 25 years, and teller at the bank died suddenly of a heart attack.  Sias had been a charter member of the American Legion Post…A pair of Native American girls, Elizabeth and Ina Miron, were arrested in Perrinton for disorderly conduct. The two told the judge that they had been working in defense plants in Detroit and Muskegon. They served 30 days and paid a fine of $19.10 each…Several Gratiot County men in the Fifth Infantry were given top priority for a thirty-day furlough, starting February 7…The Gratiot County Polio Fund hoped to raise money through several social events such as a Silver Tea, a card party, and a cafeteria-style supper…L.D.Whittier, former Alma shoe merchant and former member of the Gratiot County Draft Board, started work with the United States Employment Service in Alma…Correspondent Edmund Stevens spoke at the Inter-City Town Hall Library lyceum in Breckenridge. Stevens had just published a new book on Russia after his travels there with Wendell Wilkie.

An explosion at the Alma Piston plant on February 12 brought out the Alma fire department. While the fire was hard to put out, some employees only suffered minor burns…A fox hunt took place on February 25 in South Fulton Township. Anyone who shot a fox had to turn the bounty over to the club. Hunters were to meet up at Guernsey’s garage in Perrinton to start the hunt…The annual meeting of the St. Louis Cooperative Creamery was planned for the St. Louis high school gymnasium. A crowd of 600 was anticipated…March 15 is the due date for filing income taxes with the IRS…Robert Bellaire, a former United Press correspondent in Tokyo, told 600 people in St. Louis, and later in Alma, about his experiences as a POW under the Japanese. Bellaire was captured and spent seven months as a POW…Central War Time becomes official in Gratiot County starting March 17. However, Ithaca, Alma, and St. Louis already switched to CST in November…Former St. Louis teacher Barker Brown, his wife and three children were all thought to be freed from Santo Tomas concentration camp in Manilla. Brown’s parents anxiously awaited word of their freedom.

And that was Gratiot County’s finest hour in February 1945.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

We Remember “When Lions Roamed in Gratiot County, 1946-1948”

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Above: July 31, 1947, front page of the Alma Record; August 1946 Lions Scrimmage advertisement; program from the 1946 game; Lions Head Coach Gus Dorais.

     After World War II, Gratiot County became the late summer home of the Detroit Lions professional football team. At Alma College, the Lions drew many visitors who came to Alma to watch the team during summer training camp.

    Usually, the Lions arrived in early August and remained at Alma College for about one month, allowing the public to watch many open practices. The highlight of each summer camp would be an intrasquad scrimmage that took place under the lights at Bahlke Field.

    In 1946, the Lions moved their summer training camp from Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, to Alma College. By the late 1940s, the team had won one NFL championship (1935) and came off an excellent 7-3 record in 1945 under third-year coach Gus Dorais.

     However, during the late 1940s, the Lions struggled and went a combined 6-29 over the three seasons that the team practiced at Alma College.  Dorais would be fired, and Bo McMillin became head coach in 1948.

     The arrival of the Lions each summer in Alma proved to be big news, and it was hoped that their presence encouraged more people to come to Alma. In 1946, the first year that Detroit practiced at Alma College, the team insisted that the college heavily water the playing field. Coach Gus Dorais wanted a “springy field,” one that had a surface that would be easier on the feet of his sixty players. Over one half of the team that arrived that summer had just recently left the military due to the end of World War II, and many had no professional experience. A very long hose and pipe were donated by the City of Alma to help get the practice field ready starting in late July.

      On August 8, 1946, the Lions arrived for dinner, and they met a welcoming committee made up of the Alma Chamber of Commerce and city commissioners. The Lions stayed in Wright Hall and made Memorial Gymnasium their locker room, and morning practices ran from 9:30-12:30 each day. After two weeks in Alma, a group made up of two players, a coach, trainer, and publicity chief, all met with the Alma Lions Club to talk about professional football and the Lions’ prospects for the upcoming season.

     The most well-known player on the team was Emil Ure, a World War II veteran, and an All-League tackle who just rejoined the Lions after serving 27 months in the infantry in Europe. The best-known player in the group to local fans was Bob Westfall, who had played at the University of Michigan and had been a teammate of Tom Harmon in the early 1940s. As the team started training camp, the Lions reportedly were most in need of a good passer.

    On August 26, 1946, the team had an intra-squad game and charged $1.20 a ticket, which the Alma Lions Club sold in advance to the public. Days after this well-attended game, the Lions departed Alma with 38 players on September 5  for their first game of the season. However, it was a poor Lions season, which resulted in only one win.

    The following spring, on March 27, 1947, it was announced that the Detroit Lions would return to Alma College for summer training and that they would arrive on August 4. A group made up of quarterbacks, centers, and kickers arrived five days early that summer so that Coach Dorais could institute the new “T” formation that the Lions would use that season.

      The big news about the Detroit Lions as they arrived in Alma was the presence of Bill Dudley, the NFL’s leading rusher in 1946. Dudley had been acquired from Pittsburgh and gave the Lions an offensive weapon that they had previously lacked. However, Dudley did not arrive at camp until August 18. That month was incredibly hot in Alma, but it did not deter people from showing up to watch the Lions practice.

     On August 21, a crowd of 2,000 people packed into Bahlke Field to watch the Detroit Lions rookies defeat the veterans by the score of 21-13. Dudley’s debut in the game proved to be the biggest news about the scrimmage. During the game, Alma’s Stillwell Junior High Principal, Floyd “Bill” Lear, fulfilled his life-long dream of being an NFL referee by working as a field judge.

     One of the disappointments in Alma that August was that no Lions players or coaches appeared at the Alma Lions Club meeting as they did the previous summer. Instead, the Lions Club members viewed a movie featuring highlights of the 1946 season. The heat had again been oppressive in Alma, and Coach Dorais used that evening to hold practice, rather than appearing at the Alma Lions Club. On September 18, the team concluded summer practice and left for Pittsburgh for its first game. The 1947 season was also a poor one for the Lions as they went 3-9, and the team eventually fired their head coach.

     On Sunday, July 31, 1948, the Lions arrived at Alma College for their last training camp in Gratiot County. Approximately 60 players arrived by bus for lunch at Wright Hall. New Lions coach Bo McMillin now headed the team.

     The  Alma Lions Club again immediately went to work to promote the August 23 intra-squad scrimmage to be held at Bahlke Field. Sales were so successful that it was said that tickets sold “like hotcakes.” McMillin put the squad hard to work on two a day practices leading up to the scrimmage. The Alma Record reported that over 2,000 people showed up that night to watch the Gray squad defeat the Blue squad, 23-0. To entertain the crowd during the scrimmage, the Alma Industrial Band made an appearance. Leonard Refineries sponsored the band, and Earl Uphoff from St. Louis operated as the conductor. Frank Chapman served as the band’s manager, and Albert Weatherby assisted Uphoff.

    As the Lions departed Alma College that fall for the last time, the team continued a sixteen year run of missing the playoffs. The 1948 team went 2-10 that year and did not do well for another three seasons. However, the Lions gradually acquired players that would be the foundation of what would be the franchise’s glory days of the 1950s. During that decade, the team played in four championship games, winning three of them.

     While the Detroit Lions have not experienced sustained championship success in over sixty years, for three summers in the late 1940s, people in Gratiot County witnessed a time when Lions roamed, played, and even roared at Alma College.

   Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

“His Name was Joe Gage: Ithaca’s First Black Fireman, Boxer, Barber, and a Gentleman”


IMG_3380 (2).JPGJoe 1895IMG_3382 (2).JPG

Above: Joe Gage as a boxer while he was in Ithaca; 1895 photo of Ithaca Fire Department with Joe Gage on the far left; Joe Gage and C.D. Peet are given golden badges during Ithaca’s Centennial in 1954 after riding in the parade. Gage and Peet were honored as the last two remaining original firemen in Ithaca.

     Sometime in the late 1880s, Ithaca became the home to its first Black citizen, a man named Joe Gage.

    Gage was born the son of former slaves on April 10, 1866, in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. His father, Nelson Gage, had been a slave in Louisiana. Joe’s mother, Catherine Gage,  may have been a slave, or the daughter of slaves. The 1870 census identifies her with the racist term “mullato,” signifying that one of Catherine’s parents was white.

      Joe was one of seven children, and his father worked as a miner to support the Gage family. Tragically, one source says that Joe was orphaned by the age of eight and that he had to work as a coal miner.

      In time Joe, did what many Black men in the North did after the Civil War. They journeyed, looked for work, and explored the country.  After leaving Pennsylvania, Joe moved to Logansport, Indiana, and then to Grand Rapids, Michigan.

      In 1887, Joe came to Ithaca and found work in W. F. Thompson’s butter tub factory. Gage liked Ithaca, and he lived in Gratiot County for the next fifteen years. Soon people in Ithaca found more things that they liked about Joe Gage. Joe quickly earned a reputation as a hard worker, and he did other things well,  such as being a professional boxer, which he first took up while living in Grand Rapids.

      Upon arriving in Ithaca, Gage continued boxing, even though professional boxing was illegal in Michigan. At that time,  there were things people could do to get around the law and draw crowds and bettors. One way was to advertise matches as “sparring matches.”

      One time while Joe was engaged in a fight in the Ithaca Opera House, Sheriff Perry Pettit interrupted the match. During another bout, he was chased off of the Ithaca Fair Grounds. Undeterred, Gage and other men who were involved with the fight headed for Pompeii, where a ring was set in the woods. Early the next morning, the match continued, and Joe knocked out his opponent, a man named Ralph from St. Louis.

      In 1890, the Gratiot Journal announced that bills had been printed for “Ithaca’s Colored Champion.” In this case, Joe fought Ed Nesbitt of Detroit, and it turned out to be a fifteen round affair.  Three years later, Joe served as a trainer and second for Albert Eichorn’s match against N.L. Tuttle of Wheeler. The match took place at Holcomb’s Opera House in St. Louis with the purse being $50, and the gate proceeds. In the tenth round, Eichorn was given the win by a foul, and the opera house exploded in a near-riot, and order had to be restored by officers. Supporting his man, Joe Gage was there in the midst of what happened.

     Up until 1900, Joe was still boxing in Gratiot County and as far away as Saginaw. Gage stated later in life that he fought 14 bouts, going 10-4 as a middleweight in Ithaca. He weighed 154 pounds, and he stood 5 feet, 10 ½ inches tall.

     However, there were other things that Joe Gage did while he lived in Ithaca. In 1890, Joe participated in a minstrel show at the Ithaca Opera House, and he performed in the city’s mandolin club. If someone needed singers for a wedding or concert, they called on Joe Gage, who belonged to a popular quartette in the village.

      Most importantly, in 1892, Joe Gage did something as a pioneer in Gratiot County – he became the first Black man to become a part of the Ithaca Fire Department. He belonged to the department for ten years, and he can be seen in several pictures taken of the town’s fire team. In 1894, Gage’s name appeared on the fire department’s cornerstone, which listed the group’s earliest members.

     Joe Gage appeared in other events that were written about in the town newspaper. On one Sunday in late February 1900, a fight took place in downtown Ithaca, led by Jack Robinson. Robinson had developed a reputation for his drinking and public drunkenness. On this day, Robinson stood in the open on the main street, inviting anyone to a fight. Unfortunately, Jack Robinson somehow accidentally ran into Joe Gage, who dodged Robinson’s swing and then laid Robinson out on the street with one blow.  Observers appeared to be glad that Joe Gage showed up when he did, and that a public drunk had been dealt with on the Sabbath.

     However, Ithaca did not always offer enough work for Joe Gage to support himself. In the winter of 1898, Joe left for Cleveland, Ohio, to work in a meatpacking plant. However, for some reason, Joe quickly returned to Ithaca. Another time during his time in Ithaca,  Gage went to St. Charles to work in the coal mine there.

     In January 1899, Gage chose another occupation to make a living, and it was the right choice. He still boxed for a few years, but now Joe learned to be a barber at Leroy Finche’s barbershop. Two years later, he continued his trade by cutting hair at Hatten’s Barbershop in North Star.

      In 1902, Fred Sayles and his family, formerly of Ithaca but then living in Flushing, asked Joe to come to Flushing to open an athletic club. Joe went, liked Flushing, and moved there. However, he eventually gave up the athletic club to become one of three barbers in town. Again, Joe Gage was the only Black person in a village.

     In a short time, Joe became an essential part of the Flushing community, and he joined the fire department. He also married Ida Tennant from Pontiac in 1911. Ida was fifteen years Joe’s junior, and they made Flushing, Michigan, their home. Although they never had children, both became involved in the Flushing community for decades to come.

     Joe Gage’s reputation in Flushing grew over the decades. He was the main barber in town when bobbing came into fashion with women’s hair in the 1920s. Gage also developed a reputation for giving a young boy his first “shave” by lathering the boy up and then shaving the child with the backside of his barber’s comb. He had a knack for storytelling, and Joe was the best whistler in Flushing. His singing voice and the way he treated others became his trademarks.

     Over the years, the Gages were respected and honored citizens in Flushing. Back in Ithaca during the parade for the town’s Centennial Parade, Joe Gage was invited to ride on a fire truck, along with C.D. Peet. The two men were at that time the oldest surviving original firemen in  Ithaca. After the parade, both Gage and Peet were guests of honor at the Ithaca Firehouse, and both men received gold badges.

     In 1954, Joe Gage retired as a barber in Flushing at the age of 87. A group of local businessmen wanted to honor Joe with a birthday party (his wife Ida had passed away several years before). What Joe and these businessmen did not understand was the scope of the influence, reputation, and character that Joe Gage had upon people in mid-Michigan.

     Soon, more people found out about Joe’s birthday party and his retirement, and they also wanted to attend. What initially started as a luncheon for a few people soon became an event that drew 1,300 people to Flushing to honor Joe Gage. It became the biggest crowd that the village had ever seen up until that point in Flushing’s history. A group of six people from Ithaca went to the ceremony, including Lynn and Georgiana Peet Miller, C.D. Peet, Fred Howes, Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Kernen.

     Overwhelmed by the number of people who came to honor him, Joe Gage stood up during the ceremonies and said, “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve all this. I don’t think I deserve it. I’ve lived a long life, and most of it’s been a happy life, especially the part I’ve lived in Flushing. If I ever had it all to do over again, I’d like to change only one thing.”

     And then Joe Gage said this: “I’d like to be born with white skin. I just keep wondering what it would have been like. I’m not finding fault. I’m just curious. But if I couldn’t change it, and if I had it all over again, I’d make tracks for Flushing just as fast as I could, God bless you, everyone.”

     This last statement is the only one on the historical record that Joe Gage ever made about race – either in Flushing or in Ithaca, Michigan.  In his lifetime, Joe Gage never tolerated being called the n-word – and he openly confronted anyone (fellow barbers or citizens) who did. Joe Gage lived and demonstrated what dignity was.

      In his lifetime,  Joe Gage believed in treating people the way that he wanted to be treated, regardless of race. In Ithaca, he lived here well over a century ago, but Gage is still relevant today.

     As one writer said, Joe Gage was a boxer, a fireman, and a barber.  But, Joe Gage was also a gentleman – and he was Ithaca’s first Black citizen.

     We do well in 2020 to remember how this Black man lived as a pioneer in Ithaca and Gratiot County.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

A Gratiot County Institution: JC Penney of Alma

1st Christmas 19181968 staff1966 JC xmas.jpgNorth State 1950s

Above: JC Penney’s first Christmas advertisement in the Alma Record, December 1918; honoring over 50 years of employee service in 1968; 1966 Christmas catalog; the old JC Penney’s store on North Center Street – it was there from the late 1920s through the late 1970s.

            It arrived in Alma during the start of one epidemic, and it appears that it could end in part as the result of another pandemic.  Many people are unaware that the JC Penney Store has been a part of Gratiot County’s history for over one hundred years.

       In February 1918, an announcement ran in the Alma Record that a new store planned to open, just as the first wave of the Influenza Epidemic moved across America. At the time, JC Penney had 196 chain stores nationwide, all of which dealt in general merchandise.  This new store in Alma first rented a room in the old Bahlke Block, which held the McKenzie Brothers cigar store.   F.S. Doud, who was the first manager,  hoped to start the business by April 1.

         However, many obstacles stood in the way of the first JC Penney store that spring. The United States was at war in Europe, and getting goods by rail was slow due to the war effort. Still, Doud went ahead with plans to open, put up new signs, and repainted the front of the store.

            In July, the first JC Penney advertisement appeared in the Alma Record, stating that the store was formerly the FW Goodes Clothing Store in the Opera House Block.   “Dry Goods, Ladies’ Ready-to-Wear Hosiery, Men’s and Boys’ Clothing, Hats, Caps, and Shoes” appeared in the ad and told customers that JC Penney would now open on August 1, 1918. In its first Christmas season, JC Penney joined other Alma businesses and shops during the Influenza Epidemic that wanted to remain open. Businesses hoped shoppers would still do their Christmas shopping, even while wearing masks and getting vaccinated at the city hall. Yet, despite these challenges, JC Penney endured.

          Three years later, JC Penney made a move to the Waters Shoe Store, later called Church’s Jewelers.  Saturday nights became especially busy for shoppers at this location, and the store remained open late. The business was so busy that shoppers entered the main street entrance and then had to go out the back door after paying for purchases because of the crowds. It soon became apparent that JC Penney needed to move again to a bigger location.

         Going into the 1920s, readers of the Alma Record found stories about JC Penney himself, either regarding how he became a successful businessman and philanthropist or about his faith and church work. By this time, Penney had become one of the most admired Christian businessmen in America. Some Gratiot County ministers even used illustrations and quotes about JC Penney’s life, faith, and success in their sermons.

           As the Alma business grew throughout the 1920s, people became acquainted with JC Penney’s sales advertisements. In January 1922, men’s felt hats cost $1.49 for a dress or everyday wear. Stylish Easter spring dresses for women in 1923 ranged from $9.90 to $29.90. In May 1925, men could obtain high-quality straw hats (with silk band and lining, flexible brim, and waterproofed) for $3.50. The store’s ad urged, “Let Us Be Your Hatter.” More announcements came at Christmas time. In 1925, talking dolls ranged from 98 cents to $4.98 apiece. Mechanical toys, tinker toys, and numerous games caused Gratiot County children to dream about what they wanted.

          In 1927, the store moved to its next location, which it occupied for almost fifty years. This larger space at 317 North State Street replaced four storefronts. For many in Gratiot County who referred to the “old” JC Penneys in Alma, it meant the store on North State Street, which was JC Penney’s home for several decades.

            During World War II, the front store windows advertised the need to raise money for a memorial for Alma’s men at war. The Alma Blue Star Mothers put signs and notices to keep the public informed of how much money was needed for a memorial. All of the information could be found in store windows and pictures of Alma men who served Gratiot County.

            By 1949, the store had fifteen to twenty full-time employees and hired as many as forty people during the holiday season. Manager George Stewart was a mainstay at the Alma store, serving there from August 1926 until his retirement in 1951. Stewart was well known in Alma through his service with the Chamber of Commerce and his involvement with the annual Alma Harvest Festival. The store went through a significant remodeling in 1951 when the basement was changed, and a new stairway was installed. Front display windows were moved forward and restyled, and the store added a new jewelry department. At that time, the Alma store was one of 53 in Michigan. In 1951, the store started accepting credit buying, and by 1956 it stayed open until 11:00 pm on Saturdays.

           JC Penney regularly advertised the change of managers, employee training dates, employee picnics, and when the store closed for emergencies.  Employees were called “associates” and often received profit-sharing bonuses. In December 1950, full-time associates received two weeks’ pay as a bonus if they had been employed for all of 1950. Mrs. Jessie Rockwell, an employee for twenty-five years, was featured in the Alma Record in September 1954 for her twenty-five years of service. She received honors and a gift at a surprise “This Is Your Life” banquet.

          If there was anything that people did not like about the Alma JC Penney on North Center Street, it was the problem of parking. With limited parking out front, customers were encouraged to park in the back lot and enter the West. In a 1968 survey, customers were asked what they did not like about the parking situation. One replied that it was the last place they wanted to park a car. Another urged JC Penney to make the parking lot bigger, while one joked that it was a place couples would hang out.

          The year 1968 was also the fiftieth anniversary of the store. An article in the Daily Record Leader featured eight employees who had a combined total of 192 years of service in the Alma store. E.E. Jach led the group with a total of 41 years of employment.

       However, there are other aspects of the Alma JC Penney store on North Center. Starting before World War II, the store often teamed up with the Strand Theatre to offer a free show to children either before the start of the school year or before Christmas. This work with the Strand happened over several decades.

        For baby boomers, the  Christmas catalog was entitled the “JC Penney Christmas Book,”  and many families received theirs through the mail. To this day, I have a fascination for Batman’s 1960’s Batmobile because it was one of the items I “circled” for Christmas. I never got one, but I clearly remember it being in a JC Penney’s Christmas catalog.

          In the 1970s, the Alma Penney’s store entered the next chapter of its history to move into the old Zody’s store on Wright Avenue.   Zody’s only stayed in business for less than four years. When the opening was available on Wright Avenue, JC Penney wanted it as this offered over 58, 202 square feet – about four times space it previously occupied on North State Street. A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place for the store in May 1977. JC Penney now employed over 120 people and remained open seven days a week. Spurgeons took over the old site.

         One of the exciting parts of the new store was its catalog department. While it probably had been accurate at the old store,  customers who placed an order in the catalog department soon got a phone call that their request was ready for pick up at the store on Wright Avenue. I once ordered  Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle signed baseballs from the Penney catalog department. For many customers by the 1990s, many exciting things could be purchased through a JC Penney catalog.

           For the last forty-three years, people have shopped at the JC Penney store on Wright Avenue. My wife recalled working during the 1986 Christmas season and how associates had to be ready for the mob of customers who came in on any day of the week for sales.  Just two years ago, the store celebrated its centennial, and a Republic Truck was out front to commemorate this event. There are no doubt many more stories about JC Penney at this location that many people in Gratiot County have.

           If JC Penney’s closing happens in Alma, it will be sad to see a business leave which has been in Gratiot County for over a century.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed