Alma resident Julia Rench took these three photographs on May 9, 1923.
It is never too late in the year to snow in Gratiot County. Almost exactly one century ago, residents discovered that King Winter still ruled when a May snowfall buried the county with up to a foot of snow.
The date was May 9, 1923, and when I first was told this story, I could not believe it – until my uncle, the late Aaron Bliss of Newark Township, described that day to me. Bliss remembered going to bed on May 8 and then awakened to a pile of snow that started falling after midnight and throughout the following morning. St. Louis reported that it had up to a foot of fresh snow, while other areas in mid-Michigan had at least six to eight inches.
Tree limbs began to bend under the weight of the snow, as did telephone lines. Soon both went down in scattered places across the county, and communication with Saginaw was temporarily lost. Fruit growers feared the loss of the summer crop. However, state experts predicted that most crops would survive as long as the temperature did not reach freezing. They also said that the early snow might be good for killing most bugs and insect pests.
While the temperature in places like Battle Creek dropped from 73 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it did not go low enough to cause severe damage.
For Aaron Bliss and other residents, the accumulated May snow was short-lived at that time. Within a day, the snow had melted due to the warm ground, and it was soon gone. On the positive side, many farmers were happy that the snow provided much-needed moisture for the dry land.
A week later, Gratiot farmers got another blast from nature that came in the form of heavy rain. This time a total of 3.66 inches of rain came down in Gratiot County over two days, giving the ground even more moisture.
Not much exists today about the May 9, 1923 snowstorm aside from newspaper accounts. However, those like Julia Rench of Alma and Fred Howes, Sr. of Ithaca, ventured out into the snow and took pictures.
Today, the Rench and Howes photographs remind us of when King Winter visited Gratiot County for a day in early May 1923.
Above: Brice postcard of the Tabor murder scene; young John Tabor; young Edith Tabor; Edith Tabor’s death certificate; a marker of John Tabor in Payne Cemetery; the picture of the Tabor house as it appeared in the Gratiot County Herald. Someone marked the room where the Tabors met their end.
Could it have been termed a crime of passion? A jealous husband, married to a younger wife, pulls out a large jackknife and viciously slashes her in the back. After she dies, the husband then grabs a bottle of carbolic acid, drinks some of it, and then lays down next to his dead wife. Soon, he, too, is dead.
The small community of Brice, located seventeen miles southwest of Ithaca in North Shade Township, became the location of one of the most bizarre murder stories in early twentieth century Gratiot County. Almost 111 years ago, on March 24, 1911, Gratiot County was shocked by the death of a married couple near a crossroads of a farming community that had a store, blacksmith shop, and township hall, all within one mile of each other.
In the wake of the murder, many in Gratiot County wondered what led to John and Edith Tabor’s deaths, which made an orphan of a young, deaf girl.
The story began with the marriage of John and Edith (Straub) Tabor in 1895. For John Tabor, age 34, it was his second marriage, and Edith, from Hubbardston, was only 15 years old. Edith listed her age as 16 on the marriage record. What drew the two together, and why would a young girl marry a much older man? One story is that Edith, born in Gratiot County, lost her mother at a young age. John Tabor later was considered a man of some substance who eventually owned property in Florida and an estate worth $4,000, a fair sum of money over a century ago.
After a few years of marriage, the Tabors adopted their daughter, Gladys (also called Minnie in newspaper accounts), after Gladys’ mother died in childbirth. It turned out that Gladys was deaf due to contracting a childhood disease and now required special attention. Edith Tabor determined that her daughter would get help, even if it meant traveling to faraway places.
Along the way, John Tabor, known as a lazy man who labored at odd jobs, became known in the community for his temper, intense jealousy, and the belief that his young wife was seeing other men. People in the Brice community knew John Tabor his behavior, and they knew Edith for her good and upstanding character. The couple frequently fought and Edith did much of the work at home while John sat around the house.
At one point, John and Edith Tabor took Gladys to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1910 for help and treatment for her hearing loss. During the visit, John Tabor took off for Florida and got talked into buying twenty acres of land. Since the Tabors had previously leased their property in Brice to other people, they had to find a place to live when John Tabor returned from Florida. It was Thursday, March 23, 1911, and it was late winter in Gratiot County.
With no home of their own available, the Tabors ended up renting a small tenant house on the property of Valois Todd. The house was a small, drab place that had a downstairs bedroom that only measured seven by nine feet wide. When the Tabors first arrived, they quickly dumped their belongings inside and then left to tend to a sick neighbor named A.J. Thompson.
The Tabor family spent that Thursday night with their neighbors, and John and Edith quarreled so fiercely that young Gladys believed that her father would eventually kill her mother. The fighting was nothing new, as Tabor’s jealousy existed throughout the marriage.
Early on Friday morning, John and Edith returned home, and John was seen outside the house walking on the lawn as Edith unpacked their belongings. It was sometime before 8:00 A.M. when John Tabor’s fury exploded.
It is unknown what set John Tabor off that morning. Possibly he suspected that his wife had a new romantic interest, or he resented his wife’s attention for their sick neighbor the night before. Perhaps Edith’s continued concern about their adopted daughter drove a wedge between them and caused a breaking point in the marriage. That morning, it ended when John Tabor found a large jackknife and plunged it into Edith’s left side, resulting in a gash that ran along Edith’s back, causing a three to four-inch wound, breaking two ribs and severing her artery. After being attacked from behind, Edith Tabor fell to the floor and died almost instantaneously.
John Tabor stood over his wife’s body, then he went and found a bottle of carbolic acid from inside a medical bag. He opened the bottle, drank a few ounces of the poison, and dropped to the floor. John then crawled to Edith and put his head on her breast. Possibly he listened for her heartbeat, or he tried one last time to demonstrate some affection or guilt for his dead wife.
Shortly after the attack, young Gladys Tabor came home, entered the house, and found her two adopted parents on the floor in the small bedroom. Still alive and groggy, John Tabor raised his head and looked up at his daughter. Shocked by what she found, Gladys fled the house, screaming for help. However, by the time the neighbors arrived, both Tabors were dead.
The next day, a coroner’s jury was held in Middleton and confirmed the doctor’s analysis that a murder-suicide had taken place in Brice.
The Brice community and many in Gratiot County wanted to understand what resulted in the two deaths. However, all that people could do was guess as Tabor left no note. The closest explanation that John Tabor provided was that the night before murdering his wife, he lamented to a friend in Middleton about his wife’s supposed unfaithfulness. Edith Tabor was supposedly going behind his back to see other men, and Tabor said aloud that it would soon lead to her demise, possibly that very night.
The burials of the two Tabors represented how different sides reacted to the murder-suicide. Edith Tabor was taken back to Hubbardston, where she was buried in West Side Cemetery. John Tabor was buried with other Tabor family members in Payne Cemetery, south of Middleton.
Young thirteen-year-old Gladys Tabor was left an orphan. One story says that she had a child at a young age, attended the Flint School for the Deaf, and later died near Lapeer, Michigan, in November 1984.
What was the legacy of the Tabor murder-suicide? It calls to mind that women in early twentieth century Gratiot County frequently had few options in leaving a bad marriage. To leave a marriage back then, a woman needed help, either from family or friends. Edith Tabor may have felt that she had neither option, and she decided to endure the marriage for the sake of her daughter. The background of the murder also makes one realize the effects and challenges of the issue of adoption. Edith lost her mother, as had Gladys. Marrying an older man, who was old enough to be Edith’s father and who had money and property, offered a young wife and orphan a haven and stability in rural Gratiot County. In the end, each of these factors led to a tragic ending for Edith and Gladys Tabor. Soon, the Tabor house became
an image on postcards about Brice. When Gratiot County historian Willard Tucker put together a history of the county in 1913, he included a page about the Tabor incident. Tucker commented that: “North Shade Township has been peculiarly free from serious crimes, nothing approaching this in seriousness ever having been enacted within its borders; and it is earnestly hoped that the time may be far distant when another of like nature occurs.”
For many, the Tabor murder-suicide remained a horrific event in southwest Gratiot County with no clear explanations for two deaths in 1911.
It was a hot summer in Gratiot County, and the fighting continued in the Pacific.
Bond sales slowed as people grew weary of being asked to support the war effort with their money. However, people in the county continued to observe rationing of many items, some of which were still hard to find, let alone purchase.
The number of men entering the service from Gratiot County continued even as veterans began coming home from Europe or on leave before going to the Pacific. Those wounded in battle also came home, and several came to visit their families before they returned to places like Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek for more surgeries, treatments, or rest.
One could read the letters from men and women in newspapers that told about the fighting they encountered and the new places they found along the war fronts.
It was July 1945 in Gratiot County.
Draft, Bonds, and Rationing
Even as the war with Japan seemed headed toward a climax, forty Gratiot County men went to Detroit to be inducted into the military on June 19. Donald Belles of Breckenridge and Nello Wolford of St. Louis later served as leaders and co-leaders. Two men headed to the Army included Daniel Zammarron of Ashley and Jack Humm of Ithaca. In July, the United States Marine Corps opened its ranks to seventeen-year-old me and hoped to accept one thousand volunteers. As a result, Marine Corps offices opened at the Bay City post office to welcome Gratiot County who wanted to join.
The Seventh War Loan drive in Gratiot County slowed during the summer and reached less than eighty percent of its assigned goal. The county sold only about sixty-five percent of its assigned E Bond quota, signifying that war fatigue was prevalent.
Rationing continued to be an important issue in the county during July. The county rationing board issued 361 certificates for tires, most going for grade one type tires. There was good news that more than ten million new leather shoes would be available with the following shoe coupon, airplane stamp Number 4, starting August 1. The coupon was good for nine months. In December, a new War Ration Book Five, which measured “smaller than a dollar bill,” would be issued through public schools. Because of the new design, it held half as many stamps as the previous book.
People received a reduction in points for butter as the civilian butter supply improved due to reduced military requirements. Purchases could now be made for 16 rationing points instead of 24 points.
To show public support and patriotism, women from several organizations in Alma all came together for two days to process 700 pounds of tin. This group included the Civic League, Blue Star Mothers, Lions Club, Neighborhood Club, Rebekahs, Monday Club, church groups, and city employees. The tin that they processed came from cans used by Swift and Company and was so successful that the county planned another tin and paper drive for August.
On a more serious note of rationing problems, state police set up a blockade on the corner of M-46 and US-27 to look for concealed deer meat. The blockade, one of three in the state, ran from 6:00 pm Sunday until 1:00 am Monday while police searched over 300 southbound and westbound cars, but they found no deer meat. However, officers found two vehicles not from Gratiot County to violate state fishing laws. One instance dealt with illegal trout, and the other had a person with too many pike in possession. The blockades went up in the state in anticipation of black market sales in Detroit and other cities and the increased illegal hunting of deer statewide.
Although it was not related to rationing, the St. Louis Co-Op Creamery celebrated the shipment of its first carload of sweet cream to the Atlantic seaboard. The cream went east in cans inside of refrigerated cars. If the Creamery continued to receive the type of milk needed for sweet cream, a market in the east meant that the company could make an extra $100,000 in the next year. The company also installed a fourth spray drier which could process 600 pounds of non-fat milk per hour. It had taken almost two years to obtain the drier, and up until then, army requirements meant that 70 percent of all products went to the military.
Gratiot County Farming during hot July
Early in the month, farmers received warnings to look out for potential problems with their crops. Stem rust, a fungus, attacked local wheat crops in the county. Spittlebugs could be affecting wheat, oats, and barley. With haying season taking place, farmers had a shortage of workers and needed to look out for defective haying equipment such as hay racks, ladders, ropes, pulleys, and hitches.
Crop conditions throughout the county varied from area to area. Higher grounds appeared to be doing well, while lowlands suffered from late planting. Beans across Gratiot County looked good in most places, despite a late start and the fear of maggot blight. The county produced a bumper wheat crop, and grain elevators told farmers that they might be overloaded. Farmers now had to store their harvest in their bins until more wheat could be shipped out of the county.
Sugar beets went in late in the spring – and farmers did not know then that they would face an incredibly tough fall harvest in 1945 due to bad weather. Plantings went up fifty percent from 1944 but were still short of the state’s goal for sugar beets. Many farmers needed more German prisoners of war to work the fields, and harvest crops and soon got help from some of the 1,000 POWs stationed at Camp Freeland at the Tri-City airport.
The state’s peach crop looked very good and was said to probably be the only fruit crop plentiful enough for home and community canning. The state agricultural commissioner estimated that the harvest of 2,340,000 bushels meant that peaches would be on sale starting August 15.
Farmers received a beef subsidy that paid fifty cents per hundredweight on dry-fed beef cattle. They collected payments at the AAA office in Ithaca. Milk producers in the county continued to do well. W.R. LeClear’s herd in Bannister topped milk production out of the 25 herds that were tested in June. Ralph Densmore of Elwell had one cow that yielded 2058 pounds of milk.
Accusations of black market activities among farmers in Gratiot County made many angry. One potato grower, Henry Albaugh of Vestaburg, wrote a stern letter to Federal Judge Frank A. Picard about comments the judge made about farmers in mid-Michigan. Picard sentenced two Gratiot County violators of meat rationing and called for closer monitoring by the OPA. In response, Albaugh believed he had the support of over 600 farmers, who thought that the judge wrongly blamed farmers for violations in the Gratiot County area. One of the problems that county farms faced involved the issue of price ceilings for things like poultry sales or even selling a truck. Because buyers quoted different prices for items, farmers had problems understanding what they could and could not sell at a specific price. Most farmers in Gratiot County wanted to follow the guidelines, even though people like Judge Picard stated otherwise.
In early July, an electrical storm with hailstones struck Gratiot County, and lightning hit Jay Brodebeck’s barn in Hamilton Township, causing $7,000 in damage. Over in North Star Township, lightning struck and killed a horse on the Lamey farm. The North Star Washed Sand and Gravel Company also suffered a significant loss when a lightning strike destroyed its electric gravel dredge, leaving only the steel pontoons. Damage was estimated to be $3,000. After the storm, 21 authorized agents sold Federal Crop Insurance in the county, including George Schleder, who represented area number three.
Letters Home to Gratiot County
Many servicemen and women continued to serve in the armies of occupation in Europe.
Sergeant Stuart Warnaar, an Alma College graduate, was an aviation mechanic on a B-24. Warnaar hoped that he would not be sent to the Pacific and told his parents that he saw Frank Sinatra and Phil Silvers at a USO show. Even though it was hot and dusty, Sinatra put on a lengthy performance, “even more than we expected to. He seemed like a regular fellow, I thought,” added Warnaar. Italy had a great fruit country with miles of grapes, cherries, walnuts, apricots, plums, and figs, which is what Lieutenant Elizabeth Sanford from Bannister wrote to her mother from Leghorn, Italy. Sanford had been in the service since late 1942, landing near Oran and moving with the troops to Anzio, Naples, and Leghorn. She wrote, “It (the war) hasn’t all been pleasant, but there have been some nice spots in these 2 ½ years. I’ve met a great many people. I’ve seen the horror of the war. The big question in each of our minds now is where do we go from here.” Sanford still hoped she would soon be sent home. William James Gallagher of Alma wrote that he had traveled all over Italy with his medical unit, the 35th Field Hospital, starting at the heel. Now he was at the “top of the boot” and had visited Pompeii and the Po Valley. In Northern Italy, Gallagher was shocked that most Italians moved on bicycles and one-horse carts. While many Italians dressed nicely, it was not uncommon to see people go barefooted. Gallagher commented that “…I say I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my experiences, yet I wouldn’t go through another twenty-two months like the past if I were given ten million dollars. Once is sufficient.” Kenneth Dancer of Wheeler served as a truck driver and now was in Garmisch Partenkirchen, deep in Bavaria. Located near the Alps, he shared an old house with twelve men, two radios, and even gave Dancer had a room. The area wa
was a great resort place, but Dancer had little time to explore the sights. He wrote that back in March, “…I saw some of the ruggedest days of my life. It’s something I will never forget. I am sure all of you folks back home do not realize what we fellows have gone through here. I hope it won’t be long till we’re all back home.” Another Dancer, Sergeant Leroy Dancer (Kenneth’s brother), also wrote to his sister from Hodomor, Germany. He reflected on Christmas and the box he received from home, complete with socks, which he got one day before his unit invaded Marseilles, France. His Christmas dinner in 1944 consisted of the hard candy his sister sent. On March 17, Leroy Dancer was wounded near Saarbrucken, Germany, while trying to fix a cut telephone line. Knocked on the ground face first, Dancer was hit in the back of the head and would have been killed had a piece of shrapnel not hit his knife on the back of his belt. With only 64 points, Dancer thought he would not be home for another five to six months.
Lester Hooper of Ithaca wrote home from Flossenburg, Germany, where he was helping to guard 4,400 SS troops at the Flossenburg concentration camp. Hooper saw the furnace used to cremate approximately 36 bodies at one time. Mainly Polish prisoners were left when Hooper arrived. However, he was struck by the large piles of shoes of all sizes that he saw on the ground. While Hooper was aware of the anger of American soldiers toward the Germans for what happened in the camps, he hoped for true justice for those Nazis who had been in charge. “This company has as much reason to hate the Germans as nearly anyone else. From D plus two until VE Day, it sustained a thousand casualties.”
In the Pacific, Chief Petty Officer Robert Ode, whose mother resided in St. Louis, had much to say about his experiences in the Philippines. Ode rode upon one of the first LSTs to land on the beaches at Manilla. He wrote about traveling past Corregidor and how vast Manilla Bay was (27 miles across). Fighting in Manilla was fierce, and Ode learned that the Japanese had fought for each part of the city, even fighting from room to room inside the Manila Hotel. The city’s destruction looked so depressing that Ode thought it would take years to rebuild. The black market freely operated in Manilla despite the smell of decaying bodies that could be found after the fighting. Ode paid 40 cents for Coke Cola, which turned out to be a local concoction that lacked carbonation. Still, he learned that American cigarettes remained in high demand and made excellent trade material.
Gratiot County Men and Women in the Service
Even though the war in Europe had been over for two months, news about Gratiot County’s men and women appeared in the newspapers.
Private Milton Klein of Ithaca, who went overseas on Christmas Day, 1944, now was in Bad Mergentheim, Germany. Milton was the oldest of six Klein sons to be in the service. Staff Sergeant Thomas Cavanaugh from St. Louis sent home two boxes containing German guns, rifles, a sword, and several bayonets. Cavanaugh included in his letter that seventy-five percent of the city of Munchen Gladbach lay in ruins. Corporal Stanley Nesen of Alma arrived home from Camp Grant, Illinois, on leave in preparation for a return to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Nesen served 14 months with General Patton’s Third Army with an ordinance company. Corporal Fred Terwilliger of St. Louis moved to Austria after a seven-day furlough in Nice, France. Terwilliger went overseas in 1943.
Dick Robinson sent a package of souvenirs from Germany to his father in St. Louis, Dr. B.N. Robinson. What was unusual was that the package arrived wrapped in old copies of the St. Louis Leader newspaper. Private Floyd Freed, Alma, was with Germany’s 3833rd Quartermaster Gas Supply. His company supplied vehicles worked on by Italian labor service and German POWs. Sergeant Lyle Smith of Ithaca was processed at Camp Atlanta in northeast France. Smith, who served with the 13th Armored Division in the Ruhr Pocket, was expected to be part of the first ETO armored division to go to the Pacific. The same was true for Private John Moffett of Elwell, also at Camp Atlanta. Moffett hoped to receive a furlough home before going to the Pacific. Private Burdette Coleman of Alma got to live in a building for only the second time in two years after being stationed near Munich, Germany. He now guarded German POWs but “felt no sympathy for them whatsoever.” Warrant Officer John Hoyt of St. Louis arrived in Germany with the Army of Occupation after being with the United States Rest Center for one year in Rome. He graduated from St. Louis High School in 1939. Staff Sergeant Clara Wolford came home from Namur, Belgium. She had served as a telephone operator for the past two years in England. Private Harry S. Murphy sent greetings and hello from Berchtesgaden, Germany. Murphy served with the 101st Airborne Glider Infantry. In March, Private Doris Hall of Ithaca joined the Women’s Army Corps and took her basic medical training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. In June, Hall transferred to Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek.
Similar stories and updates came from men who served in Italy. Private Joseph Zigray of Alma came back to Miami, Florida, after serving 28 months in Italy. He partook in battles in Tunisia and Sicily, ending up in Italy. Corporal Norman Leach of Elwell was assigned to John H. Payne Field in Cairo, Egypt. Leach entered the service in 1943. During the Italian campaign, Sergeant Max Hagerman of Alma received the Bronze Star medal for action on the Fifth Army front. Hagerman served as an assistant squad leader with the 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division. Private Louis DeRosia of Alma came home after being discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey. A member of the Army Quartermaster Corps, DeRosia joined campaigns in Africa and Italy. Private Leland Perry of Alma transferred to a new division in Italy. Perry had been with the 88th Blue Devil Division. There also were those like Tech 4th Grade Dorwin Hagerman of Alma, who served 36 months in the Persian Gulf. Hagerman came home on leave on July 17 via an Air Transport command trans-Atlantic plane. Lieutenant Colonel William Kyes of Elwell, who had been in the India-Burman-China Theater, telegraphed his parents that he had arrived in New York City and expected to be home in Elwell within four days.
As the war continued in the Pacific, readers paid more attention to news about Gratiot County men who fought the Japanese. Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Austin of Riverdale heard that their three sons (Jack, Leon, and Lawrence) had seen each other at different places in the Pacific. Although never all together simultaneously, they managed to visit one or the other at places like Guam, Okinawa, and Hawaii. After serving in the Dutch East Indies, Private Gale Loomis of Ithaca received his discharge. Corporal Cutha Wymer of Ithaca also got his release after seeing action on Guadalcanal in the Northern Solomon Islands. Master Sergeant Gerald Housencamp served 19 months in the China Burma India Theater with the Air Corps Bomb Group and received four battle stars. Housencamp was now home. Sergeant Jarold Brawn of Ithaca received another Battle Star for serving aboard the 317th Troop Carrier Group in the Philippine Islands. Corporal Delbert Gould of St. Louis arrived safely in the Philippines and was stationed near Manilla. Two Ashley boys, Private Charles Vanecek and Private Tommy Horn met in the Pacific while aboard a ship headed for Guam, where both would be stationed. The two had their picture taken, and it appeared on the front page of the Gratiot County Herald. Over the last thirty days, reports stated that Lieutenant Alfred McCuaig led attacks on Japanese shipping lines in Korea four times. He and another pilot sank thirteen freighters during their runs off Korea’s west coast.
The WIA, KIA, MIA, and the POW
The terrible initials that families learned to fear and respect continued to appear with the stories of Gratiot County’s young men in July newspapers.
Those wounded in action were placed in hospitals at home and abroad. Private John Reed of Alma had his second operation on his right arm in Percy Jones Hospital. He had been injured by machine-gun fire while in Germany. Private Gordon Batchelder of Wheeler also spent time at Percy Jones Hospital after being wounded by a sniper’s bullet in Germany. He had previously been wounded at St. Lo after the D-Day invasion and originally spent six months in a hospital in England. Fireman 2nd Class George Shaw came home to Ashley for fifteen days after spending time in a convalescent hospital in Colorado. Shaw was seriously wounded in the battle for the Philippine Islands while onboard the St. Lo, an escort carrier. He received wounds on the right side of his body near his lung. While doctors did not know if he had damaged both lungs, Shaw faced another three to four months of hospital recovery. Lieutenant Mark Anderson of St. Louis also came home on a 21-day furlough after arriving in the United States. He spent time in overseas hospitals after being wounded on March 26 when his platoon came under intense cannon and machine gunfire. Anderson spent time in hospitals in France and England before being brought home in late June.
Then there were those who were killed in action (KIA). Lieutenant Kenneth Russell of Alma was killed in action in the Celebes Islands in the Pacific on June 19. He served as a radar navigator on a B-24 during a low-level bombing mission. Although he was killed in January, Sergeant John Townsend’s wife received his Bronze Star during a ceremony at Camp River Rouge. Townsend died in Luxembourg as a result of enemy machine gunfire. The parents of Private Anthony Bajena of St. Louis learned more about their son’s death due to tropical disease. Bajena died after being hospitalized for sixteen days somewhere in the Pacific. Marine Private John Chvojka was killed on Okinawa on June 15. Services for Chovojka took place at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in St. Louis, which had a large turnout of Blue Star Mothers and Legionnaires and Chovojka’s friends and relatives. Private Clyde Daymon of Riverdale had been listed as MIA and now was declared killed in action after a battle as part of the 15th Armored Division on December 15, 1944, in Germany. Daymon graduated from Riverdale High School in 1940. Before training for overseas duty, Daymon served for one year in the Coast Guard in Maine.
The term missing in action (MIA) could be equally stressful for families due to the uncertainty of what happened to their son or brother. Seaman First Class Charles Rule of Breckenridge was missing after being aboard a destroyer in the Pacific and seeing action in the Iwo Jima campaign. He was a Fulton Township High School graduate and entered the service on June 6, 1944. According to the International Red Cross, Private Gale Ludwick was now considered lost at sea on June 16. Ludwick became a prisoner of war after the Japanese captured Corregidor in the spring of 1942. Ludwick was aboard a Japanese transport ship that sank on October 20, 1944, in the South China Sea. Only nine prisoners escaped the ship’s sinking 200 miles from the South Chinese coast, but he was not one of them.
And So We Do Not Forget
The Ithaca Recreation Department hoped that the new community wading pool would open by July. The pool measured 34×24 feet with a depth of 9 to 18 inches. It would be painted green… On one Sunday, the Saginaw Products played against the Alma Navy team at Conservation Park. The game was a rematch after Alma gave Saginaw its first loss of the season…The death of Earl Chapman, a single man, aged 29, shocked the Middleton community. Chapman, who worked the family farm with his father, was a suicide. No reason could be determined for his death…Lewis Brothers Circus came and performed twice for one day in Alma. The circus set up south of the Superior Street bridge, just west of the river…Many people in Gratiot County took time to view an early morning eclipse as the moon slowly covered 73 percent of the sun. While some watched the eclipse with the naked eye, smoked glasses had been recommended for viewing the eclipse.
Caretaker Ray Scheib overhauled the clock in Alma’s clock tower. The clock also had its face lifted and cost $700 for the improvements…Harold A. Trower, who formerly managed the E.E Trower and Sons furniture business, returned to Alma from Oklahoma. Trower hoped to reopen another furniture business in Alma by the fall…Anyone needing help with their Social Security claim or account numbers could get help from Joseph Ramsey, the Saginaw field office manager. Ramsey promised to send a representative to Alma’s city hall to meet with people…Rademacher Motor Sales in Alma remodeled its sales building at 306 West Superior Street. The business planned on having its parts updated, new mechanics on duty, and it hoped to display new 1946 car models…Half-year license plates went on sale in Alma starting July 16…Gratiot County postal workers received an increase in their salaries to combat inflation. It was the first raise that postal workers received in 20 years…Extensive repairs had been completed on the Cheesman Bridge. A completely new approach to the bridge’s east side had new steel girders.
A total of 15 schools looked for teachers for the upcoming school year. County School Commissioner Donald L. Baker expected to fill all positions by August 20…Clarence Owen, age 24 and from Route 4, Ithaca, fell in a barn and fractured two ribs. After treatment at R.B. Smith Memorial Hospital, Owen was released that evening…Donald Wilkinson of St.Louis started a small crate manufacturing plant on North Mill Street in St. Louis. The company started making shipping containers for DDT compound produced by Michigan Chemical Company…A counselor for the Gratiot County Council of Veterans Affairs, C.R. Robinson, was available to help veterans apply for additional education under the G.I. Bill of Rights…The Alma city manager announced the blacktopping of Wright Avenue and Superior Street. The state highway department approved an improvement plan for the city. Parts of Michigan Avenue also would be blacktopped…The Alma Community Center held a reunion for 100 graduates. A total of 11 service members who had just returned from overseas were present. Maurine Stovall took a group picture of the men…Officials tried a new type of weed killer, dichlorophenoxacetic, on North Wright Avenue in Alma to combat the spread of bindweed.
Michigan Chemical also held tests with its DDT insect-killing spray on Mackinac Island. According to reports, afterward, there weren’t many flies on the island…A total of 93 men attended the annual stag day program at the Pine River Country Club. The men played golf, had entertainment, and ended the program with a pot-luck dinner…The Gratiot County Fair in Ithaca had excellent weather…Former teacher and principal Miss Annette McLaren of Alma passed away at her home. Miss McLaren moved to Alma at age 13, attended Alma school, and taught in different rural schools in the county. Miss McLaren previously resigned her duties due to a hip fracture after 40 years of teaching in Gratiot County…The Fulton baseball club defeated Ithaca on a Sunday by the score of 3-2. Fulton players Somers and Brauher had key hits and plays in the game…A pet parade took place during the Ithaca Playground program. All pets were leased, tied, boxed, or caged…The Alma Church Federation brought a resolution to the Alma City Commission concerning gambling devices and games of chance during upcoming carnivals. The ministers wanted the police chief to monitor said carnivals…Lightning struck the home of Lewis Briggs in Breckenridge, leaving a hole in the porch roof. The Breckenridge Bean and Grain elevator also were hit by lightning…If St. Louis residents did not have their weeds cut by July 5, city workers would cut them at the property owner’s expense and add the cost to their tax bill.
And that was life in July 1945 during Gratiot County’s Finest Hour.
Above: National Guardsmen and Consumers Power crews worked furiously to try and deal with the ice storm. During the first few days, their efforts were challenged by the ever-changing weather conditions.
Record warm temperatures in Gratiot County on February 28, 1976, suggested that spring was on its way – or so many people thought. On Monday, March 1, a thirty-degree temperature drop combined with snow, rain, and even thunderstorms led to the beginning of the ice storm of 1976.
The next evening, the district boys’ basketball game at Ithaca High School pitted a heavily favored St. Louis squad against an Ithaca team that had won only a few games all season. As the contest proceeded, it was interrupted several times by flickering lights and temporary power losses. With only 42 seconds left, Ithaca’s Kent Kirby hit a shot that gave Ithaca a 64-63 upset win – and then the lights in the Ithaca gym went out for good. Everyone there, as well as most of the city of Ithaca, dealt with almost total darkness. Boys’ basketball games were soon called off in many places because schools did not have power. A total of 44 games in two nights were postponed across the state.
Early the next day, at least 3,000 people were without power in Ithaca. Things were not good in the city of Alma either, as 4 inches of snow and over 2 inches of ice had fallen the night before. The roads around Gratiot County quickly became impassable, with 60 percent of them blocked by fallen trees, limbs, and debris. Phone systems went out, and the first Consumers Power work crews came in from Mt. Pleasant to help.
Dr. Don Gardner of St. Louis immediately set up a mobile command station at the Ithaca Police Post. Gardner’s vehicle measured 27 feet long and was equipped with a 110-volt generator, oven, and stove that he purchased as a mobile medical unit the year before. He and his group remained on duty for the next five days to help people. Another emergency center was set up at the Michigan Masonic Home in Alma. CB radio volunteers made up another group that tried to help. They reached 90 percent of rural Gratiot County within 48 hours by contacting families and then visiting homes that needed help.
During the storm, Gratiot County citizens did their best to cope with the severe weather conditions. People lined up outside of grocery stores starting early on March 2, but they needed flashlights to find items in the aisles. Cashiers could not use their electrically-operated registers and used battery-powered calculators to add purchases. Bread, lunch meat, hot dogs, paper plates, flashlights, batteries, and beer all went quickly. At least one grocery store sold meat at half price for fear of spoiling. Ice cream was given away for free, even as it dripped out of the freezers.
The ice storm affected many other places as well. Larry’s Hardware in Ithaca saw 2,000 people come through its doors on March 2-3. Most people wanted flashlights, batteries, and lanterns, but they were all sold out by noon on Wednesday. To cope with the customer traffic, the store soon had to display a notice on the front door about the many items that Larry’s no longer had. Police and the sheriff’s departments gave extra surveillance to banks, even as people came and went to finance loans to purchase generators – if they could find one to buy. WFYC radio station went off the air for 36 hours until Midland Dow loaned a generator along with two men to show how to use it. Schools throughout the county were out for the week. Over at Ashley High School, volunteers served soup and hot food for those in the village who needed something to eat. Maple Rapids Elementary School also provided food. Gratiot Community Hospital ran on emergency power for over eight hours on March 3. Hospital employees walked to work and exhibited good morale, despite working 16-hour shifts. Gas stations had no power, and many could not pump gasoline. One Ithaca station sold 6,000 gallons of gasoline on one day alone, six times the usual amount. Gas disappeared by Thursday. However, a supply truck had the station running again by Friday.
At mid-week, the ice storm had failed to let up and continued to wreak even more havoc. Freezing rain came down on that Wednesday, accompanied by thunderstorms, which left another half-inch of ice on trees as the storm moved from southwest Gratiot County to the northeast. In addition, flooding took place along the Maple River, threatening homes in that area. Morbark sent volunteers to Alma to help with down trees while Governor William Milliken officially declared Michigan to be in a state of emergency. To provide more help to Gratiot County, 60 National Guardsmen from the 125th Infantry Alma Armory and the 1345th Engineer Battalion, Company A, from Midland, went to work in the county. During the same time, Consumers Power continued to call in extra crews from out of the state. The National Guardsmen and Consumers Power crews fought to get lines operating again by removing downed trees but then turned to another line (or two) that soon went down due to even more falling branches. At this point of the ice storm, most Gratiot residents were told not to expect full power until as late as Sunday. Alma and St. Louis now had 60 percent of their residents without power, while areas east and south Gratiot County had no power at all. Places like Pompeii, North Star, Middleton, Elwell, Elm Hall, and Sumner lacked water. Residents had to boil water, and food freezers needed to be emptied after 72 hours.
By Thursday of that week, Gratiot County experienced high winds. In places like Ithaca, which had gotten power back at 8:45 pm, the winds now knocked out another 40 percent of the town. The same happened in Alma, which had also regained power, only to see 60 percent lose again. Life seemed better in St. Louis and Breckenridge, where 90 percent of the residents got their power back. Ashley and southwest Gratiot still had none, nor did many who lived south of Breckenridge. General Telephone said that the county had 1,039 service drops and 150 significant cable breaks that needed to be fixed. As to travel, roads remained shut down throughout approximately one-third of the county. Chlorinated water supplies had been sent to Elm Hall, Elwell, Sumner, Middleton, and Pompeii as food and water shortages remained severe problems. Amidst the continued bad weather, another group of 200 Consumers Power linemen from Chicago arrived in the county.
Even though things initially looked grim that week, by the weekend the situation improved enough that Gratiot County residents could move about in certain places. Many roads were now clear, but drivers still ran into areas with dropped limbs and downed power lines. The National Guard was deactivated by Saturday afternoon, and Dr. Gardner closed his command post in Ithaca. Another Red Cross emergency center which had been opened at Alma College now moved to the First Methodist Church. The Red Cross continued to offer food to people at the Ithaca High School cafeteria, and they provided places to stay in town for those in need. Approximately 70 percent of General Telephone customers in the county now had their phone lines back.
Other stories emerged about those who came to help Gratiot County. Consumers Power set up a command post for work crews at the Edgewood Conservation Club on Barry Road. Work along east Gratiot County seemed never-ending. At least 36 linemen set 380 poles and over 40 miles of wiring along 12 square miles. Their biggest challenge, aside from working 14-18 hour days, was the mud, which hindered the setting of the poles. The new telephone poles had to be shipped in, coming from as far away as Louisiana and Mississippi. As tired as they were, these Consumers Power crewmen found food and coffee breaks at the Breckenridge United Methodist Church, where 40 dedicated women fed a total of 80 linemen from the county throughout that week.
Normal daily life in Gratiot County gradually resumed. However, there were long-term effects of the ice storm of 1976, especially concerning cleanup in villages, towns, and townships. A week after the storm, Alma estimated its damages to be more than $540,000 and that it would take 60 working days to clean up the city. It was expected to take 21 working days just to get all branches off the streets and sidewalks. The St. Louis City Council had a similar problem and considered how to deal with $190,000 in damages. The council received an offer of volunteer help from students at Northwood Institute. However, city attorneys feared that downed power lines, injuries, and accompanying lawsuits were too much risk to accept the students’ help.
The city of Ithaca had another idea about their cleanup. On Saturday, March 13, city hall issued a call for help through “Operation Twiggy.” Pastor David Nelson of the Ithaca United Methodist Church chaired a group of organizations made up of the Ithaca Chamber of Commerce, Ithaca Rotary Club, Lions Club, Ithaca Jaycees, and the Ithaca Ministerial Association. These all came together to ask people to clean up Ithaca. Approximately 200 people and 40 vehicles worked that Saturday, beginning at 8:00 am. Volunteers were told only to pick up large items like branches and debris along streets and sidewalks in Ithaca and not enter private property. Homeowners, in turn, were told they were responsible for small pick up of items on their lawns. On that Saturday, a steady flow of trucks and vehicles loaded from the pickup point ran from Ithaca west to the landfill on Washington Road. County-wide, “Operation Effort” also took place on that day. As part of a more extensive county-wide cleanup, volunteers met at their township halls at 9:00 am and brought chainsaws, pickups, trailers, and trucks. A total of 32 volunteers showed up at North Star Township Hall to work on that day. Other things became apparent after the ice storm. Initial damages to Gratiot County, first estimated to be at $5.5 million, rose to $6.25 million at the end of March. Residents had to deal with damaged trees for some time to come, and the county guided people to save those trees that remained largely intact. People in Gratiot County received warnings about potential damage to LP gas regulators, which could still be iced over and clogged. Many homeowners also had to hire electricians to reconnect their electric entrance cables to their meter sockets because Consumers Power only repaired the actual lines. Warnings went out to the public to beware of imposters posing as Consumers Power workers who charged a fee to repair remaining downed lines. To help those who applied for federal assistance, the Alma Community Center became the place for making claims for damages or asking for information about claims.
As people started to put the disaster behind them, discussions began to take place about how to better prepare in the future for emergencies like the ice storm of 1976. This storm forced leaders to consider changing some ideas from the old Civil Defense plans that existed during the Cold War.
One positive result of the ice storm involved how people in the county looked after and took care of each other. Letters to the editor in newspapers commented how many in the county had pulled together to face the crisis. Gratiot County had survived. The ice storm of 1976 had brought out the best in Gratiot County’s citizens.
The first day became known as “B-Day,” or “Blizzard Day,” as it first struck early in the early morning of January 26, 1978. By the time it ended six days later, some of Gratiot County’s oldest citizens had said it was the county’s worst snowstorm since 1936. It became known to many in the county as the Blizzard of 1978.
At first, weather forecasters predicted the storm to only yield about 4-14 inches of snow, along with northeast winds going up to 30 miles per hour. Soon, two ominous storm fronts, one from Mississippi and the other from Minnesota, combined to shut Gratiot County down starting early in the morning of Thursday, January 26. Instead, an estimated 24 inches of snowfall, with winds hitting as much as 60 miles per hour, created drifts up to 6-7 feet high, paralyzing the county.
Statewide on that first day, at least 60,000 people were without power due to winds knocking down power lines (the number would soon more than double). Schools closed, and the National Guard arrived to help those in need in many places in Michigan.
Early on that first morning of January 26, 1978, Gratiot County’s emergency Civil Defense coordinator, Dave Natali, set up a command post at his house. He started taking phone calls at 4:00 am. Natali attempted to coordinate responses with the Road Commission, State Police, and the Sheriff’s department to decide how to handle emergencies. Snowmobilers, CB radio users, and four-wheelers were all asked to help people in need. Four hours later, the Gratiot County Board of Commissioners chairman declared Gratiot County to be in a state of emergency.
County snowplows went out to work early in the morning, but road crews came to work with their sleeping bags, expecting a lengthy stay at the road commission. However, the commission ordered employees to stop working on the roads that Thursday afternoon due to the high winds and continual snow drifting. No matter how hard the road commission worked, no one could keep the roads open. An early estimate on that first day of the storm was that it would take three days to dig out, but in actuality, it would take Gratiot County twice as long. On Friday at 6:20 pm, President Jimmy Carter declared Michigan to be in a state of emergency, and at least 150,000 people were without power.
Amid the first day of the storm, some people in Alma remained at their jobs. The Main Café was especially busy in the morning with customers but slowed down and closed in the afternoon. Lillian Ankney got to work with help from her four-wheel-drive pick-up and kept the Main operating, along with Ray Croisant, who was bussing and cleaning. Ankney’s boss was in Florida, and she had the keys to the café, so she opened it, and the people soon started arriving. June Mernitz stayed at her desk at city hall. She remarked that “…people look to city hall as a command center, so we’ve got keep things moving here.” June and Rosemary Conners also joined her, working operating phones for Dial-a-Ride. The Alma Fire Department had an entire crew of 20 men working continuously, starting at 7:00 am. They remained on duty, helping the Alma community for another three days.
Over at Gratiot Community Hospital, employees like Peggy Kunik found a way to the hospital. She worked seventeen hours that day. Kunik explained, “There is no way a hospital can close down. And besides, I need the money.” Like the road commission workers, as many as fifty hospital employees brought their sleeping bags and supplies to stay at work for as long as needed. Nurses, doctors, and police across Gratiot County found rides into town via snowmobilers who offered to help them. At the same time, Alma Community Hospital postponed non-emergency surgeries, while at least four health emergencies in the county occurred where someone had to go to the hospital. A call from Breckenridge brought a person suffering convulsions. Two older adults stranded on US-27 had heart conditions, while two more in Alma experienced breathing problems. All ended up making it to the hospital. The one death reported in the mid-Michigan area during the blizzard occurred when an 80-year-old man was found dead from exposure near Mt. Pleasant.
Other places like the Pine Knot Bar boomed with business on the first day of the storm, running out of some beverages before the night ended. Over on the corner of Wright Avenue and Downey Street at the 7-11, business went “wall to wall” as people cleaned out bread, milk, and beer from the shelves. When asked about staying open during the storm, manager Anson Jaynes stated that “When we (7-11) say we’re open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, we mean it.”
People stranded in the county needed help at different places, especially those whose cars ran into trouble on US-27. The Ithaca United Methodist Church put up seventeen people who needed to stay. The Alma Fire Department, Alma City Hall, Salvation Army headquarters, and even the jail offered to help people who needed a place to sleep, as did Alma College’s Athletic Complex and the old Masonic Home annex. Shepherd High School also opened its gymnasium for 75 people who waited out the storm.
The National Guard also went out to help Gratiot County during the blizzard. Company A, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry, was called to report on Thursday afternoon. The armory itself housed 29 people in need, while members of the Guard took people to hospitals and nursing homes when needed. They also helped out at the Michigan State Police Post in Ithaca, where they enabled a total of 119 people to receive help.
Although offices stayed open, the mail nearly shut down in Alma, Ithaca, and St. Louis. Mail went out to Gratiot Community Hospital and Masonic Home, but as the postmaster put it, “It is pretty hard for workers to deliver mail in four feet of snow.” Over at St. Louis, a postal employee made it into work by traveling five miles using his snow skis. The St. Louis postmaster commented that he had some very dedicated workers.
As the storm and digging out from it proceeded, Gratiot County’s road crews dutifully served the county in terms of how long and how hard they worked. On average, road commission crews worked 50 hours over four days and started work at 4:00 am Thursday. In Ithaca, workers started even earlier at 3:00 am and had all they could do to clear their streets. They still worked 12 hours on Saturday and another 10 hours on Sunday. Cleaning curbed areas complicated the work in Ithaca. Also, the heavy snow in town meant that three pieces of snow equipment were needed, not just a street plow. Visibility at corners in Ithaca remained a problem for drivers for some time to come. Even though Alma snow removal employees worked a 19 hour day on the first day of the blizzard, it would take them more than two weeks to haul snow away from the city’s intersections, parking lots, and roadsides. Complicating some of the work in Alma were snowmobilers who got too close to plows while they worked. Visibility early in the storm also made snow removal treacherous at times for those trying to clear the streets in Alma.
Going into the following week, many Gratiot County schools remained closed for another two days until mid-week. After four days of the blizzard, a minimum of 24 inches had fallen in most areas, and snowdrifts now reached heights of 10-12 feet.
As the new week dawned and people started to crawl out from several days of being shut in, drivers were still being warned not to go out unless they needed to do so. Snowplows opened most roads by Wednesday, February 1, and schools reopened. Although there were no deaths in Gratiot County, 17 people in Michigan were now dead.
In the end, the blizzard of ’78 cost Gratiot County an estimated $74,000. After receiving money from federal disaster aid and the State Highway Department, the final total would be $52,250.
It was a time and season that we lived through for many of us – and one that we do not forget.
Above: An Alma College wartime wedding takes place for Norman Hearn and Winnona Clegg; the Seventh War Loan Drive met a lot of obstacles in Gratiot County; Sergeant Archie McFarlane of St. Louis was officially listed as killed in action, one year after he disappeared.
Heavy June rains dumped flooding on parts of Gratiot County, causing damage to farmers and homeowners. Interest and support for purchasing war bonds for the war effort now hit an all-time low.
In reality, war fatigue was setting in, even though Gratiot County just celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany. Even though the war had ended in Europe, people learned that the rationing of many things continued indefinitely. Even while some Gratiot County men came home from Europe the news about the dead and wounded did not seem to end.
It was June 1945 in Gratiot County.
The Draft in June 1945
Although Europe started its second month of peace after Nazi Germany’s surrender, young men in Gratiot County continued to enter the draft. On June 6, sixteen men left for Detroit for pre-induction examinations. Another large group followed on two separate buses headed there on June 19 for induction. Several eighteen-year-olds made up this second contingent.
The news in Michigan now was that 48,000 men under age 26, who had previously been rejected for military service, now faced re-examination for probable induction into the armed forces. The State Selective Headquarters stated that ten to fifteen percent of these men would now be admitted due to lowered physical requirements. Previous factors such as flat feet, being underweight, teeth problems, or having hay fever, which formerly excused prior candidates, now could be assigned to duties with limited physical service.
Places like Ashley made a note of those who left the village that summer. On June 19, Paul Beck, Orville Ballard, Steve Paksi, Gerald Shaw, and James Vanek all now entered the service.
Although the war in Europe was over, rationing in Gratiot County continued in June 1945.
The Office of Price Administration announced quotas of 2,000,000 civilian tires, but the tire situation remained critical as there still were not enough tires to go around for everyone. Early in June, the Gratiot Price Administration Board approved 183 applications, most of them being for grade one passenger tires. At the end of June, the board issued 242 certificates, but compulsory inspection of tires remained in effect for those who wanted new tires. Just purchasing a new car remained a dream for most people in Gratiot County as the War Production Board said that factories would only produce 691,018 new cars in the United States for the remainder of 1945.
Gratiot homemakers continued to feel the pinch of doing without certain food items. One of these areas dealt with sugar rationing. The price administration stopped issuing sugar in Michigan in late May when too many people applied for certificates for sugar canning. A total of 3,745 applications came in before the suspension of certificates, causing the board to issue a freeze on sugar rationing. By June 18, the county began to reissue canning sugar to eligible residents, but only in reduced quantities. The proposed June allotment of 42,325 pounds (later raised to 63,480 pounds) meant that many homemakers waited until July or August just to get sugar certificates.
Another food item, butter, also suffered from rationing. Some farmers in the county believed housewives saw butter as a luxury that they could not afford and protested about reduced butter purchases. With the increase of red points used for butter, women went for oleomargarine, which cost less. When oleo became scarce in stores, grocers had no problem having butter on hand. However, butter continued to go untouched, all because of raises in ration coupons for purchasing butter..
To prepare for the upcoming summer and harvest season, E.L. Mutchler, chairman of the Gratiot County Victory Garden committee, urged people to grow a Victory Garden. Concern spread that the country would not have enough of the right kinds of foods in the winter if people did not raise a garden. Seed dealers and vegetable seed salesmen said that sales were down as much as thirty percent from 1944, indicating that many in the county were not preparing for the anticipated food shortages.
Both tin and paper remained in demand, and citizens needed to do their part to recycle for the war effort. Alma, Ithaca, and St. Louis all had grocery stores designated as locations where housewives could deposit tin. Tin supplies reached their lowest level since Pearl Harbor. The public had to be careful in preparing and cleaning the container before dropping it off at designated locations. Boy Scouts did a tin and paper pickup in Alma on June 16. Boy Scouts in St. Louis held a similar drive at the end of June, picking up prepared materials from porches and curbsides. The Alma drive yielded 15,945 pounds of paper, and the tin went to a train car, which waited to accumulate a full load for when it would ship in August. Complacency and overconfidence about the end of the war in Japan were seen as reasons why more people in Gratiot County did not contribute to the two drives. However, five Boy Scouts received the General Eisenhower War Service Medal in Riverdale for each contributing over one thousand pounds of scrap paper during March and April 1945. Charles Smith, Gordon Hyde, Myron Sadler, Bernard Kellicutt, and Charles Langin were all recognized for their work. Twelve medals went to boys in Ithaca who had similar achievements. They included: Keith Vernon, Larry Trexler, Robert Simmet, Dale Vernon, Duane Vernon, Floyd Hall, Bob Pressley, Allyn Ensign, Donald Rinard, Bill Hill, Tom Haley, and Jimmie Rogers.
People with Gratiot County ties ran afoul of the law regarding rationing violations. Walter Girard, who worked in the Alma office of a Saginaw finance company, was indicted for trafficking in gasoline ration coupons. Girard worked for the OPA office as a chief investigator for the Saginaw area, including Gratiot County. In all, the men were charged with selling coupons amounting to 370,000 gallons of gasoline.
In another instance, Stella Daniels of Ashley took 1,000 live chickens and ducks to a farmers market in Hamtramck. Daniels planned to drop off her load of poultry for regular customers and sell her poultry at ceiling prices. A problem occurred when hundreds of other shoppers found out they could not purchase any of the fowl on Daniels’ truck. This food issue resulted in a stampede of women who knocked over empty poultry crates while demanding to make purchases. One man made off with the duck, but it was recovered. After things quieted down, a police captain notified Daniels that in the future, she could only sell her poultry to buyers who waited in line. If she wanted to continue honoring presales, Daniels had to have the poultry delivered beforehand and not brought to the market.
Bond Sales in Gratiot County
Newspapers still urged people to continue their support for the war effort by buying bonds. At the Puffer School, teacher Ruby Hoyt told the St. Louis Leader-Press that her students made their Defense Stamp goal of $250 for the school year. Her students also gathered up 2700 pounds of waste paper for rationing.
At the start of June, Alma achieved 84 percent of its quota for E Bond sales by purchasing $152,800 worth of bonds. A week later, the Gratiot County Herald announced that overall sales in the county were only at 39.7 percent of the county’s overall goal. People just were not buying war bonds, at least not at the rate that they did before V-E Day. A special bond show took place on June 19 at the Strand Theatre, in which those who purchased bonds could attend “Without Love,” starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. People who wanted to buy Bonds could do so in the Strand’s lobby. As the end of June approached, sales rose nearly to the 50 percent mark. A big factor in people not buying war bonds was that they believed the war was in its last stages with Japan after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Farming in Gratiot County
As June began, Gratiot County encountered heavy rainfalls and flooding. Some farmlands in the county, such as sections 22 and 27 of Emerson Township, had up to 100 acres of cropland underwater, causing severe damage to farms as water submerged fields as well as gardens and basements. Despite this, Gratiot County’s agricultural agent, C.P. Milham, told farmers that they should prepare for a possible July and August drought.
Better news came to farmers who raised cattle in the county as the county AAA office offered payments to farmers who sought to increase meat production. Revenues amounted to fifty cents per hundredweight on choice cattle that weighed over 800 pounds. Gratiot County dairy herds did well with milk production. Supervisor Howard Kaufmann reported that tests on 347 cows in 26 different herds yielded an average of 34.4 pounds of butterfat. Kenneth McNabb of Ithaca had ten Jerseys heads that averaged over 50 pounds of butterfat.
Those who planted crops were warned about other potential problems in their fields. Farmers needed to be on the lookout for bean maggot damage, different types of mustard plants, and loose smut. The hay crop would probably be short due to the cold and wet weather. In better news, farmers found more farm machinery for sale on the market due to a broadening production of implements with rubber tires. More farmworkers were also available in Gratiot County under the Victory Farm Volunteers, which offer
offered young people work between the ages of 14-16. In an encouraging move, more youth turned in applications for summer work than had taken place in 1944. Farm wages were about double the amount paid early in the war in 1942.
Service Notes – Letters, People, Places
Letters from overseas continued to appear in the county’s newspapers. Some of the published letters appeared to be brief; others took up several columns of that week’s issue.
After spending a few days in Paris, France, Major F. W. Acton of Breckenridge told his mother that he was now in Northern Germany. Most of his letter described his visit to places like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Most of the areas in Germany that he now saw reminded him of Northern Michigan with its trees and lakes. Corporal Doug Eastman wrote back to his wife and daughter in a letter dated May 25, 1945. He lamented the fact that he needed 13 more points to be discharged. Eastman said he had seen fighting with the 29th Infantry Division with the worst fighting near Julick, Germany. Private Leroy Brice of Alma served near Hamelyn, Germany, while convoying Russian civilians back to the Russian lines. Brice believed those in his convoy were happy to be headed back toward Russia because they were singing and shouting on the way to their drop-off point. Sergeant Victor Egres of Ashley wrote home to his neighbors. In late May, he was in Luckstedt, Germany, and thanked his friends for writing to him. Mail now was uncensored near Magdeburg, where the Americans previously fought Hitler Youth in a big battle. Egres worked as an interpreter, and he was surprised how much food the Germans had in that part of the country and the availability of Lugars and Mausers that the Americans picked up in trades. He was still sorry and moved by the number of friends he lost in the war against Germany.
Lieutenant Alfred McCuaig of Alma described his role as a Navy privateer based on Okinawa at sea. McCuaig’s plane sank a small Japanese oil ship near Shimona Island. Lieutenant Paul Snacker wrote home to his family that he was glad to hear that the war in Europe was over, “but I think some of the people back (home) are forgetting the Jap(anese).” Snacker planned on staying in the Pacific until the war ended. Corporal Leland Thum wrote to the family from his location in the Philippines. He appreciated seeing pictures from home, news of a family wedding, and he apologized that he could only send a Peso home in a letter for Mother’s Day. Merle Brauher of Middleton also was in the Philippines. Brauher told his sister that he expected the war to go on for a long time in the Pacific as “They will never give up. I have seen the Japanese blow themselves to death rather than surrender.” In one instance, Brauher tried to get a Japanese woman and her baby out of a cave, but he and his men had to kill a Japanese soldier before getting the civilians out. Brauher thought that Japanese children he encountered welcomed food and water and were generally unafraid of American soldiers. Corporal Bill Lapaugh wrote to his sister in Alma about how he enjoyed a fried chicken dinner in a Filipino home. The people there willingly traded food for cigarettes, soap, and other soldiers’ things. After almost seven months, Lapaugh got his Christmas package from Gratiot County. He was still thankful to receive it.
Private T.A. (Jim) Evey, originally from Sumner, wrote a long letter to his grandparents describing the intense fighting on Iwo Jima. Evey’s letter went into detail about his challenges on the front lines as he was in direct combat with the Japanese. The letter ended with him telling how he killed a pair of enemy soldiers after suffering a wound that put him in the hospital for five days. Elton Mills also wrote to his mother, describing how his fox-hole looked like a bathtub with the amount of rainwater that it had in it. The Army was trying to take the southern end of the island, and at times Mills got to sleep in a hammock.
While the war was over in Italy, Sergeant Elwin Gillis of Breckenridge described the farming areas around Foggia, Italy, as having wheat, oats, barley, all much like mid-Michigan farms. On one night, he went with a Major and flew in a B-25. In December, Private Glen Mutchler of Alma told his parents about his Bronze Star. Mutchler was amazed at the bread and wine that the civilians gave him as he passed through villages. The bread, which was whole grain and tasted good, was very hard. Some men in his outfit chipped their teeth while trying to eat it. Private Charles Allen of Alma told his parents that he had been in Italy only eight months, but he had been in Milan where he saw Mussolini’s body. “He sure was a mess and a few others with him. I will tell you about it when I get home,” Muchler added. Allen said he was growing tired of eating eggs but welcomed the wine.
Private Edwin McGillis described his experiences driving truck supplies in France, especially in the Cherbourg area on D-Day. McGillis drove over 100,000 miles on two trucks during his service in Europe, which involved seven countries. He thanked GMC for such well-built trucks. Lieutenant Harold Fandell of Alma served as a pilot on a B-24 Liberator with the 8th Air Force. Fandell and his cinnamon-colored cocker spaniel (named Buddy), which Fandell got for $52 from a London pet shop, appeared in a photograph. Lucky became the good luck mascot of Fandell’s outfit.
Where are Our Servicemen and Servicewomen?
Sergeant Andrew Gager of Middleton served as a mechanic with the Eighth Air Force Fighter Command in England. Gager worked on P-51 Mustangs. Staff Sergeant Willard Holton of St. Louis now served in the 9th Army of Occupation in Europe. Sergeant Georgiana Peet received the Certificate of Merit at a ceremony in Marseilles, France. She had been overseas for 21 months in Africa, Italy, and Southern France. Lieutenant Thayer Rayburn of Ithaca served with the 340th bomb Group, 12th Air Force during the Battle of the Brenner Pass in Northern Italy. In late May, Sergeant Willis Clark of Ithaca received the Bronze Star Medal for service in the Infantry Antitank Company, 101st Airborne. Clark was cited for his work with a mine-laying platoon. In one such instance, he and another officer found two minefields and neutralized dozens of mines along a vital road in enemy territory. In the end, Clark and his men removed 1,780 mines. Corporal Doyle Plank of Alma and Private Kenneth Cross of Ithaca continued to serve with the 12th Air Force in Italy. They were with a force that flew tactical support for ground forces in that theater of the war. Private Francis Burkett of St. Louis served with the 36th Division troops of the 7th Army, which crossed the Siegfried Line and saw bitter fighting in the city of Hagenau. Private Romaine Oswald returned to Miami, Florida, after 38 months as a truck driver in the Southwest Pacific. Oswald was a farmer from St. Louis. Lieutenant Lester Fenner, also from St. Louis, was still in Italy. He had been transporting jeeps of soldiers from Genoa to the East Coast. Fenner had been engaged in serious action near Mt. Gard and thought he would not survive at one time. Corporal Jerry Jeleneck of St. Louis received the Bronze Medal for his efforts in the Fifth Army front in Italy. Jeleneck was a radio operator with the 604th Field Artillery Battalion of the 10th Mountain Division. He received the Bronze Medal for laying wire lines during three days of heavy fighting against the enemy. Corporal Fred Terwilliger of Alma served with the 101st Airborne and made it to Berchtesgaden, home of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. He received the Bronze Star for heroism during fighting on Christmas Day against the Germans. Private Nester Higgins of Alma received the Silver Star and two French decorations for gallantry of action on March 20, 1945, at Ensheim, Germany. Higgins showed courage and gallantry in action when he held off an enemy attack upon his company’s position with only his Browning automatic rifle. His efforts allowed his company to withdraw safely from the area.
Lieutenant Colonel William Kyes of Elwell continued his work as pilot of a B-24 Liberator in the India-Burma Theater. His group knocked out its 100th Japanese bridge in late April. Steve Lacko of Ashley wrote to his mother that he received his Christmas box that she packed for him. It only took eight months to reach Lacko, but the fruit cake was the best he had ever eaten. Seaman 2/c Robert Wiles of New Haven Township was aboard a ship somewhere in the Pacific. Wiles enlisted in late July 1944 and had attended Great Lakes Training Center. In the Western Pacific, D.L. Karpal of the United States Navy fought aboard the USS Indianapolis. While the ship saw action at Okinawa, the Indianapolis was attacked by the Japanese while on the way home from delivering the Atomic Bomb. Brothers Oliver and Floyd Miller of Ithaca were both on Iwo Jima. Oliver was a United States Coast Guard member, while Floyd was a radio operator with the Army Signal Corps. After serving on the USS Franklin, Seaman Myron Humphrey wrote home to his parents. Humphrey was picked up at sea by the USS Pittsburgh during a battle in March. He was now on Guam. Private Philip Bolinger of St. Louis fought off bees and a Japanese enemy attack with the 31st Infantry Division on Mindanao in the Philippines. Bolinger and his platoon were caught in the open and had to fight off over 200 Japanese soldiers for thirty minutes, most of whom came at Bolinger and his men with only fixed bayonets. “In this half-hour, the Japanese were less effective than the bees,” one report said. Jack Cutshaw, water tenders second class, was aboard the USS Hancock when it downed 71 Japanese aircraft during a raid over Tokyo. The USS Hancock saw action at Okinawa, Iwo Jima, and the Philippines. Private Carl Denman of Alma served in China, where he trained Chinese soldiers for combat. Denman had been in Burma for almost one year before this. After many bombing missions over Western Europe as a bombardier navigator, Lieutenant W. Robert Wagner of Alma came home on a 30-day leave. He expected to end up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with his unit as they awaited orders. Lieutenant Ralph Scheifley came home to Alma on a week’s leave. Scheifley spent fourteen months on a minesweeper, and he received the Bronze Star for his work in landing supplies in Southern France. Fireman Russell Murphy and Seaman William F. Brown, both of Alma, completed amphibious training in Virginia. Murphy had already been in the Pacific, and Brown had seen action in Southern France. News came that Private Doris Hall served at the 25th WAC Hospital Company at Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek.
POW, WIA, KIA
Those who had been Prisoners of War under the Nazis either began their journey home or had just arrived back home. Lieutenant John Ellis Mix of Alma had been in a German POW camp since being captured on January 2 in Belgium. He wired his parents about his arrival in Boston, but he did not know when he would be home. Sergeant George Mahin, Jr. of Elwell, was liberated on May 3 in Austria after 13 months as a POW. He was expected home soon, according to the United States Adjutant General. Private Ted Barton of North Star had been a POW since December 26 and now returned to the United States Military Control on May 7. Private Irwin Morey of Wheeler came home in mid-June after spending nine months as a POW. Sergeant Claude Murdock came home to Perrinton on June 16 about the same time as Morey did. In late May, Murdock wrote a letter home to his sister explaining that he was slowly recovering from significant weight loss due to his time in a camp. When he got home, Murdock received a sixty-day furlough.
Sergeant Herb Whitaker of Ithaca was expected home after telephoning his parents from Standish, Massachusetts. Whitaker spent 2 ½ months in four different German camps. He had been shot down near Coblenz, Germany, while onboard a B-17 heading for Dresden. Lieutenant John Barden of Ithaca, who was home, told the Gratiot County Herald about his experiences as a POW. He spent almost exactly one year in German camps after his P-51 went down over Nordhausen. After being moved to Frankfort and then Sagan, Barden noted that he was marched toward Nurenburg and Mooseburg, where he was eventually liberated on April 29. Finally, Private Anson Foster of St. Louis came home on June 1. He had been taken prisoner on September 1 in Italy and spent time in Moosburg Camp and the Memmingen Prison. He also received a sixty-day furlough.
News continued to arrive about the many Gratiot men who were wounded while in the country’s service. Corporal Mike Mikula of Elwell suffered severe wounds to his right eye and face while in battle at St. Lo, France, in June 1944. He remained a patient at Wakeman General Hospital in Camp Atterbury, Indiana. After 240 liquid meals, five operations, seven hemorrhages, 106 shots of penicillin, and a pound of sulfa drugs, Mikulka now felt well enough to walk the 7 ½ miles of halls in the hospital. Mikula wrote, “…I am so glad I lived to see the Nazis defeated, and I do wish a similar disposition of the Japanese.” On Christmas Day, Private Ivan Coleman, Breckenridge High School graduate, suffered an eye injury and then a body wound in France on February 27. Coleman arrived in New York City after being in hospitals in France and England. Private Elsworth Tissue of Ithaca was wounded on Okinawa in late May. Fortunately, the wounds were not serious. Private Joe Kelly of Ashley suffered injuries from a Japanese thrown hand grenade on Okinawa. After surgery, he was on his way to a hospital in the United States.
Fireman First Class Earl Weaver, Jr. of Lafayette Township, was wounded aboard a ship hit by a Japanese suicide plane on May 1 after leaving Iwo Jima. Weaver was sent to another ship, but his wound was minor. Sergeant Virgil Nelson of Perrinton was wounded on May 20 while on Luzon. He had been overseas since September 1, 1944. Private Inel Townsend of Alma also received slight wounds while on Luzon with the United States 25th Infantry Division. Robert Rich of St. Louis received his discharge from Percy Jones Hospital on May 10. Rich went through four operations that left him with a three-inch stub of his left arm. Lieutenant Elder Thrice of Alma, who was now at Cheb, Czechoslovakia, had been wounded three ties, with the last wound coming on May 7. He was recovering and up and moving again. Private Marvin Haas of North Star was treated in Chickasha, Oklahoma, for wounds he suffered in Germany on February 7.
The news of those men who died in service to Gratiot County hit families and communities the hard during June and made their way into county newspapers. Sergeant John Townsend received the Bronze Star Medal after his death near Dancola, Luxembourg, on January 10. Townsend was buried in the United States Military Cemetery at Hamm, Luxembourg. His wife, Faith, received notice of her husband’s award from President Truman.
St. Louis residents learned that Private Melvin Thrush, who had previously been reported as missing in action in Italy on March 7, was now given up as dead. He left behind a wife and three children. Sergeant Archie McFarlane had previously been listed as missing over the English Channel while in an air raid over France. Strangely, another member on McFarlane’s plane was Alma’s, Sergeant Marvin Fenner. Both men had been missing for almost one year. One of the rare moments during the war was when two local Gratiot men served aboard the same plane, only to lose their lives in the same incident.
The Haag Family in Sumner was shocked to learn that their son-in-law, Private Ralph Rud, died of wounds he suffered on May 7 while fighting on Luzon as a member of Michigan’s 32nd “Red Arrow” Division. He died one week before his 26th birthday, leaving a wife and three daughters. Staff Sergeant Harold Bruce Phillips lost his life in a plane crash near the United States Marine Corps air station in Santa Anna, California. Phillips was on a routine flight and was headed back to land when a pilot in another plane lost sight due to fog. The two planes hit each other, and Bruce could not bailout. Phillips lived close to the Sumner area and graduated from Crystal High School in 1936. Before becoming a Marine, Phillips served nine months in the Canadian Army in 1941. Upon entering the Marine Corps, he saw action at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, and Bouganville. Along the way, he was wounded twice in the legs and suffered from malaria. Upon return to the United States, he married the nurse who cared for him in the South Pacific.
In Elwell, a Sunday School there dedicated its opening worship service to four boys who had paid the supreme sacrifice. They included: Willis LaPaugh, Marcus Steele, Howard Mahin, and Earl Langworthy.
And So We Do Not Forget
Planning for summer softball action started in Alma. Six Alma city teams played slow-pitch three nights a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Conservation League Park. The United States Naval training station at Alma College planned to invite other fastpitch teams to play on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Fastpitch softball played under the lights, but games would not start until July…Leonard Refineries planned to market petroleum-based products after the war concluded. Only minor adjustments were anticipated at the plant to move from wartime to a civilian-based economy…Breckenridge High School’s graduating class of 1945 said goodbye on May 31 at the high school. Seven members were already in the service…The National Housing Administration-approved fifteen new dwellings in St. Louis. Under the quota, ten family dwellings could be built for sale and another five for rent…A new heating system, drinking fountain, new bathroom facilities, and redecorating the interior of the building were all planned at the St. Louis community center building…The Blue Star Mothers of Breckenridge sponsored a skating party at the Crystal skating rink. The group also planned a Father’s Night at the Methodist Church. Families were encouraged to bring pictures of their sons who served the country in the service. The chapter also bought two more $100 bonds…The veterans’ counseling center in Ithaca continued to see more activity as returning men from the service for advice and help with any questions they had while returning to life in Gratiot County…Easter Seals sales raised a total of $1,134.00 in the county. The sales took place through county rotary clubs and public schools.
The city of St. Louis received permission to drill a well at the corner of Corinth and Prospect streets north of the Pine River. One well in the city was down, and two others had been reconditioned…Heavy weekend rains fell upon Gratiot County in early June, resulting in a “freshet” which did damage but was heaviest along the Gratiot County-Saginaw County lines. Water reached the running boards of vehicles in some places…C.D. Sailer of 701 Michigan Avenue, St. Louis, had an egg laid by his Leghorn hen that measured 8 1/8 inches by 10 ½ inches around. Sailer found out that there was one normal-sized egg inside the larger one…Two Alma boys were caught and charged for siphoning gas out of Alma cars at the rear of the Chevrolet garage…George Kemp of Alma paid the price for leaving his car parked with the keys in the ignition. His Plymouth Coach, parked at Smith Memorial Hospital, came up missing early one Sunday morning. Kemp and the police found it a few hours later, parked in the spot where he left it. Joyriders returned the car…Most Alma merchants all agreed to close their stores on Thursday afternoons starting at noon for June, July, and August…Central Michigan College of Education graduated 124 students. Three belonged to Gratiot County: Katherine Kasel, Jessie Becker, and Orthelia Elaine Miller…Large numbers of children flocked to the second summer of activities put on by the Ithaca Recreation Department. On an opening afternoon, 135 children came to the sessions and 235 participated on the first full day. Coach Hiram Becker was the director. A wading pond for children in the village would be available later in the summer on the school grounds…Pompeii planned to play the Saginaw Colored Yanks in a baseball game. The Saginaw team consisted of players from the Saginaw Black Sox and Yankees…The Associated Women of the Gratiot County Farm Bureau held their first annual banquet at the Park Hotel in St. Louis. A group of 135 women enjoyed a duck dinner…Alfred Wolansky became the manager at the Merrill Plant of the Michigan Bean Company. Before this, Wolansky managed the Wheeler Plant of the Breckenridge Farmers Elevator…The Happyland Shows brought “sensational riding devices” to Alma under the sponsorship of the Alma Leslie McLean Post Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Ithaca Postmaster Clyde Daniels retired after nearly 45 years of service in the postal system. Daniels started out as a clerk working before and after school sorting mail…A Correlated Migrant and Vacation school program debuted in Breckenridge at the high school. Three Breckenridge churches helped provide food for lunches for the children. Miss Merle Wildman and Miss Rawlings came to work among the Mexican children…The Gratiot County Fair was planning to take place July 17-21. Harness racing would be coming back…The State Highway Department announced plans for widening one mile of US-27 in Ithaca, along with US-27 south to the southern city limits of St. Louis. There was also word that the highway from Main Street east to M-46 also would be improved…The Ideal Theatre in Ithaca featured “Eadie Was a Lady” starring Ann Miller and Joe Besser. Saturday was matinee day at 2:30 p.m…A new modern bowling alley with five alleys was planned to open in Ithaca in the fall above the Kroger Store in the Arnold Building. Four of the alleys would be used for team play, the other for open bowling…A tragedy occurred in New Haven Township when three-year-old William Eugene Bollinger was killed in a small brooder coop. The boy was killed instantly when the top door of the brooder fell on his neck while he tried to return an injured chick to the coop. Services were held for the boy at New Haven Center Church…Fifteen Sowers children surprised Arlan Edgar on his birthday…The Alma City Commission voted to purchase a new fire truck for approximately $10,000.00. The commission also voted to spend $685 in order to electrify the old clock in the city hall tower…Summer arrived in Alma on June 21, featuring temperatures of 77 degrees by 3:00 p.m. There was no rain on the first day of summer…The Breckenridge Public Library received $48.83 in a check from the State Board for Libraries. The library met its certification qualification for 1944-1945, and local tax support had been maintained for the library…Summer band took place at Ithaca Public Schools under the direction of William Ladd. The program planned to take over four and possibly as long as eight weeks. Junior bands started practice at 8:00 a.m…Doctor Thomas Carney of Alma left town for a week’s vacation at the old Carney homestead in New York, going by boat from Detroit to Buffalo…The St. Louis wading pool soon opened for children. So far, a cold, wet spring had dampened interest in the pool. However, several people applied for the job of pool supervisor…The Alma City Commission announced tentative plans for a new roller skating rink in Alma. Max Creaser of Lansing appeared before the commission to ask for a lease to start construction on the new rink near the west bank of the river south of the Superior Street Bridge…Finally, a Sadie Hawkins party on June 15 at the Alma Community Center. Prizes would go to the girl and boy best dressed as Li’l Abner and Sadie Hawkins.
And that was life in June 1945 during Gratiot County’s Finest Hour.
It began with the dream of having an “Avenue of the Bells” and grew to become “Belltown USA.”
In the early 1960s, St. Louis, Michigan, was known for its displays of Christmas bells during the Christmas season. No other town or village in Gratiot County had as many red and white Christmas bells on display at Christmas as did St. Louis. The Christmas bells showcased a sense of holiday spirit and community participation for over a decade.
Starting in the early 1960s, the St. Louis City Council encouraged more residents to decorate their homes for Christmas. The council offered a plan where residents received free electricity to display fifty or more lights, put spotlights on three or more outdoor figures, and use at least 500 watts of electricity. This offer did not cause a resident to pay more for their December electrical bill than they did in November. All St. Louis residents had to do was call or write city hall to participate.
In 1961, Dr. C.J. Bender, a chiropractor, school board member, and mayor of St. Louis, suggested that residents create an “Avenue of the Bells” after some neighbors started hanging bells under their shade trees on East Saginaw Street. A total of 48 bells debuted that Christmas, most of which appeared up and down the street. It would be Dr. Bender who had the dream of having St. Louis known for its array of Christmas bells.
The growth of the Christmas bell displays was slow during much of the 1960s. However, by 1969, eight streets in St. Louis had 150 bells, including a cluster of five bells that hung overhead at Mill and Saginaw streets. Suddenly, more people wanted bells – and the supply, which came from Bronners in Frankenmuth – soon sold out. One of the problems was that residents waited too long to order the plastic eighteen-inch bells, which operated with a 100-watt bulb. It seemed that most people failed to plan when orders came out for the bells in the fall.
Regardless, demands for having more Christmas Bells in St. Louis continued to grow. For Christmas 1970, 61 new bells went up due to Girl Scout Troop #208’s work, which distributed order blanks in the city earlier in the fall. When the bells were gone, the City Council told residents to plan for an early order of 100 bells in the fall of 1971.
The bells for that Christmas in 1971 cost $20 each if people purchased in bulk, or $25 apiece. With an October deadline, people could put $5 down and pay the difference upon arrival. The St. Louis City Council purchased another 100 bells, which brought the city’s “bell population” to 450 as the displays now reached out into the Westgate subdivision and up into Orchard Hills.
By Christmas 1972, St. Louis had 500 bells as 80 more bells went up for the holiday season. By this time, residents could observe the display of bells that lined all four corners of the city park. After parking their cars, St. Louis High School basketball fans who sought to attend home games walked past the bells on and along Saginaw Street. The bells, which also lined the park, moved as if they were ringing as high winds and snow blew across the city park on a game night. It seemed that the display of the bells near the high school coincided each year with the start of the Sharks basketball season. At this time, the Christmas Bells also found their way along Washington Avenue (M-46).
By 1973, the St. Louis City Council and the St. Louis Jaycees promoted St. Louis as “Belltown USA.” From August to September, approximately 100 people placed orders for bells. The Jaycees offered to pay $3 toward each bell sold, while the buyer put down $5 and paid the balance when the bells arrived.
Although St. Louis residents continued to display their Christmas bells for many seasons to come, the early to mid-1970s was the high point for the sales. The first Energy Crisis, which came along in 1974 and hit America, causing sharp rises in gasoline and electricity costs, probably affected interest in purchasing and displaying more Christmas bells.
However, because of a visionary like Dr. C.J. Bender, many people would hang their bells outside at Christmas for years to come. What started as an avenue of Christmas bells on Saginaw Street eventually spread across St. Louis, Michigan, making the city a place to see during the holiday season.
Today, the question remains – just how many original bells still exist in St. Louis?
Author’s note – On the evening of December 22, 2021, I made a trip through parts of St. Louis to see how many bells St. Louis still had. Once I entered the city limits from State Road, I immediately saw four bells (1 appeared to be an original). Delaware Street from east to west had five bells (2 originals). I found bells in Orchard Hills (2), Westgate (4 bells – 2 original), and three on M-46 (all in the south window of Kubin’s Furniture). The city park was surrounded by approximately 20 bells (all newer designs), and a nice Christmas tree. So, I counted 38 bells in the city, 13 of them look like the originals. However, my journey did not cover all of St. Louis, and I am sure that there more this Christmas. Look for the bells.
The following article first appeared in the Gratiot County Herald in December 2018.
Eighty years ago on December 4, 1941, it was a “Window Night” in Gratiot County, which marked the start of the Christmas shopping season in the towns of St. Louis, Alma, and Ithaca. Businesses stayed open late with lighted store windows. That weekend at the Strand Theater in Alma, viewers watched a musical movie entitled “Chocolate Soldier.” Over at St. Louis, the Boy Scouts helped the national defense effort by hosting a paper drive. A representative from the Public Works Reserves explained to the St. Louis City Council how they could eventually adjust from wartime to a peacetime economy. These events all took place in Gratiot County just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After December 7, the county, like the rest of America, was never the same.
As news of the attack arrived that Sunday, “general indignation” best described residents as they discussed what they had learned. Within hours of the attack, a previously scheduled group of 46 selective service men left for induction at Fort Custer near Battle Creek. Starting December 8, the telephone at the draft office in Alma rang repeatedly. Men who had previously changed their addresses now notified the office about how they could be found to join the military. Some men above the age of 28, who had been previously excluded from selective service because they were too old, now wanted to know how to enlist. In the first wave of men who immediately volunteered through the Alma office, fifteen joined the Navy, twelve went into the Army, while others headed to Lansing and Saginaw to enlist there. The Gratiot County Red Cross announced the week after the attack that the county needed to raise $5,100 for the national fund. Women wanted to sew and knit for soldiers and servicemen at the Alma Red Cross office.
Local families worried about the fate of their sons in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. One of these involved Mervin DeMott of Pompeii, who was stationed aboard the US Dunlap. Within a week of the attack, DeMott wrote to inform his family that he was safe but he could not say more. Also, his Christmas presents had been mailed home. Marine Corporal Dale L. Peters of Breckenridge was stationed at Wake Island during the Japanese attack, along with former Ithaca resident Private Charles D. Sagash, who was at Corregidor.
Gratiot County readied itself throughout December. Leonard and Mid-West Refineries hired extra guards and put up fences around their plants to protect against sabotage. For further protection, the companies required fingerprints and photo identification buttons for employees. The Gratiot County clerk announced a huge demand of birth certificates took place in Ithaca because those wanting work in industrial plants needed one in order to apply for a job. Amateur short wave radio operators in the county had their licenses suspended for fear of sending messages to the enemy. County firemen underwent defense training for handling bombs and volunteers throughout the county learned how to provide basic Red Cross first aid. Lobdell Emory announced that it had received subcontracts for the defense effort, but for security concerns could not acknowledge exactly what it would be producing.
As December ended, citizens continued united in their response to the Pearl Harbor attack. The St. Louis City Council purchased $20,000 in Defense Bonds. In Alma, twenty county men quickly joined the National Guard Unit. By Christmas, one of the first painted “V” for Victory Signs appeared in the east window of the Alma Main Cafe.
Author’s note: This article first appeared in the November 11, 2021 issue of the Gratiot County Herald.
Fifty years ago in Ithaca, a landmark, known for its “Down on the Farm” chicken dinners, closed. Owners Gale and Mildred Irwin sold the Seaver Hotel ending decades of operating in Gratiot County.
The hotel’s history went back to 1890 when it opened under Joseph Seaver, an Ithaca businessman. Before World War I, a room could be rented for two dollars a week. In 1943, the Irwin’s purchased the Seaver Hotel, and it became a popular travel destination with thirty rooms and its famous chicken dinners. The hotel also became a place where several businesses got started in Ithaca. Dick’s Studio began its business in the basement shortly after World War II. At other times, a railway office and an insurance agency had offices inside the hotel. Several barbers worked in a room on the first floor over the years. Tony Sanchez first opened his shoe repair shop in the hotel, which was the last outside business in the hotel.
A surprising bit of news became public on November 2, 1971, when the Ithaca City Council announced the purchase of the Seaver Hotel for $35,000 as part of an urban renewal project. No tax monies were used as money came from the Gibbs Memorial Savings Account, a source of funds given to the city by Norton and Laura Gibbs in 1958. To further promote the deal, the city council promised residents that any future funds obtained from the sale of the hotel and lot would go back into the Gibbs account.
For the Irwin’s, it was a time to sell. Gale Irwin suffered from health problems, which ended the offering of chicken dinners and forced the Irwin’s to only rent rooms. For Ithaca, the purchase of the hotel meant it had a lot that measured 99 x 165 feet which was only a short walk from the new city hall and an anticipated new city library.
The Irwin’s faced a July 1972 deadline for closure, but first, there had to be an auction sale to dispose of the many items in the hotel. It turned out to be a big one. On a cold day, January 21, 1972, a capacity crowd came out as auctioneer Joe Helman sold off the hotel’s furnishings. People eagerly bid on items, and soon everything inside was gone.
Clearing the lot, removing the Seaver Hotel, proved to take a bit longer. The city council authorized city manager Lloyd Peters to raze the building, level, and fill in what had been the basement as soon as the weather permitted. By January 1973, a picket fence encircled what remained of the first floor, which became a target for graffiti. However, a month later, the hotel’s final remains were cleaned up and gone.
The hotel’s sign stayed, existing as the Chamber of Commerce’s bulletin board. The sign reminded people of events like voting in the state primary elections and the coming of a new downtown mall. On March 23, 1973, Gale Irwin was injured in an accident on U.S. 27. Irwin, a World War I veteran, passed away three days later.
A city parking lot now sits on the southwest corner of Center and Pine streets in Ithaca. Today, the lot hosts seasonal events and the farmers market, which takes place under a newly built pavilion. The sale and dismantling of the Seaver Hotel starting in late 1971 officially ended a business from Ithaca’s past.
In the spring of 1918, residents were shocked by the murders of five people at the hands of Herman Wittig. The incident, subsequent arrest, and conviction of Herman Wittig went down in Gratiot County’s history as one of its quickest murder trials.
The Gratiot County Herald quickly deemed the Wittig murders an “affair to be one of the most gruesome in Gratiot County’s history.” The killing of a husband, wife, and three children took place in a dispute over money.
The crime centered aroundHerman Wittig, born in 1881 in Lafayette Township, the youngest of six children. His parents, Robert and Theresa Wittig, came from Germany, settling as farmers in Lafayette Township. After Theresa Wittig died, Herman purchased forty acres of land from his father in 1906 for $1400. When Robert died, the Wittig children appeared in probate court in 1914 to deal with their father’s estate. After an Ithaca teacher translated Robert’s letters, Herman Wittig emerged as the administrator by the court’s decision.
Soon after the hearing for his father’s estate, Herman Wittig farmed in Lafayette Township. Wittig’s name appeared in the news again in 1915 when he tracked down a neighboring chicken thief, Bard Seeley, who raided his chicken coop. Wittig followed the tracks of the robber, uncovered the remains of his butchered chickens, and then reported the incident to the Gratiot County undersheriff.
By one record in 1917, he owned 120 acres, three horses, and a cow. It also was a time where one’s German background could be suspect due to Germany’s role in the World War. Herman Wittig’s relative, Henry Wittig, operated the “Wittig Race Track” in that part of the county. In this place, horse races, wagering, food, and moonshine took place on a Sunday afternoon.
The Kimball Family
One couple, Willard and Cora Kimball, encountered hard times, needed work and a place to live. Despite his money and property, Herman Wittig needed help on his farm. The Kimballs and their three children lived in Port Huron, Michigan, before arriving in Gratiot County. Willard, age 28, had a generally good reputation there while operating a window cleaning business. However, after the United States entered the war, the Port Huron Draft Board wanted him to answer questions about possible induction into service. Despite all of this, the Kimballs made their way west and ended up in Gratiot County.
Life was not easy for the Kimballs. Once they arrived, they ended up on the farm working for, and staying with, Wittig. Local farm families, such as the Federspiels, brought food to the Kimballs to have enough to eat. A newspaper reported that the Kimball family “lived off the bounty of their neighbors,” allowing the Kimball children to visit neighbors regularly for food. Later, news appeared that Gratiot County officers investigated Mr. Kimball for not supporting his family financially. While staying with Herman Wittig, Cora Kimball kept house for him, and her husband did odd jobs such as fixing Wittig’s car.
Soon, Wittig -the bachelor- owed his visitors money, and the Kimballs wanted to be paid. It was then that a conflict erupted.
Five Murders on a Sunday Morning in Lafayette Township
On Saturday, April 27, 1918, Herman Wittig first went to a store, came home, and then decided to go crow hunting. Wittig did not feel well, later saying that he hunted to clear his head. Was Wittig drunk or upset for conflicts with the Kimballs? He visited his neighbors, the Bolbys and the Schermers, who invited Wittig in and offered him a meal. By 11:00 that evening, Wittig stumbled home and made his way upstairs, and soon fell asleep. Before going into the house, he threw his shotgun out of sight in the haymow in the barn. A newspaper later reported that Wittig had a drinking problem, and he had probably been drinking for several days.
As there would only be one surviving witness to the events in Lafayette Township, we have only Herman Wittig’s version of what occurred next.
Wittig was up at 7:00 the following morning, as were the Kimballs. They immediately continued their argument with Wittig over money that they believed was owed to them. Willard and Cora had approached Herman Wittig before about being paid for their work. Cora argued that she was owed five dollars a week for keeping house. Willard Kimball repaired Wittig’s car at the cost of forty dollars.
Herman Wittig marched toward the barn, leaving the house in haste and attempting to ignore the Kimballs again. Willard Kimball followed Wittig toward the barn while demanding payment and calling Wittig an obscenity. When Wittig reached the barn, he retrieved his sixteen gauge shotgun and warned Kimball to come no further, or he would shoot.
Kimball ignored the warning, continuing to demand money from Wittig. At a distance of ten feet, Wittig turned, aimed, and pulled the trigger, hitting Kimball on the left side of his head and neck. In Wittig’s own words, “Kimball dropped to the ground like a dog.” Cora Kimball witnessed the shooting and hid within the house. Wittig then dragged Willard Kimball’s body into the garage and covered the body with a horse blanket. In the process, Wittig emerged with a substantial amount of blood on his clothing.
Wittig later claimed that he waited approximately ninety minutes before entering the house. Once inside, Cora Kimball, shocked by witnessing the murder of her husband, defended herself with a butcher knife. She then hid with her three children inside their first-floor bedroom. Cora failed to make it out of the bedroom as Wittig pointed his shotgun at her and fired, blowing her head to pieces. Wittig also gave Cora a deep cut on her neck, thought to be with a knife or gun.
In the process of shooting Cora Kimball, the oldest child, Clarence, age seven, tried to defend his mother. Wittig hit the child with his gun, crushing his head. Wittig then strangled the two youngest children, Charles, age four, and Louise, age two, in their beds. Five Kimball family members now all lay dead on the farm of Herman Wittig.
Wittig then left the farm and wandered off into the neighborhood. Around noon, John Federspiel, a nearby farmer whose family gave food to the Kimballs, showed up on the farm. The Federspiels looked for young Clarence Kimball, who usually came each day to pick up food donations. On that Sunday, Clarence failed to appear. Curious because of how quiet it was on the farm, Federspiel tried to locate the Kimballs and Wittig. As he looked through the window of the Wittig house, he saw Cora Kimball’s body on the floor, next to one of her children. Federspiel immediately left and called Sheriff Bradford from Ithaca.
Sheriff Bradford, Deputy Clarence Wheeler, Prosecutor O.L. Smith, Coroner Will K. Ludwig, and Doctor C.E. Burt soon arrived at the Wittig farm. Although they were horrified by the deaths of Cora Kimball and her three children inside the house, the men were unable to locate Willard Kimball. Finally, Sheriff Bradford and Coroner Ludwig forced opened the locked garage where they found Willard Kimball’s body.
The question now was, “Where was Herman Wittig?” Word came to Sheriff Bradford that Wittig was at the Boyce Farm. While on his way there, the sheriff soon ran into Herman, who was returning home. When confronted with the killings, Wittig denied all involvement. Still, his tone changed after being questioned about a large amount of blood on his clothing. Wittig then confessed his crime but said he only killed the parents, denying anything about the children’s deaths. Later he stated that he did not intend to kill the children and did not remember doing so. What surprised the sheriff and the group from Ithaca most was that Wittig showed no sorrow or remorse for what had taken place on his farm earlier that morning.
A Long Sunday in Jail
Shortly after noon on Sunday, April 28, it was only a few hours since Wittig murdered the entire family. With his confession, Herman Wittig was immediately put under arrest and taken to the Ithaca jail. While in his cell, a stoic and unemotional Herman Wittig talked to a reporter of the Gratiot County Herald about what he did. Wittig also signed a full confession for the sheriff.
Orville Bowers, a photographer in Ithaca, drove out to the Wittig farm and took pictures of the murder scene. The photographs, one which showed the two youngest Wittig children dead in bed and another of Willard Kimball on the garage floor, appeared on the front page of the Gratiot County Herald. These pictures were among the first from a murder scene to be published on the front page of a Gratiot County newspaper. Bowers also took a shot of Herman Wittig while he was in jail on that Sunday. Wittig wore a late winter coat, appeared unshaven, hair uncombed, and stared blankly at the photographer. This picture of Wittig seemed to tell readers that he had little guilt or remorse for the murders that he had committed.
Swift Justice, A Life in Marquette Prison
The following day, Monday, April 29, 1918, at 10:00 am, Judge Moinet halted the infamous Beatrice Epler trial proceedings to focus on Herman Wittig. Because of the Epler proceedings (a trial that involved a young girl’s death in Alma and a house of ill repute), it would take something drastic to pause the Epler case. The Wittig Murders did just that.
As Wittig came to trial on Monday morning, some quickly pointed out that he was from a German family (America was now at war with Germany) and had substantial property. Another newspaper feared mob violence could soon erupt in Gratiot County over justice for the murdered Kimball family.
Herman Wittig’s confession, combined with his apparent lack of regret or remorse for what he did, made Judge Moinet’s job easy. Because Cora Kimball died in self-defense, Moinet believed that Wittig should be judged for second-degree murder. The Gratiot County Herald said that “the testimony and confession regarding the woman (Cora Kimball) did not certainly justify a decision of first-degree murder.” Moinet decided Wittig was guilty of second-degree murder and gave Wittig the maximum penalty – life in prison in Marquette Penitentiary.
Around noon on Monday, April 29, Herman Wittig found himself heading north toward Marquette. It would be a long journey in 1918, one in which there was no bridge over the Straits of Mackinac. The trip caused Wittig and his guards to spend one night in northern Michigan. On Tuesday, April 30, 1918, at 3:20 pm, Herman Wittig officially became a part of the prison population at Marquette Penitentiary, all within 72 hours of his crime.
Wittig in Prison
A few notes and photographs concerning Herman Wittig’s prison record exist today. Wittig’s picture showed that he finally got a shave when he entered Marquette, and he appeared in an open-collared shirt and coat. As in all of his photographs, he seemed severe and stoic. Wittig stood 5’ ¼”, weighed 145-150 pounds, had blue eyes and dark chestnut hair. Upon entering prison, Herman Wittig was only 36 years old.
The prison took pictures of an older Herman Wittig on March 13, 1941, and September 17, 1946. He appeared in a dress shirt, tie, and overcoat, with balding hair in both cases.
Herman Wittig met his maker on April 7, 1950, inside the hospital of Marquette Prison. He died from cancer of the stomach and liver and a heart valve problem. The time of death was 8:10 am. There are no records of any specific incidents involving Wittig in Marquette, nor is there any written correspondence he may have had with anyone. Wittig, age 69, never left the prison alive.
Results of the Kimball Murders
The remaining story of the Kimballs is as sad as their deaths. The death certificates on Willard and Cora Kimball state the cause of death as “murdered with shotgun” (Willard) and “murdered by Herman Wittig with shotgun” (Cora). Two different undertakers worked with the bodies, and two other burial places may exist today.
One source says Willard Kimball and a son are buried in Lafayette Cemetery, while Cora and two children are in Ithaca Cemetery. One wonders why the family might have been separated after their deaths. Cora’s informant was from Detroit; Willard’s was in Potterville, Michigan. Still, the family may be in a single plot in the Ithaca Cemetery, but it is hard to tell. In that cemetery, the only evidence that the Kimballs were in Gratiot County is a tiny, chalk-colored marker, which faintly reads “Kimball Family.”
Sheriff Bradford had a problem after the murders in finding family members. However, it is unclear why the Kimball family may rest in two different county cemeteries.
At least one member of Willard Kimball’s family was in the news in response to his brother’s death. William Kimball was arrested in Lansing on May 2, 1918, for disorderly conduct for window peeping. However, the police deemed William Kimball to be “temporarily demented” as a response to the death of his brother. Upon arrest, William Kimball carried a roll of newspapers and photographs of his brother’s murdered family.
Today, the Wittig Murders stand as one of the most gruesome mass murders in Gratiot County’s history. During the spring of 1918, Because residents fixated on another high-profile murder case in Alma in 1918, the Wittig murders did not achieve a place in the county’s long-term memory.
Instead, in our county’s history, this murder case represents one of the quickest times between a crime, its judgment, and subsequent punishment – amounting to less than 72 hours.