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.

Yesterday the kindergarteners from USD 347 visited the exhibits.  They saw many images of Black Sunday and listened to three stories of people remembering April 14, 1935.  Children caught in a storm were taught to hold hands, follow a fence, make protection out of tumbleweeds, and wait for help.  One story tells of how a dog safely leads some teenage boys home when they could not see.  The children thought it would have been very scary being caught in Dust Storm.  They had an opportunity to look at the pictures in the exhibit and find ones that made them feel scared of sad.  They decided they would not have liked livingK1 during the Dust Bowl days and hoped it never happens again.

Library showing of documentary

Today the library showed Parts 1 & 2 of Ken Burn’s “Dust Bowl” documentary.  It is really amazing at how the people experienced and faced all of the adversities of the drought in the 1930’s  This documentary has lots of movie footage, still photos, and interviews of people who lived through it including Kansans from Morton County.  So next Sunday, Feb. 1, if you are looking for a way to avoid the hours of pregame Super Bowl coverage, join us for Parts 3 & 4.  It will be showing from 2-4 p.m., so you can still get home for kick off at 5:30.Jan25b 002

Ken Burns “Dust Bowl” to show January 25

You are invited to the Kinsley Library on Sunday, January 25, when we will be showing parts 1 & 2 of Ken Burns’ “Dust Bowl” from 2-4 p.m.  This PBS documentary chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.  It is being shown in conjunction with the “Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry” exhibit now on display at the library.   There are vivid interviews with more than two dozen survivors of those hard times, along with with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage.  If you haven’t seem this film, It will bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance.

“Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry” open house was a great success today. People came from as far away as Salina. Everyone enjoyed the exhibits, the homemade cookies (thank you Friends of the Kinsley Library) and Sand Hill Plum punch. Many people took advantage of the QR codes to listen to people remembering the Dust Bowl days. (Some used their cell phones and others used library tablets.)

Just a reminder that our first “It Blew So Hard” series meeting is tomorrow, Sunday, Jan. 11 from 2-5 p.m. (The library will open at 1 p.m. for those who want to take in the exhibit first.) Dr. Leo Oliva will be providing an introduction to the Dust Bowl Era and we’ll have a reenactment of a Dust Bowl farmer by Nolan Sump. Hope to sDDDopenHouseeditDDDopenHouseEdit2ee you tomorrow at the library.



Our 2015 discussion series, “It Blew So Hard: The Dust Bowl and Great Depression in Western Kansas” is all set for you to register.  The Kansas Humanities Council awarded the library $2,705.00 in support of the series which will again be led by Dr. Leo E. Oliva.  I am really excited about the series and all of the presenters, films, oral histories, and exhibits that will be involved.
Meetings are set from 2-5 pm on Sunday afternoons: January 11, February 8, March 8, and April 12.  It is free and open to the public.  People are asked to register for the series at the Kinsley Library website www.kinsleylibrary.info or by calling (620-659-3341) or coming to the library.
I’ll be telling you a little about the series in the next few days or you can get the whole schedule with session details and additional information about presenters and suggested readings.  Why not check it out and register today!

1965 Arkansas River flood movie


Here’s a link to a 3 minute 16mm film of the Arkansas River flood in Kinsley taken from a helicopter on June 21, 1965 by Marvin Ryan.  Gizmo Pictures digitized the film for the library to archive.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIoEG_65apg&feature=youtu.be

It and the interview transcripts and display from the “Turning Point:  Stories of Change” premiere can all be found linked on the Kinsley Library site:   http://kinsleylibrary.info/flood-archive/

The next post will leave the world of floods and enter the world of droughts as we continue our investigation of the Dust Bowl.  The outline of the discussion series, “It Blew So Hard:  The Dust Bowl and Great Depression in Western Kansas,” winter discussion series starting January 11 will soon be posted.

Premiere a Success

The premiere went well despite a couple of technical problems (Thanks to James DuBois, we were able to get through most of them.)  We had a nice crowd and it was fun to see everyone up on the big screen.  If you missed it, we’ll have the films on the website in early December after the premieres have all happened.   You will then be able to enjoy it on the small screen.

I put together an exhibit of photos, newspaper articles, and quotations from the interviews which was unveiled at the premiere and is now on display at the library.  Visit   http://kinsleylibrary.info/flood-archive/  to view the exhibit on line.  There are also complete transcripts of the interviews made for both films online.

A big shout out to Leslie Von Holten, Program Director for the Kansas Humanities Council, who oversaw this project.  It was great to have her here yesterday.  I also want to thank Marsha Bagby, Jay Dill, and Steve Samuelson for serving on the panel.  I believe citizens got some answers to questions and at least one learned how to get documentation that would stipulate that her house was not in the floodplain.

This project gives the library an extensive file on the areas flooding.  I have enjoyed researching this historical perspective and appreciate all of the information that the local people have provided in the form of interviews, pictures, and documents.  This blog will be leaving the realm of Too Much Water to one of Not Enough Water as we proceed with our exploration into the Dust Bowl Era.  So stay tuned for more enlightenment from the Best Small Library in Kansas.  (Wamego Public Library will take over that title later this week.)