Author Archives: Joan Weaver, Kinsley Library Director

Many Would Be Naturalized

Like today, immigrants and naturalization were in the news 100 years ago.  The following appeared in the Kinsley Mercury, April 5, 1917:

“There have been many applications filed at the courthouse for naturalization papers, most of them being taken out by former German citizens. The present outlook for war with Germany has probably some bearing on this, as no citizen of another country can take out papers for naturalization if this country is at war with the country from which he came. He may file a declaration of his intensions, which is the first step toward becoming a citizen of the United States, but can go no farther until peace is declared.”

The article goes on to tell that Albert Stach had been granted his final papers in March, less than one month before war was declared.  Others mentioned in the article would have to wait until after the war, which was declared one day after this article was published. They included Otto Tuchtenhagen, Joseph Wolf, Anton Goldhammer and Henry Herrmann who filed their petitions for final papers in March and had been scheduled to be heard in November.  Also to be put off were several who filed Declarations of intentions including: Mike Kozokan, John Mekach, August Ploger, William Ploger, Henry Ploger, and Henry Salm.  Most of these men had immigrated to the United States with their parents in the 1880s. Descendant relatives of some of these men still reside in Edwards County.

When the United States Congress declares war on Germany on April 6, 1917, these men and many other German and Italian immigrants would go from being on the path to citizenship to having to register as Alien Enemies.


German Submarines Sink American Ships

“The American Ship Vigilancia, sunk by a German submarine, occupied a warm spot it the hearts of Kansas negroes.  It was the ship that carried the Kansas negro troops to Cuba during the Spanish-American War.”    (Kinsley Mercury, March 29, 1917)

This brief mention of the Vigilancia in the Mercury tells about the dangers German submarines brought to the Atlantic.  Despite the fact that the Vigilancia was flying the American flag and had the name of the ship and the flag painted on both sides, it was torpedoed on March 16, 1917, 145 miles west of the Scilly Islands, Great Britain on its way back to New York.

Vigilancia’s Captain, Frank A. Middleton, reported that the ship was attacked without warning at 10 a.m. Friday morning.  Two torpedoes were fired.  The first one went astern and missed the ship, but the second one hit the starboard side. It took no more than 10 minutes for the ship to founder.

Two lifeboats were lowered from the Vigilancia and the crew of 43 men got into them.  Owing to the swell of the ocean, however, 25 men were thrown into the water.  Ten were able to be picked up by the lifeboats, but the other 15 men were drowned.

 “After rescuing as many of the crew as possible in the boats,” reported Captain Middleton, “we had biscuits and water. At night I fired distress signals. Several times, by the glare of the lights, I saw a submarine following fifty yards from the boats between 10 o’clock Friday night and 2:30 o’clock Saturday morning, but it made no attempt to help us.  We suffered great hardships in the boats.  One man of the engine room staff is paralyzed as a result of exposure.”  (Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1917)

The survivors remained in the lifeboats from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon before being picked up and taken to the Scilly Islands.

During the month of March, four other American ships were sunk (Algonguin, City of Memphis, Illinois, and Healdton).  American ships began arming themselves for protection.  President Wilson contemplated calling for an immediate session of Congress to ask for authority to adopt aggressive measures including sending warships with orders to seek out submarines to clear the trans-Atlantic lanes.  The country was getting closer to declaring war.

Before leaving this post, I want to go back to the quote from the Kinsley Mercury regarding the all-black 23rd Kansas Volunteer Infantry during the earlier Spanish-American War.  The 23rd was commanded by Lt. Col. James Beck and led by other black officers.  This was unique at a time when white officers normally were in charge.

The 23rd left Topeka on August 22, 1898 for New York City and on August 25 sailed for Cuba on the Vigilancia.  It was a stormy and uncomfortable voyage, but they arrived in San Luis, Cuba where they took up occupation duties of guarding Spanish prisoners of war from guerrilla bands and later helping to build roads, bridges, and improve sanitation.

These citizen-soldiers ate poorly with meals of rancid bacon and coal oil damaged wheat.  They had no fresh meat until December.  Still, they were better off than the inhabitants who were starving.  They were also plagued with malaria, typhoid and dysentery.  Despite these conditions, “Excellent discipline was maintained and all duties were cheerfully and faithfully performed.”  They came back to Fort Leavenworth on March 6, 1899.  (This information was gleaned from The Black Citizen-Soldiers of Kansas, 1864-1901, by Horace Leonard Baker and Roger D. Cunningham.

Kansas is Ready

An article which ran in the March 8, 1917 edition of the Kinsley Mercury had the headline “Ready to Back President.  Kansas Troops in Splendid Condition for Active Service, Says Adjutant General Martin.”  The article states that 2000 Kansas men, just out of service with 6 or 7 months of training could be turned over to the federal government on short notice.

“Kansas is in excellent shape, no matter what turn affairs take,” said General Martin.   “The national guard…have had service on the border, and while they have had no actual fighting, they have had training and discipline.”

The words “on the border” sent me off reviewing history again.  The Mexican Revolution ran from 1910-1920.  In March, 1916, Pancho Villa’s attack on the United States threatened to draw the United States into all-out war with Mexico.  Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing led a horse-mounted column of Regular Army Soldiers on a punitive expedition across the U.S. border into Mexico less than a week after the attack. Villa avoided capture at this time.

More border attacks followed in early May, so President Wilson used the newly enacted National Defense Act of 1916 to activate the National Guard in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to assume protection of the border. These units could only raise about 5,000 soldiers, primarily infantrymen.  Cavalrymen were badly needed.  By mid-June, Wilson mobilized an additional 110,000 National Guard soldiers from every state except Nevada which had no Guard.

The fast military action and the subsequent deployment of the National Guard would be instrumental in shifting the initiative, tactically and diplomatically, back to the Americans.  In January 1917, Gen. Pershing’s regular Army troops returned from Mexico. The border crisis was, for the most part, over. On Feb. 17, 1917, the War Department ordered all National Guard units to return home.

The Mercury article continues to say that Kansas was ready to support President Wilson even though they had voted for him because “he had kept us out of war”.  Since the U.S. government had broken diplomatic relations with the imperial government of Germany over their submarine policy, the Kansas House of Representatives adopted the following resolution:

“Resolved, By the house of representative of Kansas, this third day of February, 1917, the senate not in session, that the speaker of the house be directed to send a message to the President of the United States and to the president of the senate and the speaker of the house of representatives, expressing confidence in the President and congress and pledging support of the state to the full extent it may be necessary to call upon it in this grave crisis.”

American Writers in the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps

I’m going to leave Lester Johnson for a while, but don’t forget him.  He will be
reappearing “in the local news” in the future.

I mentioned earlier that American poet E. E. Cummings also joined the American Ambulance Corp in 1917 before the USA entered the war.  I just finished reading, The Enormous Room, an account of his experiences in a French detention center when he was picked up with a friend who was charged with espionage.  It was interesting both in reading about the conditions he was forced to live in for several months and in his often satiric perspective of the situation and the war.  I do wish I had taken French in school, because it is liberally sprinkled in throughout his book.

A year after graduating from high school, Ernest Hemingway responded to a Red Cross recruitment effort in Kansas City and signed on to become an ambulance driver in Italy in 1918.  I have just enjoyed rereading his novel, A Farewell to Arms, which incorporated his experiences.

The next book on my reading list is by another well-known American writer, John Dos Passos.  He was also a member of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps in Paris and in Italy.  He later joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps.  In 1921 he wrote Three Soldiers, which is considered a classic of the realist war novel genre.  Critic H.L. Mencken wrote “No war story can be written in the United States without challenging comparison with it—and no story that is less meticulously true will stand up to it….It changed the whole tone of American opinion about the war; it even changed the recollections of actual veterans of the war.”

I invite you to join me in downloading Three Soldiers for free from the Gutenberg Project – or you can request the book from your local library.

Lester Johnson and the American Ambulance Corp – Part 4

100 years ago today, on march 8, 1917,  the following letter from Lester Johnson was published in the Kinsley Graphic.

  “We left New York at 6:30 p.m. Sunday night, February 4, just a week ago today.  They were a little slow in coaling the steamer, so had to wait over those three hours.  As the Rochambeau pulled in its anchor two tugs started us out of the harbor.  Soon she got under way and as we passed the end of the pier, several hundred people waved us a farewell.  The whistles blew and bells rang forth their good wishes as we passed on up the harbor.

                “Standing on the deck with Deke, my room-mate, we watched New York pass out of sight.  The most wonderful sight I ever beheld was when we passed the Goddess of Liberty.  There she stood with her arm upraised, bidding us God-speed on our journey to France.  If you remember, the statue was a present from France many years ago.

                “After watching the lights for several hours, we descended to our stateroom and started in on our first sleep aboard ship.  The ship kept within the three-mile limit for some distance northward and then toward morning made a dash for the open sea. 

                “When I arose next morning, bright and early, the sea was quite rough – ‘le mer est grosse,’ as they say it in French.  I felt fine and had breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but did not get to finish it, as something told me I had better leave, and I did so just in time.  Went to bed and had breakfast in bed next morning, got up, and have felt fine ever since.  I consider myself some sailor.

                “There are 94 passengers on board – 54 first-class and 40 steerage.  The 54 first-class are composed of some very nice people, mostly French.  There are 14 American Red Cross men, a very good bunch, all college men.  The ‘eats’ on board are very good.   It is strictly French and is served in courses, about eight to each meal.  Cheese is their favorite dish.  We generally have our breakfast in our stateroom, then have lunch in the diner at 12, and dinner at 7 in the evening.

                “We have had a pretty good sea so far – some days somewhat rough, but as a rule one could walk on deck every day.  The other night we gave a concert, as you will see from the program enclosed.  It was for the benefit of the Red Cross.  I sang a solo and played the piano, which is a grand and hasn’t been turned since the war begun.

                “Saturday night the lights were put out for fear of being detected by a German submarine.  I being in an outside stateroom, have had to go to bed ever since then without a light.  All the portholes and windows have heavy iron doors, or rather blinds.  Last night I went out on deck about 10:30 and standing on the bow one could not see a light anywhere on the ship.  We are sailing without stern- or bow-lights.   It looked rather grewsome, as all the lifeboats were hanging down alongside the ship, ready for us to step into at any moment.  I am glad to see that, as a ship can sink in a few minutes and minutes count at such times.

                “For two days now we have been in the German submarine zone and have not seen a ‘sub’ yet, but we are all prepared.  The other day we had a deck drill, which consisted of putting on our life-preserves and making tracks for the lifeboats.  Mine is lucky 7.

                “Tonight, February 12, is about our worst night.  We are entering the Bay of Biscay, off the coast of Spain.  We are supposed to have four men-of-war to convey us into Bordeaux, but they have not appeared yet.  All the passengers have been notified to sleep with their clothes on.  Most of us will stay up all night to watch.  The Captain ordered us to bring our valuable papers and come up in the salon and stay prepared.  I am slated to play the piano to keep people awake.  Everyone is lounging around on deck or in the salon getting mighty sleepy.  The sea is so rough that our only danger is from a floating mine.  The moon has risen and it is quite comfortable on the starboard side where the wind does not reach us.

                “February 13 – The sea is still rough, but have only four hours to go before we are out of the danger zone.  Have not had a wink of sleep, so am very sleepy.  We are nearing the mouth of the river, and feel quite safe in saying we are all O.K.”

Lester Johnson and the American Ambulance Corp – Part 3

To continue with Lester Johnson’s story, a week after the first newspaper announcement, the Kinsley Mercury reported:

“P. H. Johnson received a telegram Sunday from his son, Lester Johnson, saying he was sailing that day at 3:30 with a party of medical students on the steamship Rochambeau for France, where they will serve in the ambulance corps of the French army for an enlistment period of six months.  The ship is sailing by way of Brazil to avoid the more dangerous submarine districts.”

Because the United States was not in the war, and Lester was going to France as a volunteer and not in the military, he did require a passport.  We found a copy of Lester’s application in a book of passport applications up to the year 1925 that was compiled by Ed Carlson, our go-to-historian on Kinsley and Edwards County.

Lester’s passport verified that Edward’s father had emigrated from Denmark to the United States in 1870.  Lester was going to France for “Service in the American Ambulance corps,” leaving from New York, sailing on board the Rochambeau on February 3, 1917 (ship pictured below).

Lester is described as 23 years old, 5’ 4” tall with a high forehead, blue eyes, straight nose, medium mouth, round chin, brown hair, fair complexion and round face. It states that he was engaged in hospital work.

Unluckily for Lester, On February 1, Germany returned to a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that it had previously suspended in September, 1915 in response to pressure from the United States and other neutral countries.

You may recall that early in 1915, Germany declared the area around the British Isles a war zone, in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, would be attacked by the German navy.  After several attacks, the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915.  The Lusitania was a British passenger ship, and 1,201 people drowned including 128 Americans. The Germans cited that the Lusitania was carrying a supply of munitions to justify the attack.   U.S. President Woodrow Wilson demanded an end to German attacks against unarmed merchant ships, and by September, 1915, the German navy was persuaded to suspend U-boat warfare altogether.  But the German army and navy ultimately convinced Kaiser Wilhelm that the U-boat was essential for the war strategy and victory, and it was reinstated on February 1, 1917.

The next post will be Lester’s own words in the form of a letter written aboard the Rochambeau and published in the March 8, 1917 edition of the Kinsley Graphic.

Lester Johnson and the American Ambulance Corps – Part 2

I became very intrigued with Lester Johnson, the volunteer ambulance driver, who was the topic of my last post.  I wanted to try to find out more about him.

I discovered in the library burial file that Lester’s mother, Dora B. Jacobson Johnson, died on May 13, 1913.  According to her obituary published in the Kinsley Graphic, she had been born in Bergen, Norway, on February 25, 1873.  She came to America with her parents when she was 7 years old.  They settled in Wisconsin where she would come to marry a Danish immigrant, Peter H. Johnson, in 1890.   Lester, was born in Marshfield, Wisconsin on March 27, 1993.

A few years after Lester was born, Mrs. Johnson contracted tuberculosis.  Seeking a better climate for her condition, the family tried living in Albuquerque and the Ozarks before coming to Kinsley in 1903.   When Dora died on May 13, 1913, her daughter Juanita (age 22), son Vernon (age 18 and just graduating from high school), and 1 1/2 year old baby Richard were at her side.  Lester was not there as he was a sophomore at the University of Kansas.

We can only wonder if it were his mother’s long illness that led Lester to pursue a pre-med course.  Reference Specialist Mindy Babarskis of the University of Kansas Spencer Research Library kindly scanned pages from the Jayhawker 1915 yearbook for me.  They record Lester’s graduation from KU and membership in two honorary fraternities, Acacia and Nu Sigma Nu.  Lester’s KU graduation picture accompanies this post.  Ms Babarskis did say that he did not continue to pursue a degree in medicine at KU.

What we do know, is 18 months after graduation, he became a volunteer ambulance driver in France.

1915 KU graduation picture

Lester Johnson & the American Volunteer Ambulance Corp – Part 1

I found the following tidbit in the February 2, 1917 issue of the Kinsley Mercury.

“Word has been received from Lester Johnson that he, in company with twelve other young men attending medical college, are expecting to sail for France the sixth of February to take up his duties in the American Ambulance Corps.”

Digging in the library archive, I discovered that Lester Johnson graduated from Kinsley High School in 1911.  I was curious about why he was joining the American Ambulance Corp two months before the United States would enter the war.  Doing a little research, I found that the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps, also known as the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corp was started in London in the fall of 1914 by noted archeologist Richard Norton, the son of a Harvard professor, and Henry Herman Harjes, a French millionaire banker who wished to help Norton by donating funds and ambulances.

The Corps was established to assist the movement of wounded Allied troops from the battlefields to hospitals in France. It began with two cars and four drivers and was associated with the British Red Cross and St. John Ambulance.

The poet Robert W. Service joined the Ambulance Corps in 1915.  Perhaps you remember him from your high school lit book as the writer of “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”  Before he became famous for his Alaskan narrative poetry, he wrote a book of war poetry, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, in 1916.  The first poem, entitled “Foreword” begins:

I’ve tinkered at my bits of rhymes
In weary, woeful, waiting times;
In doleful hours of battle-din,
Ere yet they brought the wounded in;
Through vigils of the fateful night,
In lousy barns by candle-light;
In dug-outs, sagging and aflood,
On stretchers stiff and bleared with blood;
By ragged grove, by ruined road,

By hearths accurst where Love abode;
By broken altars, blackened shrines
I’ve tinkered at my bits of rhymes.

You can download Rhymes of a Red Cross Man for free to your computer or device.  Let me know if you agree that that they poignantly capture the duties and life of an ambulance driver.

By 2017, when Lester Johnson went to France, the corps had grown to six hundred American volunteers driving three hundred ambulances.  Below is a picture of Lester Johnson as he embarked on his way to France.  I’ll be writing more about Lester in the next few posts.

Remembering World War I

The years 1914 to 1919 commemorate the centennial of World War I, known at the time as the Great War and called “The war to end all wars”. It had been raging in Europe for over 2½ years before the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917.
We’ll be marking the 100th anniversary of the United States involvement by highlighting how the first global war in history touched the lives of those who lived in Edwards County.
Many sacrifices were made both at home and by the local men who left as soldiers to fight in Europe.”
To begin with some historical context, the November 7, 1916 presidential election took place while Europe was engulfed in this war, Mexico was having a revolution, and women still could not vote.
The incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson won the election over the Republican candidate, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Like last November’s election, it was a hard-fought contest. Wilson defeated Hughes by nearly 600,000 votes in the popular vote and a narrow majority in the Electoral College where he won several swing states with razor-thin margins.
Although officially neutral in the European conflict, public opinion in the United States leaned towards the Allied forces headed by Great Britain and France against the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, due in large measure to the harsh treatment of civilians by the German Army in Belgium and northern France and the militaristic character of the German and Austrian monarchies.
In the February 2, 1917 issue of the Kinsley Mercury, the Kinsley Woman’s Club made an impassioned plea for people to give to the relief of the starving Belgium children.
“After two years beneath the upper and nether millstones of war, the Belgian people find themselves facing a new peril –the slow starvation of more than one million children.”
According to this article, it took $12 a year to supply an extra ration of food for a growing child and avoid starvation. The extra ration consisted of a biscuit with lard and a cup of cocoa.
“Think of it, you Americans who read this, you fathers and mothers of growing children! . . . Cannot we prosperous Kansans, who eat three bountiful meals a day, give liberally to those who are starving.”
But in spite of America’s sympathy with the plight of Europe and the Allied forces, most American voters, when they went to the polls in 1916, wanted to avoid involvement in the war. They preferred to continue a policy of neutrality. Wilson’s campaign slogans “He kept us out of war” and “America First” helped to reelect him.
From now until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2017, I want to continue to follow the local papers of 100 years ago in order to get a glimpse of the people in Edwards County and how they viewed and were affected by the war.

Yesterday a few brave people faced the bitter cold and 45 mph winds to come to the library to watch Part 2 of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Dust Bowl.  It covered the years after 1935 including the instigation of government programs which allowed some people to eat and stay on their farms.

It also began a discussion on future water concerns for the area and the Ogallala Aquifer.  If you have access to Kansas Kontact, (published by the Kansas Farmers Union, Winter 2015) or the Jan. 28 issue of the Edwards County Sentinel, you might be interested in an article written by Tom Parker.  It seems that one proposal to augment the aquifer has been put forth by the Kansas Aqueduct Coalition.   They “envision a lock and dam intake structure on the Missouri River near White Cloud pumping water to a nearby 13,000 acre source reservoir….Water would flow 360 miles in a zigzag route through a concrete lined canal 280′ wide and 23′ deep.  Fifteen pump stations would be necessary to lift the water about 1,600′ to a 25,000 acre terminal reservoir near Utica….”

Sounds expensive, perhaps impractical, and to my kayaking heart, tragic in the loss of a natural river.  Maybe this topic will come up in the April 12 discussion series meeting.  Wondering what your thoughts are?  Meanwhile, hope to see you this Sunday, Feb. 8, 2-5 at the library for a discussion on the Burns’ film and Caroline Henderson’s letters.