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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

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

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

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

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

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

It was February 1945 in Gratiot County.

Rationing Goes On

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

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

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

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

Farming in Gratiot County

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Work of the Gratiot County Red Cross

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

The Draft in Gratiot County

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

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

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

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

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

Letters Home to Gratiot County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And So We Do Not Forget

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

A Gratiot County Institution: JC Penney of Alma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919, Part VII -Conclusions: “What Should Gratiot County Learn from the Influenza Epidemic?”

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Above: A picture taken around 1918 of the students who attended the Lewis School in Newark Township. At least six of the children in the picture were relatives of the author. The girl in the second row, far left, is the author’s paternal grandmother. All of these students lived at the time of the Influenza Epidemic that raged through Gratiot County from 1918-1919.

    The second and most massive wave of the Influenza Epidemic in Gratiot County claimed its first victim with Reverend F.E. Gainder. A Baptist minister in St. Louis,  Gainder died in early October 1918. he had been sick since April; however, the St. Louis Leader stated that influenza and pneumonia took his life. Gainder was only 35 years old and had been a pastor in town for five years.

   Possibly the last victim in Gratiot County lost their life in late May 1919. The Alma Record reported what appeared to be the last occurrence of influenza with the death of the Lane family of Alma. Harry Lane returned to Alma to bury his parents, who had both recently died. Then Lane returned to his home in the East. Unfortunately, Harry Lane contracted influenza, followed by pneumonia, and died. The Alma Record ran the headline, “Entire Family Wiped Out in a Few Weeks.”

    Between these two stories, a swath of death and sickness took place in Gratiot County starting in October 1918 through the end of March 1919.  A survey of newspapers during this period shows that at least 400 people became sick in Gratiot County, and at least 90 individuals died. However, these numbers are imperfect as these are only the sick and dead that can be identified. Also, the figures also do not include Gratiot County’s servicemen who died from influenza or pneumonia while serving during the World War. It is important to note that I tried to refrain from counting “neighboring communities” whose stories appeared in the newspapers. Places like Vestaburg, Carson City, Jasper Township, and the Wolford District were locations all adjoining Gratiot County, which frequently appeared in the county newspapers.

    An important question to ask is how many people were sick or died who went unreported. During this time, obituaries rarely occurred in the newspapers, and this epidemic took place before funeral homes existed. Many who died during the epidemic were taken to an undertaker, then to the cemetery for a quick burial. In several cases, family members of the dead struggled to make it to the cemetery because they themselves were extremely sick.

     There was little time between the passing of a loved one and burial, probably because of health reasons. For those of us today who are accustomed to funeral home visits, viewings, and church services, followed by interment at the cemetery, the process of death and burial was brief in 1918-1919 Gratiot County.

     Another thought about Gratiot County is how it compared in scope with the State of Michigan during the epidemic. From October through December 1918, at least 25 percent of the state’s population was hit by influenza. During these months, 6742 people died from the flu, and another 7247 died of pneumonia. In 1917, a total of 427 people in Gratiot County died. A year later, that number rose to 488 deaths, an increase of 14 percent. These statistics do not include those who died in early 1919 from influenza and pneumonia, thus I believe that the number of at least 90 dead from the Influenza Epidemic is very possible.

    Still, there are significant lessons from this event in Gratiot County’s history. One might ask, what exactly should Gratiot County learn from the Influenza Epidemic?

  1. During the time of the Influenza Epidemic, Gratiot County was rife with patriotism and support during the World War. There was no tolerance for any criticism of the government during this period. People were expected to buy War Bonds and support the war effort. Those who did not buy bonds, or who showed any reluctance in supporting the war found themselves identified in the newspaper, ostracized, and deemed un-American. One of the ways that people showed support for the war was through mass gatherings, parades, and attending speeches and rallies in the county. Attending meetings like these from September through November 1918 became fostering grounds for the spread of influenza once it arrived in the county.
  2. The Influenza Epidemic that hit Gratiot County moved unevenly at times. Early in the second wave, surrounding villages and hamlets were stricken. Places like Perrinton, Middleton, Ashley, and Breckenridge paid dearly with the widespread flu. Larger towns like Alma and St. Louis also were hit, but not always at the same time. Ithaca boasted that “only two people” died of influenza by early December 1918, but was hit again by Christmas. When some communities thought that a wave had passed, places like Ithaca or Breckenridge would see flare-ups again.
  3. The chief weapon against the Influenza Epidemic was social distancing, a practice that went back to the Middle Ages. People did not have answers for how to overcome this strain of influenza – even though different remedies were tried. The best recourse people had was to quarantine themselves. When dealing with an unknown enemy, quarantine was the only answer Gratiot County’s doctors and health officers could recommend to survive the epidemic. Mask wearing also became a practice in public, whether at Alma College, in local churches or while conducting business in towns or villages. These quarantines tested businesses, churches, and schools, as well as those who could not stand to be in quarantine, or who did not believe that quarantines helped. Some places did try treatments in the form of public vaccinations in  Alma and Ithaca by December 1918. To avoid wearing masks in public, people in Alma and Ithaca lined up to receive these shots (usually a set of three). One of the critical lessons from 1918-1919 is that people needed to listen to health experts. Some did, and some did not.

      4. While looking at the death and disruption of the Influenza Epidemic, there is a need for a recognition of heroes and empathy for the times. Health officials had the toughest jobs during the epidemic of 1918-1919, if for no other reason than most doctors did not want the job. In Alma, Doctor Thomas Carney fought many battles with citizens regarding quarantines. Carney quickly learned that people who did not believe they were in danger would not obey the health officials. Some people bluntly asked if health officials had the right to enforce quarantines. The state said yes, but in many communities, people did not listen. While dealing with the epidemic,  many Gratiot County doctors became exhausted while trying to help the sick and dying. Taking care of 40 to 60 people at a time (which happened in Breckenridge) must have worn these doctors out, but they continued to help the sick in their communities. We know that there were nurses involved, and at least one in Alma lost her life while helping the sick. The Red Cross chapters in Gratiot County mainly focused their efforts on providing an assortment of dressings, garments, and other things for the war and war relief, working out of their local rooms.  It is not clear what effect they had in the county, but they continued to focus on their work and mission for those people in need in the military and in Europe. Gratiot County has many stories of individuals who helped others by leaving their homes to take care of relatives and loved ones. In different instances, people left Gratiot County and traveled distances to care for family and friends because no one else could help.

     5. Finally, we have to recognize the issues of blame and shame that came about as a result of the epidemic. Who was to blame for the Influenza Epidemic? Where did this plague originate? Why was it here, and what could be done to survive it? These were questions that people privately asked amidst the losses that they suffered in 1918-1919. For those who lost family members, there was no easy answer to these questions.  This generation lived with the shame that meant not talking about the epidemic and those who were lost. I believe that this issue of shame is the reason why many Americans never heard much about this epidemic.

     For those who have followed this blog over the past few weeks, I felt it was important at this period of American history to tell the story of the Influenza Epidemic as it related to Gratiot County. I have spent the past two months of my own quarantine deliberately trying to finish a first run of writing about the research I started two years ago. During the summer of 2018, I spent three weeks  at Virginia Tech working with a group of teachers in a National Endowment of the Humanities Seminar entitled “The Spanish Influenza of 1918.” My teacher was Dr. Thomas Ewing and we spent one of those weeks doing research at different places in Washington, D.C. Work in the Library of Congress was especially helpful in learning the story of influenza as it applied to Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. Records at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland also helped to shed light on what happened at Camp Custer.  Still, returning to Gratiot County’s newspapers enabled me to find the best examples of what happened where we live.

     In 1988, I sat in a history class at Central Michigan University about the Roaring Twenties. Professor Calvin Enders required the reading of one book, Geoffrey Perrett’s  America in the Twenties, which was then one of the more recent books written about that decade. One of Perrett’s first stories related to the end of World War I described the Influenza Epidemic in the United States in 1918-1919. I had never heard of this event, and I knew nothing of its history – even on what was then the 70th anniversary of the epidemic. Back then it was hard for me to understand why I had never heard of this chapter in our history.

    It was also in the late 1980s that I lost my father’s parents, who had grown up as children during the World War I era. In all of my experiences of hearing my paternal grandmother talk about growing up in Newark Township, I never once heard her refer to the Influenza Epidemic. I later found out that Newark Township was hit hard – and that Myrtle Bliss had lost a sibling to disease just prior to the epidemic. Down the road from each other, two large families, named Bliss and Goodspeed, each with many children, grew up and lived during this time when the spectre came to Gratiot County.

     And to my knowledge, none of my family and relatives ever talked about it.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, the Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919 – Part VI: “Gratiot County Rides the Waves, January-March 1919”

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Above: A collection of advertisements from Gratiot County newspapers dealing with the Influenza Epidemic. The top two appeared in the Gratiot County Herald in early 1920; the bottom appeared in the Alma Record in the fall of 1918.

     Early in 1919, Gratiot County, like the rest of the United States, tried to survive the succeeding waves of the Flu Epidemic. After the second wave of the virus seemed to subside around New Years, a third wave began in late winter. Many hoped that the epidemic would end by 1919,  but people in Gratiot County continued to get sick and die. It would turn out that influenza had not yet finished in Gratiot County.

January 1919 – End of the Second Wave?

    Several communities ended their quarantines, believing that the virus had passed. Now, other diseases affected people who encountered influenza. In Riverdale, the town experienced an outbreak of diphtheria.  In East Alma, typhoid fever could be found. These diseases came about after the government warned the public about how victims of influenza could be susceptible to tuberculosis, diphtheria, and scarlet fever.

    In January, people continued to appear in large groups, appearing unconcerned that diseases could be transmitted from person to person. Riverdale opened its roller rink after closing it for six weeks due to the epidemic, and a large crowd turned out on that Saturday night. Southeast Coe lifted the quarantine there, and the church quickly reopened. Elder Start felt so good that he gave two sermons on that Sunday. The Alma Red Cross restarted its work in meeting rooms in the Pollasky Block, determined to make more pieces for the destitute in Belgium. A new organization, the Gratiot County Good Health Society, held its first meeting in Alma in the Director’s Room of the First State Bank. The organization was formed to promote good health in Alma.   In Breckenridge, quarantines on the households of Chauncey Sheppard and George Coleman ended, and families started going out into public. Out west of Ithaca, 25 people gathered at the home of Freda Goodspeed, who was celebrating her tenth birthday. It was reported that the large group enjoyed the party. In all, people did not seem concerned about meeting in large groups in the wake of the epidemic.

     And yet people kept dying.  The death of W.G. Ballman, who operated the cafeteria at the Republic Truck Company in Alma, shocked many people. Ballman died after being sick one week. In Southeast Coe, Mary Myers, age 16, died from influenza, followed by pneumonia. She was quickly buried in Pleasant Ridge Cemetery. Farmers in Breckenridge found it hard to believe that Earl Whitney, who had a family and lived north of the village, died at the age of 28. He also was quickly buried in Ridgelawn Cemetery.  Whitney left a young wife and two small children behind. Another shock that month took place in Alma when Fred Von Thurn, a former Republic Truck employee who was well known in town, died after a week of battling influenza. Probably the most encouraging news for Gratiot County amid the deaths was that the number of those reported to be sick seemed to be declining.

The Third Wave Hits Gratiot County

     After these things took place, another wave of influenza struck the county in February 1919. Of the many hot spots, Breckenridge was especially hard hit. Someone in Breckenridge despaired that “The flu seems to be sweeping our town and community.”  On February 3, Doctor Drake reported that he had 36 new cases in his care.  In St. Louis, Doctor H.B. Pettit had relapsed to the extent that another doctor had to be called in to care for Pettit. Quarantines quickly took place in St. Louis. Clarence L. King, age 25, died of influenza, and a private funeral took place for him. Residents in St. Louis also were shocked when Fred A. Bieber, a well-liked bank employee, died at the age of 29 from influenza. The St. Louis Leader published an extensive story on Bieber’s service to the city and his sudden death. Another young man, Dean Mitchell, age 28, died in Hamilton Township. These deaths took place amidst the reappearance of diseases in a town like diphtheria and typhoid fever, which took the life of eleven-year-old Ernest Tenney in St. Louis.

    As the epidemic slowly passed that month, the biggest news in February involved the results of the Thornburgh trial in Ithaca. Doctor Frank Thornburgh and Mrs. Holcomb from Mt. Pleasant were tried for violating the quarantine of the Worden home in Alma the previous October. When young Albert Worden became ill, Dr. T.J. Carney, the city’s Health Officer, arrived and diagnosed Worden with influenza. Carney also ordered that a sign be posted that the household was infected. Mother Worden called for another opinion, calling in Mrs. Holcomb and Dr. Thornburgh, who said that the child had typhoid fever. The family removed the sign and put one up that read “No Influenza.” From there, city officials again changed the sign, and the health board and mayor issued a warrant to arrest Thornburgh for violation of the health laws. Now, the trial finally took place, and after a long two-day trial, the jury announced at 11:00 pm that Thornburgh was guilty. The doctor then filed an appeal. Eventually, Thornburgh paid a fine and planned to move away. However, he practiced in Alma years later.

    At the end of the spring, influenza managed to wipe out the family of Adelbert “Dell” Lane, a well known Ithaca resident. Lane’s wife contracted cancer and passed after two operations. Before her death, Dell Lane had heart trouble and died. Their son, Harry Lane, a teacher who lived in the East, made the trip home to bury his parents. After settling his parents’ affairs, Harry left for home and quickly contracted influenza, which turned to pneumonia. A telegram arrived in Ithaca the next day telling friends how the grim reaper, wiped out an entire family in only a few weeks.

Late Winter 1920

    From spring 1919 through New Years 1920, little seemed to be written about influenza. That changed starting in February 1920 when another outbreak took place with the intensity of what happened in 1918-1919.

    Every part of Gratiot County again suffered from a flu virus, spreading out in the countryside, closing schools and churches. Only five people were reported as having died. However, there was a long, long list of the sick. This outbreak lasted well into April.

    Newark Township was one of the first places to report, and the township suffered greatly. After listing the sick, the writer said, “Here is hoping that your correspondent will not have to write about so much sickness next week. May all who are sick be restored to health.”  South Fulton Township also had problems with influenza. “Nearly the whole of South Fulton are sick with the flu,” said an observer. At least eight families were then named, like the Days, Litwillers, Harters, and Fields. Schools in the different townships closed, sometimes because the teachers were too sick to teach. Telephone operation in Forest Hill was in trouble as the operators were sick. Forest Hill also closed schools as teachers and the superintendent became sick.  A common observation was that the doctors across the county could barely keep up with treating the sick, even as the numbers declined.

    Late in February, it was reported that “The influenza epidemic has been gradually gaining hold in St. Louis until it has reached a point where the physicians have about reached their capacity for caring for cases.” The schools in St Louis also went closed. During the first week of March, people in Breckenridge were excited as no new cases had been reported, and individuals seemed to be recovering. Still, Doctor Huebner, the new health officer in Ithaca, had trouble keeping up with the posting of quarantine cards in Ithaca in mid-May because too many Ithaca families were sick. Sprague’s Drug Store in Ithaca ran an advertisement that May, which urged “BEWARE OF THE FLU.”

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

Those Who Died: January 1919-April 1919

W.G. Ballman – Alma

Mary Myers – SE Coe

Marie Guilds Corder – Riverdale

Earl Whitney – Breckenridge

Dean Mitchell – Hamilton Township

Fred Von Thurn – Alma

Ernest Tenney – St. Louis

Clarence L. King – St. Louis

Fred Bieber – St. Louis

Harry Lane – Ithaca (came home to bury parents, contracted influenza)

Those Who were Sick:

Floyd Smith Family – St. Louis

Doctor H. B. Pettit – St. Louis

Miss Lailah Harrison, Stacey Hart, Parks child, Mrs. Ralph Smith, Miss Vera Smith, two unnamed children – Newark

Jesse Houlden, Elmer Brown, Eichorn Family, Bert Smith Family – Emerson

Will Barrett Family, Fern Langdon, George Cunningham Family, Tom Kavanaugh – North Shade









We Remember 1918: Ithaca’s Agnes Yutzey, YMCA Worker During World War I

Goodspeed's Gratiot County Historical Blog

IMG_20170614_144337648.jpgYutzey passport.jpgYutzey portrait.jpgAbove: Agnes Yutzey’s YMCA portrait; Yutzey’s application for a  passport; staff picture from Ithaca Schools, taken prior to volunteering to work with the YMCA.

Author’s note: The following article first appeared in the December 6, 2018 issue of the Gratiot County Herald.

         During World War I, over 13,000 volunteers went to France and England to serve in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).   It was a favorite place for American soldiers, offering them a place to eat, relax, read and write home.

        Agnes Yutzey, who lived near Middleton, was one of the many volunteers who left her job and went to Europe. During her youth, Yutzey’s parents moved so that she and her two sisters could attend school in Ithaca. A graduate of Central Michigan Normal School, she returned to Ithaca as a teacher before volunteering to head to Europe for the…

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The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, The Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919 – Part V: “Gratiot County Tries to Return to Normal”

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Above: Headlines and an advertisement from the Gratiot County Herald in December 1918.

The Holidays are Here,  Gratiot is Back to Business

From mid-November to early December 1918, Gratiot County tried to shift its focus away from the terrible influenza epidemic. With the holidays approaching, people were encouraged to resume their daily lives – especially regarding shopping and going to church. Governor Albert Sleeper issued a hopeful prayer at Thanksgiving in which he said that “We are thankful that a dread epidemic has been stayed (in Michigan), through the prompt measure taken by the public health authorities throughout the state and the intelligent cooperation of the whole people.” Sleeper implied that the crisis had ended by mid-November, but in reality, it had not.

Many churches also tried to resume regular Sunday worship services in Gratiot County. When the doors opened in the United Methodist churches at North Star, Beebe, and Newark, churchgoers received a pamphlet entitled “Government Supplement Number 34 on Spanish Influenza.” On the one hand, church doors opened. However, leaders warned churchgoers that they still needed to avoid influenza. The re-opening of some churches took place while Gratiot County merchants reminded the public that businesses were open and evening Christmas shopping hours would soon start.

All of these attempts leading up to December to start life again while claiming that the epidemic had ended was wishful thinking. The federal government released numbers showing that during the influenza epidemic, more people died in the United States from influenza than did soldiers who died fighting in France.  Newspapers reported that over 3,100 people died in Michigan, and the flu had not yet abated.

The Results – The Sick and the Dead

During December 1918, more Gratiot County people encountered influenza and related pneumonia. Amidst all of the re-opening of churches and stores, an ominous column, entitled “Deaths From Illness in Week,” continued to run in the Alma Record. Names and stories were told of those who died from influenza and pneumonia, many of whom included young adults, like Flossie Merrill or Mrs. Lewis Hudson, who died in their twenties and thirties. The Gratiot County Herald also ran stories of prominent citizens who suddenly died in Ithaca, such as Miss Esther Lewis and her mother. Many others from Gratiot County would be named in columns in places from Breckenridge, Riverdale, and St. Louis. For December, at least one hundred people either became sick or died in the county. A total of forty-three people died, including twenty in Alma. At least fifty-seven cases of those ill with influenza and pneumonia would also be reported.

The Public is Warned – Again

Mixed messages about influenza continued in Gratiot County during the Christmas season. On one side were those who proclaimed that the epidemic had passed, and that life should start to return to normal. Some businesses in the county that had been closed eagerly prepared for re-opening. In Ithaca, the Ideal Theatre moved to a new location in town, purchased new seating, and awaited business to return. The Liberty and Idlehour in Alma did the same; the Idlehour bought and installed a new motor-generator to show better quality pictures. Gilbert Genesta was raring to go in Alma at his two theatres, and even announced re-opening before the quarantine officially ended. However, Genesta had to be told by the health department that he could not open.

Alma businesses announced that they would be open evenings for Christmas starting December 9 and would remain open until Christmas. The extended shopping hours allowed people who worked day jobs to have opportunities to shop at night. Alma also tried to lure shoppers with decorations in stores, shop windows, and advertisements with plenty of goods on the shelves. Business remained steady over at the Gratiot County Herald, which published a twenty-eight-page paper, but lamented that it could have done thirty-two pages if one of its foremen had not been sick with the flu. The article chimed that “This week, despite the ‘flu’ (the paper), (there) will also be a big issue.” At Christmas, the Herald also pronounced that in Gratiot County, “the excessive conservation has passed, and we are about to return to something like normal conditions.”  Still, the continuing December epidemic ran counter to “normal conditions.”

Newspapers continued to warn people of lives lost. A report from Doctor Olin, Secretary of State Board of Health, reported that 3, 176 Michigan residents had died so far. However, the actual numbers were believed to be much higher. Several large cities in southeast Michigan remained in quarantine lockdown in late November as over 800 new cases cropped up in the state.  Doctor James King of the United States Army Medical Corps, offered his first opinion that this strain of influenza originated as a “pneumonic plague” that may have started as early as 1910 in Manchuria, and which then spread across China.

Another health warning concerned tuberculosis, which now attacked survivors of influenza. The Red Cross warned of the dangers of tuberculosis and urged people to seek their doctor for treatment.  A recent explosion of the disease in England and Spain caused concern.

 December Quarantines

Mask wearing during the quarantine, which started in November, seemed awkward to some. Alma College students quickly observed how their professors and faculty members tried to wear what they comically termed “the three-layer cheesecloth masks.” Students noted that many of the professors found it hard to speak or sing with their masks on during chapel. President Crooks wore his like a bib, tied around his collar. Other professors tried to talk around their masks, and a faculty member did not wear one at all. Regardless, anyone coming down the hill after chapel or classes into town had to wear a mask.

Alma continued to use vaccinations to combat influenza. Over at the Republic Truck Company, an estimated 500 workers lined up at different times to get free shots. On the first day that the vaccinations were offered at one of the plants, 263 employees wanted the shots. When the plant opened early on another Friday, forty more people waited in line.

To further cope with the epidemic, Alma’s churches called for a Day of Prayer on December 15 for thanksgiving, forgiveness, and repentance. Churches observed that Alma had been spared from widespread devastation so far but acknowledged that the plague still needed to be stamped out in the county.

As more outbreaks of the epidemic took place in Alma in early December, leaders of the health committee and city doctors met to discuss creating a city hospital to hold the sick. The group, however, decided to send the sick to Dr. Brainerd’s Hospital.

One of the most challenging jobs during the epidemic in each town or village in Gratiot County belonged to the health officer. Doctor T. J. Carney in Alma led the battle to get the public to observe quarantines and to take the spread of influenza seriously. Carney clashed with families who refused to put up signs to warn the public about infected homes. He also dealt with people who insisted on visiting the sick, as well as other doctors who challenged Carney’s authority. After only two months of combatting the flu epidemic in Alma, Carney resigned. While other doctors were asked to take the position of the city health officer, most declined due to added stress and little extra pay. Eventually, Dr. J.N. Day took over the job, but he did so only if he was paid an additional $250 for the remainder of the term in office.  A similar occurrence with the health officer took place in Ithaca.  Doctor Lydia Higgins resigned after holding the office for less than a year. Higgins cited the extra stress and demands on her job in Ithaca for her resignation. No doctor offered to replace Higgins, so George H. Clow, village marshal, was appointed.

By late December, the State Board of Health issued warnings about quarantines in Michigan during the epidemic. It found that the continued spread of influenza resulted from not observing individual quarantines. The Board also called for the arrests of people who refused to obey.  In many communities, the health officer had to act as a peace officer, confronting people who failed to observe quarantines. In too many cases, families opposed health officers by not allowing them into the house. The State Board of Health called for a proper official to serve warrants to enforce quarantines, not the health officers.  Also, the Board confronted the public with its responsibility to inform local authorities concerning quarantine violations. In Gratiot County, some people failed to enforce quarantines with their own homes, and citizens reported violators in the neighborhood.

In December, there were plenty of ways that people continued to take risks of contracting or spreading influenza because no one else could help their sick family members. Irving Wood and his wife from Breckenridge headed to Fairgrove to care for their son and his wife. The young couple had suffered a relapse of influenza. In another instance, Lena Johnson of Sumner went to the Lansing Training Center to help her sick brother, who had been ill for five weeks.

Public gatherings still took place while the epidemic continued. The St. Louis United Methodist Church rededicated its new church after canceling the service in November due to the epidemic. Many turned out for the service. Over at the Ithaca Courthouse, one of the cases related to the 1917 murder of Alma’s Beatrice Epler began. The judge warned spectators in the courtroom that they could be sitting too close together.  He also warned the large crowd that quarantine was in effect in parts of the county, such as Ithaca. What was the result? A packed courtroom of people from across Gratiot  County turned out to hear about one of the accused in Beatrice Epler’s murder. The Red Cross, which closed many meetings, sponsored a dance at the Ashley Opera House, just as Ashley was recovering from a large number of influenza deaths during November. Over in New Haven, forty people “belled”  C.H. Blanchard and his wife during the late evening of December 12. For fifteen minutes, the crowd made all the noise it could outside the house, then the group was invited in by the newlyweds for supper, visiting, and games. They all left at 2:00 am.

When the epidemic flared again in December, all public areas were closed the week before Christmas. This quarantine also included the Ithaca schools.   Two prominent deaths occurred in Ithaca, coinciding with warm weather, and officials quickly closed Ithaca again – except for the stores which remained open. During Ithaca’s second closure, the Gratiot County Herald observed that many people in Ithaca went about with “sore arms” due to all of the vaccinations that doctors gave to people.

Other schools in Gratiot County that closed due to the epidemic re-opened, then closed again. St. Louis schools closed for much of December and planned to re-open December 30.  Alma boasted that its schools would remain open as school attendance kept growing, with over 93 percent of students in class during November. Some teachers, like Anna Clegg of St. Louis, came home from her assignment in Clare because that school closed until January.

Following Alma’s attempt to re-open the town in December, St. Louis tried to follow suit. A week before Christmas, St. Louis lifted its ban on public meetings and the wearing of masks. To prepare for business, St. Louis pledged that it would disinfect all of its public buildings. D.T. Kemp, city health officer, oversaw the plans.

Influenza Still Claims Those from the War

In all of the local news going on with the influenza epidemic, the status of Gratiot County’s World War veterans still appeared as news reports arrived during December. Private Walter Christy of the 4th Mechanic Regiment Air Service told his family that he had been sick for ten days in France, but he had resumed flying again. Fred Tryon of Breckenridge was also in France, had battled influenza for three weeks, and now was doing better. Private Ralph Miller of Alma improved after encountering influenza at Camp Wadsworth. His condition was such that his wife was called to come to visit him, then she returned home.

Out in Riverdale, the remains of Frank White arrived at his parents’ home. White served in the Navy and died from influenza and pneumonia in early November aboard the USS Mexican, a transport ship. White made four trips across the Atlantic and then died in Marseilles, France. Also, Miss Erma Harris, who was to marry White when he returned home, died in Riverdale of pneumonia on the same date that White did. Neither knew that the other one was sick. In another case, people in Bethany Township learned that Ernest Ray Showers, a local boy, died at Camp Douglas, Arizona, from influenza and pneumonia. His body came home for burial at Lakeview. Finally, the Gratiot County wife of a serviceman, Mrs. Suzie Fraker Smith of Fulton Center, recently battled influenza. She then received the news that her husband had been killed in France in October. The couple married just days before Lyle left for Camp Custer in November 1917.

Copyright 2020 James M. Goodspeed


The Continued Plight of the Sick and the Dead in December 1918

Those Who were Sick:

Private Walter Christy (France)

Private Ralph Miller, St. Louis – Camp Wadsworth

Fred Tryon, Breckenridge – France

New cases December 5 in Riverdale (unnamed)

Breckenridge December 5 – 9 sick

Martin Muscott, Breckenridge

Mr. and Mrs. A.J. McDonald, St. Louis

Mrs. William Burl, St. Louis

Mrs. Ed Gable, Newark

Henry Rhynard, Perrinton

Mrs. George Myers, Seville Center

Pearl Peters, Fulton Center

Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Austin, Alma

Mr. and Mrs. James Wiltshire, Alma

Mrs. Wright and her father, Ebenezer Valley, Alma

Vincent Hawks, Ithaca

Mrs. Maud Campbell, Ithaca

W.C. Sargent, Ithaca

Charles Holmes’ four children, Alma

Mrs. Floyd White, Alma

Three Davison children, Alma

Mrs. R.C. Baldwin, Breckenridge

A.E.Pinney, Ithaca

Mrs. O. Moon, Pompeii

Orin Nettle, Pompeii

Gertrude Sutton – Pompeii

Mrs. A. Kochensparger, Ashley

Mrs. C.E. Weller’s daughter, Ashley

Darcy Reist, Ashley

Miss Ida Young, Ithaca

Hilda Pohly, Ashley

Miss Olive Myers, Breckenridge

Mrs. M. W. Muscott and children, Breckenridge

Mrs. John Allen, Breckenridge

Grace Young, Breckenridge

Mrs. B.G. Campbell, Breckenridge

Mrs. H.B. Stuckey, Alma

Miss Alberta Carson, Alma

R.H. Harrington, Riverdale

Mrs. Maud Campbell, Ithaca

Those Who Died in December 1918:

Mrs. Dean Shook, Breckenridge

Mrs. R. Coleman, Breckenridge

Mrs. Ward Long, Breckenridge

Mr. and Mrs. James Frye, Davis District

Mrs. Ray Coleman, Breckenridge

Ida Morrison, Middleton

Rufus Durbin, Middleton

James Goodwin, Ithaca

Herbert Hayes, St. Louis

Mrs. Nina Shook, Breckenridge

Mary Bellows, Gratiot County native

Mrs.Dora Watson, Ithaca

Esther Lewis and mother, Ithaca

The infant child of Mrs. Floyd White, Alma

Mrs. Ward Long and 18-month-old child, Breckenridge

Mrs. R.H. Brown, Alma

Mrs. Lewis Hudson, Alma

Flossie Merrill, Alma

Julia Evans, Alma

Ralph Swarthout, Alma

Mrs.Frank Riggs, Arcada Township