Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Council of Defense documents provide insight into Allen County during WW I

By Nancy McCammon-Hansen

Civic involvement took a unique turn in Allen County during World War I and recent work by two volunteers provides us with organized documentation to showcase this part of our city’s history.

Jeanne S. Miller and Lorraine H. Weier spent the better part of two years going through our collection of documents from the Allen County Council of Defense (COD), indexing the materials and creating 38 categories so that researchers can more easily find the information they need. The ten boxes of files and the resultant inventory list are now under review by our curator, Walter Font.

Both of these women enjoy Allen County history—Jeanne is a life-long Allen County resident and Laurie has lived here 53 years. This is not the first time they’ve worked on a project together—in fact, it’s the third! Going through massive amounts of paper can be “tedious, dull work” (their words, not this author’s) but they will readily share that the work can some days be fascinating, especially when the opportunity to compare “history” to today presents itself.

The Allen County COD was formed at the behest of the state, which had a state-level organization organized by the United States Council of Defense. The COD was formed by decree of President Woodrow Wilson shortly before the United States entered the WW I. Ultimately, there were national, state, county and township councils.

The Allen County Council “did about everything” according to Jeanne and Laurie, with members who “served voluntarily way past the end of the war. They were prominent citizens who had the time, talent and expertise to do the tasks that supported the war effort.”

Propaganda—on both sides of the war effort—was used by the COD to restrict Germans in their support of the homeland and to promote to “everyone to get on board and support the war effort.”

Fund raising was, as today, a part of the job with a surprising amount of money raised in Liberty bonds and for the Red Cross. Prominent male residents would go to movie theaters to promote the buying of bonds.

Also important to the war effort was the promotion of fair pricing of food stuffs and other vital materials. Farmers were encouraged to produce more crops due to famine in Europe and the Boys Working Reserve was formed to “employ” young men not old enough for the armed services but strong enough to be of service to farmers. A farming background helped, but even city dwellers were encouraged to apply and work for “a pittance”. Jeanne and Laurie found folders full of applications, cards and signatures as well as advice to farmers.

However, no African Americans were allowed to participate in the area’s farming. Integration was not yet a part of our culture. Jeanne and Laurie commented during the interview for this article that among the papers they were sorting was a slip of paper that discussed “black” soldiers not being able to attend local movie theaters and a proposal to change this policy. But they could not find any documentation that the policy was ever changed.

All policies were set at the national level. Jeanne and Laurie were surprised at how much money was raised locally for implementation of those policies as well as the number of citizens who were involved in this war-time effort.

A good example of basic needs by our military was a memo from then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt requesting that Americans contribute telescopes and binoculars to the Navy, which was unprepared to join in the fighting.

Fort Wayne during WW I was a very ethnic community comprised of a number of German immigrants, many of whom had not acquired US citizenship. One of the more interesting facts discovered during the cataloging of the COD materials was the attempt to forbid teaching and preaching in German. Lists of young people in German language congregations were developed and boys in particular were identified by age group.

The Allen County Public Library was given a list of books that were to be removed from the shelves. They complied.

The result of compliance to COD activities most often occurred through social coercion. You didn’t want to be seen as disloyal and pressure came from neighbor to neighbor to be a good American. People seemed more willing to go along with whatever the Federal government decreed, especially when it came to restrictions on rationing of items such as sugar and wheat as well as building materials.

In this election year it’s important to note that a major effort was made to get servicemen to vote absentee.

In an age where technology was not particularly well advanced, telegrams were the most often used method of communication.

Jeanne and Laurie will tell you that handling original documents almost a century old is a “privilege” and that history “comes alive” when you see the actual words of real people living in a particular age. Walter Font, the History Center’s curator, served as advisor for the project.

“He’s a true professional who knows his business,” said Jeanne. Laurie added that “Walter’s insight on how to make the material available and how to label folders so people can easily find what they’re looking for” were critical to the success of putting the collection into a usable form for researchers.

1 comment:

  1. Handling such original documents is indeed a privilege and an eye opening way to learn history. I was certainly surprised to hear about restrictions in preaching in the German language, among other things. However, I suppose anything is possible in the midst of war times.

    One thing to add to this article: an appreciation for the two volunteers who dedicated so many hours to complete this phase of the work of making the data from this collection possible.