“You need a wise crack now and then”: the World War II Service of Floyd Webster

From an original interview by Brenda Kay Wolfgram Moore in Kingsley, Michigan, undated. Webster added memories in an interview with Peter Newell, November 12, 2014.

This month’s “Celebrate the People” honors Floyd Webster, historian of the village of Kingsley since 1952, whose countless hours of work in that volunteer role has developed in to the local history collections held at the Kingsley Branch Library. Webster’s reminiscences focus on his years of service in World War II. Few of those who served remain to tell their stories; 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of that conflict.

While Grand Traverse Journal typically features stories concerning our local region, we recognize the importance of recording and publishing the stories of our residents, both for future generations and for the catharsis it gives those who have served.

Melvina and me at our wedding and San Antonio where we honeymooned.  Venice could not have been more beautiful than my bride in San Antonio.  Pictures are from my album.
Melvina and me at our wedding and San Antonio where we honeymooned. Venice could not have been more beautiful than my bride in San Antonio. Pictures are from my album.

In August 1942, I enlisted in the Army in Traverse City, Michigan.  Before my next birthday, unimaginable life changing events happened.  Not only would I get married and travel with the Army throughout the eastern United States,  but also see terrible devastation throughout most of northwestern Europe. A few days later, I went to Fort Custer in Battle Creek, and soon boarded a train to Chicago.  I had rarely ventured far from Kingsley, Michigan and now I was receiving Army training in Chicago, Illinois, where, one day, I happened to be eating at a Wimpie’s restaurant.  At a table by myself and being only one of several customers dressed in uniform,  I was conspicuous. Finally, a young man, about my age, introduced himself and we began to talk.  Gerald Putnam and I formed a friendship and later he introduced me to his sister, Melvina Putnam, whom I would soon be courting.

After Chicago, I continued by train to Little Rock, Arkansas for further training.  I weighed 117 pounds, my back pack 109 pounds, so if I had to shoot a bazooka, it would knock me on my butt.  Appearing too lightweight for the infantry,  I began my training in the renamed Chemical Corps that was attached to the Army Air Corps.  Because “Chemical Warfare Service” seemed a bit too harsh after the WWI experience, it was renamed Chemical Corps.    

I was being trained to decontaminate troops after being exposed to poisonous gases like cyanide and mustard.  The enemy could drop or spray it anywhere to quietly settle over the troops so it was on them before they even  noticed it was there.  If it soaked into their clothes they might as well forget it.  Any kind of gas, mustard, hydrogen, cyanide—there were lots of choices, that could be used for different situations.  Though my mask was easy to use, it was bulky and tiresome to always carry over my shoulder.

San Antonio, February 19, 1943. Pictures are from my album.
San Antonio, February 19, 1943. Pictures are from my album.

Later that year, I left Little Rock heading for the Putnam home in Chicago to be with Melvina before my transfer to Duncan Field in San Antonio, Texas.  After corresponding with me a few months Melvina completed her beautician training and came to San Antonio looking for a position in a beauty shop so we could be closer together.  Melvina and I were married February 19, 1943 close to Fort Alamo  Riverside Baptist Church.  A few weeks after our wedding,  Melvina went home to Chicago to live with her sister Pearl.

At the same time, a train transported me and my company to Hampton Roads, Virginia, which was a main hub during both world wars for movement of millions of troops over seas. From there, our ship joined the main convoy off Newfoundland and left for Europe.  Over twenty thousand men on nine Liberty Ships left at night.  For the next twelve days all we saw was water.  I was never a sailor and was really sick at the rail.  Still, after days on board the ship, I could not stay below without throwing up.  One of the officers noticed and took me above deck to the gunner’s nest and told me to sit in the swivel chair and watch for anything strange in the water.  When we reached Gibraltar, we waited for the rest of the convoy to catch up. Our huge convoy entered the most dangerous waters off the coast of Europe.  One night, while on watch duty between Gibraltar and England, I saw one of our tankers blown to pieces by a torpedo that must have been launched by a German submarine.

When we reached the English Channel, it was mined and only the British knew the safe passage to the harbor and in order to not be blown up,  all the ships in the convoy waited to be piloted through the mine field.  While in England, I and my company were assigned to live in the South Hampton area of Stanstead,  Essex, England, where we received more training in chemicals like lewisite and hydrogen sulfide. We, in turn, would be teaching it to other allied companies.

My training in detection was mainly defensive and never included how to offensively use poison gas, but I had to know how it was dispersed.  The first part of detection training was simple: learn how to crawl through a field strung with wire to the suspected poisoned area, crawl underneath it for 30 or 40 feet on hands and knees, mostly on hands, and prepare to holler, “All is clear.” And hope like hell I was right.   If I was wrong, I would probably die as soon as I loosened my mask.  Of course, training was a little more complicated than that, because I would have had testing equipment and been with a squad of men to analyze the air content before giving the “All is clear.”  After each exercise that was really a test of endurance, I would go back to camp, take a bath, and sit around with 50 or 60 troops joking and laughing, where many off color taunts were tossed about.  The ancient taunt,  “Do you know what your wife is doing back home?” still caused trouble in 1944.   I heard it many times and it was sure to cause a fight between young men who missed their wives and family.  Usually their friends would break it up before any great harm was done.

floyd-redcrossstampsMy American Red Cross coupon, good for chow anywhere in Belgium, Luxembourg, France, or Germany was one of the most important documents in my possession and gave credence to “The army travels on its stomach.”  Used mostly for meals while traveling, it could even be used to figure exchange rates between those countries.  My buddies and I often went on trips near London for lunch, where I, more than once, joined the Brits in bomb shelters during German air raids.  On a  trip outside London, I saw a girl dressed in army clothing.  This was strange to me as I had not seen a girl dressed like that before.  I asked her what her uniform meant and she said that she was part of the British Land Army.  She and other women did the farm work while the men were at the front.  We visited Piccadilly Square, and once even went to Buckingham Palace and stood at the front gate where we saw Princess Margaret when she was about seven years old. She waved at us from one of the upper windows, and we all waved back back just before Princess Elizabeth appeared and took Margaret away from the window.  It is nice to remember that moment.

We left England for the Cherbourg (Cotentin) Peninsula on D-Day. Our forces landed at Omaha Beach about three miles west of St. Lo, France on June 6, 1944.  British, Canadians, and Australians each had their own landing sites in order to engage German forces from as many directions as possible.  When my ship arrived at Omaha Beach, we were looking at countless ships, landing crafts, barges, and many downed planes.  Army landing crafts were making countless trips ferrying personnel across rough surf stirred up by all the wind and activity.  On D-day plus 2, my company of the Chemical Corps, was among the last of the invasion force to hit shore.  Unless poison gas was suspected, ferrying infantry into the landing zone and the wounded back out to the hospital ships in front of us was highest priority.  From on board ships we watched while men were fighting above a high embankment with mortar flying around them while German shelling continued on top of the hill.  Germans used some wooden bullets that splintered when they hit and did a lot of damage.  I brought some of these bullets home with me.

When I waded ashore, there was some enemy fire, so I thanked God it was fairly dark.  The sky was still light enough to reveal a dead civilian entangled in some wire about 20 feet above the ground.  I am still haunted by that sight, wondering how in hell he wound up in that mess.  Did he jump off the cliff to avoid enemy fire, or what?  I never found out, but it sticks in my mind.  A few minutes later, someone from a completely different unit spoke to me.  He recognized me and said, “Fancy meeting you here.” It was one of the Schumckal boys from Hannah, which is only five miles from Kingsley.  I was so surprised to see him, I only said,  “The bastards are up there.  See Ya,–or not.”  That is all we said to each other and I never saw him again.

There was still a lot of firing above us and Sargent Jerry Lord said, “I hope they are shooting at each other and not us.”  We had nothing but our detection equipment to fight with, but I wouldn’t have minded throwing my gas mask at them.  My company marched to St. Lo after it was secured.  Fighting had been furious even before my company landed at Normandy.

We were at St. Lo until well into July, 1944.  While there, my training continued with officers and a few other enlisted men.  The officers, looking like they were sixteen, were supposed to know everything.  While looking for someone to lead the group in training, my buddies recommended me to conduct classes.  In most sessions, an officer would say, “Could we have Private First Class Webster step forward?

I often said to my friend, “They must be in love with me.”

After the supervisor, a major or some other rank, assigned me to teach,  I usually started by saying something like,  “Good afternoon officers, gentlemen, Colonel Bradford.”  There were a lot of things that I wanted to say like “Sure glad you’re overweight,” even though they were guys like you and me.  But I got up there and said, ”Colonel,” there was a swath of officers, “I probably can’t tell you any more about chemical warfare than you already know, because your training has been much the same as mine.”   It’s here where I say, “ Chemical Corps started because—Karl (a pseudonym for Hitler and all the German people), being the bright man that he is, he might, one day, want to fight in a different way.  So I am going to take you through this and if you have questions to ask, ask them and if I know the answer, I’ll tell you.  If I don’t know the answer, then neither of us will know. “

You need a little wise crack in now and then.  It makes it better.  I had to tread lightly.  Those guys were Lieutenants, Majors, Colonels, and here I was a private first class trying not to make them feel that I thought I was smarter than they were.

Image of St. Lo after conflict. Image made publicly available by the German Federal Archive, Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-035-17 / Vennemann / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image of St. Lo after conflict. Image made publicly available by the German Federal Archive, Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-035-17 / Vennemann / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.
The infantry kept the Germans from breaking through our lines and forcing us back into the water, but our location seemed to be the focal point of the fighting for the British, French, and Canadians were all converging there to force the Germans out of the hedgerows and back to Paris.  My specialized training held me in reserve, while others in my company had similar assignments in England, Belgium, and Germany, just in case the Germans used liquid blistering agents like lewisite or other gases.  We waited for the order which never came to “Come forward and test.”  In that event we knew that the worst had happened.   A terrible agent may have wiped out a whole regiment of troops and thousands of civilians.  Thank God, the army was not attacked with chemicals and never ordered to use them but they had many ready for deployment as did the Italians, Germans, and Japanese.  I found out years later that the only place we were close to using chemical weapons was at The Battle of Tarawa in late November 1943.  If that had happened, the enemy would have done the same and the death toll would have much worse when, nine months later, our troops stormed ashore at Omaha Beach and a month after that at the Battle of the Bulge (our command called it “The Ardennes Counteroffensive”).

Some of my company left for Liege, Belgium on the Red Ball Line Highway when the Battle of the Bulge began. Word finally came that I, and what was left of my company, were to leave St. Lo after a short stay at Le Havre, and then on to Camp Chesterfield  in Aachen, Germany after it had been taken in the Battle of Aachen  on October 21, 1944.  While there, in November, I  had numerous colds, but no one knows what brought it on besides the cold and windy weather.  I became weaker and weaker until even standing guard duty became difficult.  I must have let the winter weather and constant cold get the best of me.  I do not remember quite how I came to be discovered half under a parked vehicle, but I was soon recognized and someone acknowledged that I wasn’t a drunk.  An officer soon took me to see a doctor who diagnosed me with double pneumonia.  The doctor also found severe irritations in my nasal and pharyngeal passages.  It seemed strange that my symptoms mimicked the effects of benzyl bromide, one of the many poisons that I was sent to detect.  Headquarters sent me to recuperate at the 114th Hospital in Echternach, Luxembourg, just south of the German boarder.  My recovery was slow, so when most of my company left to support other groups in the Pacific Theater to fight the Japanese, I was left behind.

While at the 114th, enlisted men such as myself, often ate with officers at the chow hall.  One day, I met a colonel whose name was Neil Brownson.  We were really surprised to see each other as Neil was the son of Doctor Jay and Effie Brownson.  Neil had also grown up in Kingsley in the big white house just north of the present day bank building and after the war went on to practice medicine at Munson Hospital.

For a short time, while still recovering from pneumonia, I was sent back near St. Lo to stay at Shad Coterie Chateau.  Not far from St. Lo and near Caen, France, I was able to do some sight-seeing.  There was a small cemetery nearby that had a recent burial site, oddly separated from the rest of the sites by four low walls of stones.  The only information available was that an enlisted man was purposely buried apart from any other servicemen.  He had decided that he wanted out of the service and refused any alternative assignments—even a rear-echelon position.  When he and his squad were sent on a forward reconnaissance, he attempted to surrender to advancing Germans.  His squad was quickly overrun and most of the men were killed.  His burial was kept separate due to his dishonor.

Other men disappeared like a young fellow that my buddy and I were in charge of after he shot his Sergeant.  We were ordered to settle him in a cold tent with little warmth, but we later supplied him with blankets. Before he was scheduled to ship home to be tried for murder, we let him loose to be free to go to chow and walk around camp.  He asked for us before he was taken away.  My officer said, “Don’t forget. This is war.  A lot of things happen in war.  Records will probably show, ‘He died in war’”.

When I had recovered enough to be able to work inside, my main assignment was to The Postal Service,  for the rest of the war.  The Chemical Corps still claimed me for short durations as a student or as a trainer.

It is hard for me to retrace my experiences and various locations in Europe after 69 years.  My rear-echelon work in Europe had no fixed locations or duty assignments even during battles because: 1.The services peculiar to the Chemical Corps were not in demand.  2. Our company personnel were loaned out to other units helping in any way we could.  3. In addition to varied duties, we attended chemical decontamination classes, and each one of us shuttled at least once between England and mainland Europe. 4. Unless hospitalized, people, like myself in physical recovery, trailed a few days behind each allied advancement through France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, and Austria.

Late in 1945, prisoners were treated with less suspicion as they were glad to be out of battle, had food to eat and a dry place to sleep.  While stationed at Kassel, which is about half-way through Germany, we were in charge of German prisoners. Whatever the officers wanted, prisoners would run and fetch it as they were happy to be out of the midst of the battle. In early May 1945, I followed the advance into Austria while still filling in as part of The Postal Service.  One morning, just outside our camp I saw what looked like a whole army.  There were thousands of men and I thought, “I hope they are not surrendering.  If they are, how in hell are we going to feed that many?”  Tanks and other armored vehicles came with them.  They wore the strangest looking uniforms that I have ever seen.  Some had big fancy tall decorations on their helmets and short skirts.  We wondered, “How do they expected to stay warm dressed like that?” They did not understand us and one spoke in Italian, while others pantomimed that they needed more food.

A fence soon separated them from us and we were warned to keep our distance from them, but we asked if they wanted some of our rations of stew and bread.  They held their hands out like they didn’t know what it was we were asking.  We hollered back, “Stew”.  We must have looked imposing, while they must have mistook “Stew” for a command unknown to us, because a huge avenue quickly formed through their ranks.  They were most grateful when we tossed stew soaked bread over the fence instead of opening fire on them.  One of our officers asked for an Italian interpreter and a man came forward and was told that they hadn’t eaten in three days.  Word went out to the nearby village that more food supplies were needed which were soon brought for them.  Lousy, starving, and not clothed for the weather, they were in horrible shape.  After they had eaten, we watched as their clothes were burned, they were hosed down, deloused and re-clothed with army fatigues that had “POW” printed on the backs.  I have often wondered how the supposedly Italians traveled from their battle front with all those strange uniforms.  Were they really Italians forced to fight for the Nazi’s or were they Germans that changed their clothing for any uniform they could find hoping to hide their true identity?  Why did they respond so strangely to our shouted word, “Stew”?  Our command never gave us any information about who they were.

On May 7, 1945, I was reading a letter from Mrs. Dorothy Wood, the mother of a school chum, Bill Wood, whom often wrote me most welcome messages of news from home.  An army buddy burst in with the news, “Well the war is over here, now we are soon off to Japan.”  Three days later, I was called into the camp office and as I was walking to the door, I thought, “Well here we go to Japan.”

Seated was a major who said, “How are you , soldier?”

“Okay.  A little weak, but okay.” I said.

Jerry Lord is the big guy on the right.  The photo was damaged somehow in the last 69 years—he really had a nose.
Jerry Lord is the big guy on the right. The photo was damaged somehow in the last 69 years—he really had a nose.

He said, “Well we have here a statement from Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe , that you are married, have a child, have been awarded four service medals each for the four battles in which you have been involved: Normandy Invasion, St. Lo, Aachen, and The Ardennes Counteroffensive.  You have earned enough points with three years served—we are sending you home instead of the Pacific.  You and most of your company will ‘Step Aside’.” Those words were never more welcome.  I said my goodbyes to my buddies and especially my good friend, Jerry Lord, before I left.  We shook hands for the last time.  Months later, I went looking for him and found out that after the war, he was transferred to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, but his plane went missing somewhere over our home state.  It seemed a hell of a way to die after going through the whole war.  To this day, losing my buddy,  is still my most painful memory of the war.

I put my duffel bag over my shoulder, got on the truck, and left for Camp Chesterfield, Holland.  Traveling through Germany in 1945 by train with more than 140 box cars day and night, all you could see was devastation of that country.  We finally arrived in La Harve on the coast of France and left for the USA.  We did not stop in England, just the same journey in reverse of my trip over there—eleven days of water, water, and more water, but what a great sight was the Statue of Liberty all lit up in the New York Harbor.  The band was playing while I stood on the deck with my mouth hanging open.

A few days later, I left by train for Chicago to meet my wife and son, Dennis.  I had learned of his birth when on leave in France.  My brother-in-law and sister, Ed and Norma Clous, came to Chicago and helped me and my family move home to Kingsley.  When we walked through the door, greeting me all across the back wall of the kitchen, was was a big sign written, “Welcome home, Daddy.”  When I left the U. S., I was newly married, childless, and going to Europe to fight for an undetermined amount of time.  Thousands of people in terrible conditions were still fresh in my mind along with good and bad deeds done by most everyone involved.  Now, I had to wipe that slate clean and learn to be a husband, father, and provider.

After coming home, I played piano in a band called Satler’s Night Hawks, helped my brother Carl paint houses, and then was employed at Parts Manufacturing in Traverse City where my father worked.  We both became union Stewards in jobs that lasted many years.  I was the last man out before the doors were closed for good.  Out of work,  I went job hunting in Chicago.  I had a couple of good offers, but before I accepted anything, Melvina called to tell me that the personnel office at the State Hospital in Traverse City had called about a job opening.  So, I said goodbye to Chicago, drove five hours home to Kingsley, and the next morning went to the hospital and applied for that position.  I was hired and worked there for twenty five years.

Brenda Wolfgram Moore was a resident of Kingsley, a local historian and genealogist, who passed away in 2014. Peter Newell is a  good friend of Floyd Webster’s, and a published author. Newell is currently working on another oral history of a Kingsley resident who served in World War II.

March Events in Frankfort and Traverse City Celebrate Women and Architecture

Benzie Area Women’s History Project


In celebration of International Women‘s Day, the Benzie Area Women‘s History Project will present the film, I Am a Girl, on Saturday, March 7, at 4:00 PM at the Garden Theater in Frankfort.

The most persecuted people in the world today are not from a particular race or religion. They are not political activists. They are girls. The simple fact of being born a girl makes a person more likely to be subjected to violence, disease, poverty and disadvantage than any other group on the planet.

I Am a Girl is a beautifully crafted documentary that paints a complex picture of what it means to be a girl in the 21st century. In this remarkable film we hear the stories of six girls on the brink of womanhood, through a patchwork of diverse cultures and issues. This is an excellent movie for anyone of teen age on up. For more information and to see a preview, go to  http://www.iamagirl.com.au/

Our film showing has been underwritten by Suzy Voltz of C21 Sleeping Bear Realty and by the West Michigan Bank & Trust. Admission to this film is free, but donations will be gratefully accepted. The money raised supports a scholarship given each year to a non-traditional female student at Northwestern Michigan College.

The Garden Theater is wheelchair accessible and provides a hearing loop. For more information, see our website: http://www.bawhp.org, or email infobop@bawhp.org, or phone (231) 510-1721. The Benzie Area Women‘s History Project is a committee affiliated with the Benzie Area Historical Society.

History Center of Traverse City


Inside the Music House Museum’s Roofing Project

Recognized by Forbes.com as one of the ten reasons to visit Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the Music House Museum offers a unique collection of instruments that provide guests with a walk through the history, the artistry, and the engineering of automated music.

In the off-season winter months, local historical societies spend time regrouping, or reroofing in the case of the Music House Museum. In preparation for their upcoming project to replace the roof of the 1910 barn that houses major pieces of the Museum’s collection, volunteers have been busily erecting protective scaffolding and plastic sheeting to minimize potential damage to the larger, unmoveable instruments, in addition to the regular winterizing of the building.

The General Store display is temporarily closed and under wraps for protection.
The General Store display is temporarily closed and under wraps for protection.

Bruce Ahlich, Vice-President of the Board of Directors and Chairman of the Collections Committee, invited Grand Traverse Journal back (see our first article in the December 2014 issue) to see exactly how the Museum is managing such a huge undertaking. The Board of Directors has been planning this project for over two years, which includes working on raising the necessary funding, estimated as potentially reaching $160,000 for the roofing ($116,000), structural repairs, removal of waste, cleaning and reassembly of the displays. Fundraising efforts for the reroofing project thus far have included several grants.  Further donations are being accepted through the donation site Go Fund Me at


“For the well-being of the collection, it is imperative to replace the 30 year old roof now, before leaks develop and put the instruments at risk,” explains Ahlich. “We believe there are at least two, possibly three layers of roof that needs to be removed first. These include a couple layers of asphalt shingles and the original 1910 cedar shingles”. Next time you are at the Music House, look up at the rafters for a little history; The rafters and beams still showing bark are from the original barn, built sometime in the 1880s and incorporated into the 1910 structure. The insulated new roof will pay the Museum back in time by reducing heating and cooling costs.

The Museum plans to take full advantage of the removal of most of the displays for the roofing project to also improve the visitor experience. “We will be selective in returning some of the decorative pieces to their place in the Museum while being mindful of the history of the area and the era we are trying to capture”. All of the instruments will be returned to the displays.

Wondering how you can help beyond monetary donations? Volunteers will be needed upon completion of the reroofing to help clean-up the dirt and debris left after removing the roof and reassembling and cleaning the displays. This work will need to be done quickly, as the 2015 season starts off with a bang with the Museum opening on May 1st, and on the third weekend in May hosting the Musical Box Society International’s regional convention.   If interested in helping, please contact the Museum at 231 938-9301 or via e-mail at info@musichouse.org.

then-mortierfacadeOne of the pieces receiving special preparation and protection is the crown jewel of the Museum’s collection, the 1922 “Amaryllis” Mortier Dance Hall Organ, shown here with scaffolding built and covered with plastic sheeting to surround and protect its 30 foot wide by18 foot high facade. Of the approximately 1000 plus similar instruments crafted and used in Northern and Central Europe from 1908 to the 1930s, the Amaryllis (originally built for the Victoria Palace in Ypres, Belgium) is one of two known Mortier survivors with their original facade and specification of this particular size and design. Many dance and fairground organ were casualties of the immediate post-World War II era; The devastation and poverty of war-torn western Europe and the advancement of the phonograph and radio led many of the larger instruments to be simply burned as firewood to heat homes after salvaging the metal pipes from them as scrap.

The Amaryllis plays by perforated books of "music" and a hand-cranked flywheel.
The Amaryllis plays by perforated books of “music” and a hand-cranked flywheel.

The Amaryllis had been stored unplayable for decades, and required months of meticulous restoration work in 1983, and again in 2013, to restore it. The 97 key organ plays folding, perforated cardboard music books, using hundreds of pipes and other instruments (snare and bass drums, whistles, cymbals) to play its library of lively waltzes, polkas, foxtrots, and other popular music of the 1920s and later eras.  The huge flywheel which is used to play the organ was originally turned by hand; The use of a vintage electric motor to turn the flywheel now is one modern concession.

then-bruderGrand Traverse Journal will feature the Music House again in the spring, when the 1913 Bruder Fair Organ “Columbia” will be back from Ohio, where it is currently undergoing an $11,000 professional restoration that could not be done in-house. A generous $5,000 matching gift, some Endowment monies and many private donations have enabled to Museum to fund the project, as well as acquire some new music book stock by which to play it. Other newly refurbished instruments to be featured in the spring will be a 1910 Welte-Mignon Vorsetzer and an 1830 Black Forest organ clock, as well as the completion of the Wurlitzer organ project’s original toy chest and glockenspiel.

Amy Barritt is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal. Special thanks to Bruce Ahlich, Vice-President of the Board of Directors of the Music House Museum.

The Great Knickers Controversy of 1922

It was June, 1922, Traverse City, Michigan and trouble was brewing: Accompanied by a parent, two 14-year old girls appeared on Front Street, wearing knickers, apparently “displaying their wares” (showing too much) or else wearing other articles of clothing with “fashionable trimmings.” (clothing too suggestive).  Local police had been instructed what to do if confronted with obvious displays of immorality: Order the offenders off the streets.  And that is exactly what happened: the two girls with their adult chaperone were told to “get off” the streets of Traverse City.

The McCall's three-piece knickers suit for fashionable young women; This image appeared in the Traverse City  "Record-Eagle" on April 27, 1923.
The McCall’s three-piece knickers suit for fashionable young women. Knickers were also called “sporting pants”. This image appeared in the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” on April 27, 1923.

The women of the town did not take kindly to dress restrictions imposed by city officials.  The mayor, Lafayette Swanton, quickly made himself clear that it was not the knickers in themselves that caused the trouble, but the licentious behavior that often accompanied immodest dress.    A local minister, Dr. Klyveh, backed him up: “If the mayor is after the girls and women who are parading the streets with unbecoming conduct, every citizen of Traverse City should back him.  It is of no concern whether girls wear knickerbockers or skirts.  If their conduct is unbecoming, they should be kept from the streets, arrested if necessary, and every voter who believes he elected the mayor to perform certain civic duties should call him up and offer his co-operation.”  He went on to decry the habit of young people parking in cars, all the while displaying immoral behavior that shocked passers-by.  In many towns, he proclaimed, “promiscuous parking” is prevented by the authorities, Grand Rapids even going so far as to arrest young men who offered rides to young women.

Dr. Lafayette Swanton, Mayor of Traverse City in the early 1920s. Image courtesy of Michael Annis via Findagrave.com.
Dr. Lafayette Swanton, Mayor of Traverse City in the early 1920s. Image courtesy of the Annis Family Association.

Local women did not accept the connection between knickers and immorality made by Mayor Swanton.  They planned a protest parade, began discussions in women’s clubs, and brought the subject up at church.   Reacting to the firestorm of criticism, the Prosecuting Attorney for the city, Parm C. Gilbert, printed an apology on the front page of the Record-Eagle, apologizing to the affronted parent, Upsal Hobbes.  Worried about the impact of Swanton’s actions, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, W. J. Hobbes, declared, “The mayor is all wrong.  His knicker campaign is absolutely ridiculous.  Not only is it ridiculous, but it is damaging.  My own daughter wears knickers.  I wish my wife did.  They are not only nice, modest and decent, but they are pretty.”

The mayor, himself, offered no apology, but did say this in clarification,

Knickers are welcome in Traverse City.  Let’s not have this misunderstood.  No orders have been given to arrest the wearers of that sort of apparel and they will be unmolested so long as they conduct themselves properly on the streets of the city.  My instructions to Chief of Police Blacken were to see that women in knickers who acted in an unbecoming manner were denied the privileges of the thoroughfares.  The instructions still stand so it is up to the wearers whether or not they shall be told to keep from the streets.

That statement was made to the Grand Rapids Herald.  The knickers controversy had gone viral—in modern parlance—many newspapers in the Midwest had picked up the story.  For Swanton, it was important to tell the world that Traverse City, a resort destination throughout the region, would welcome resorters who wore knickers to town.  It would be bad business not to do so.  Later in the interview, though, he confessed that he was opposed to one-piece bathing suites worn at public beaches.  There were, indeed, limits to the mayor’s sensibilities.

Women plant workers at Greilick Manufacturing donned "woman-alls" (overalls for women) in 1918, article published in the Traverse City "Record-Eagle," 17 May 1918.
Women plant workers at Greilick Manufacturing donned “woman-alls” (overalls for women) in 1918, article published in the Traverse City “Record-Eagle,” 17 May 1918.

What happened with the knickerbockers controversy?  It melted away.  Women could wear knickers downtown, one-piece bathing suits were not forbidden at Clinch Park, and, presumably young men in motor cars would offer young ladies rides.  Only three years earlier women in factories started to wear overalls, a change that merited a front-page story in the Record-Eagle.  It was a time women began to experience freedom at home, at work, at play, and the change grated with those who had grown up with different cultural values.

One thing the controversy did accomplish: knickers’ sales skyrocketed.  Stores were backordered for days.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal. 

Header images courtesy of “MDafoeMay1924Crop”, licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MDafoeMay1924Crop.jpg#mediaviewer/File:MDafoeMay1924Crop.jpg; “Knickerbockers for child of four” image is in the public domain, available through Wikimedia Commons.

Prismatic Glass answers lighting and Mystery Photo conundrums!

We’ve identified the location, so this month, we want to hear what you know about the glass shown here below the arch of Federico’s. The rectangular squares- what name is applied to them, and what is their purpose?

Congratulations to Julie of Traverse City for her correct response! The glass you will see in the windows of Frederico’s is prismatic glass, intended to bring the brightness from outside to inside the building, in an era when electric lights weren’t very effectiveThe glass is smooth on one side, and the interior side has triangular ribs that refract light rays deep in to a room. They were originally made only in tile form and later in larger sheets. Prismatic glass (or American 3-way Prism) was produced from 1896 to about 1940.

Follow this link for a more thorough look at this architectural marvel: http://files.umwblogs.org/blogs.dir/7608/files/glass/prismatic.pdf

The Traverse Traction Company: Our First Bus Service

by Julie Schopieray, local historian and writer

Starting in the mid-1890s, there had been much discussion among the residents of Traverse City about the necessity for a rail line running from Traverse City out Old Mission Peninsula. It was thought that transportation for people residing, resorting and farming on the 20-mile-long peninsula would benefit from such a service. Years passed without the plan ever becoming a reality.  Farmers, residents and resorters would continue to rely on carriages, wagons and livery services offered in Traverse City. 

One last effort to raise funds for the electric railroad was attempted in 1907, but this dream (which had been debated for over a decade) eventually came to an end due to a lack of support. Early in 1905, however, entrepreneur Wm.H. Blake of Cheboygan, chose Traverse City for a new transportation enterprise that might finally resolve the Traverse City to Old Mission issue. The January 1905 edition of Automotive Industries  explained this emerging industry:

One of the greatest fields of usefulness for the commercial automobile undoubtedly will be in the interurban passenger and freight traffic between cities and villages that are not connected by steam or electric railroads. There has been for several years a constant and steadily growing demand for reliable and economical automobile stages and ‘busses for such work, and the effort to fill this want, together with the demand for gasoline delivery wagons and trucks, is just now furnishing the greatest development in the industry.

history-oldsmotorworksAuto manufacturers were looking for ways to expand their sales of these  “mechanical traction” vehicles. [Mechanical traction was a term used at the time to describe a mode of  mechanized transportation rather than that using animal power.] The Olds Motor Works company advertised a Wagonette  designed for exactly the service Mr. Blake envisioned for Traverse City. He saw it as a town that could benefit from “the establishment of the new rival of the electric cars.”   After founding a successful bus service in the downstate town of Chelsea, Blake arranged to have the manager of the commercial department of  Olds Automobile company of Detroit,  come to Traverse City and offer his opinion as to the success of the proposed Traverse City and Peninsula Traction Company.  He found it to be a sound prospect.

With the financial backing of several prominent businessmen, The Traverse Traction Company was organized in June,1905. The company was funded with thirty thousand dollars in stock and subscriptions. Officers and directors were elected with Blake as president and general manager of the company.

history-motorcarThe first vehicle arrived on May 30, coming in from Detroit on the steamer Missouri.  Over the next month, the fleet grew to eleven vehicles– three auto busses used in street car service in town, a second touring car and a twelve-passenger bus available to charter.  Two more busses were scheduled for twice daily service to Old Mission, and three heavy-duty vehicles for hauling freight. These freight wagons were equipped with twenty-four horse power engines, five-inch tires on thirty-six inch wheels and capable of running ten miles per hour. A Saginaw newspaper noted the usefulness of the freight wagons in an area famed for its orchards: “The freight cars will have a capacity of 500 fruit crates each way. As the peninsula is virtually an orchard  eighteen miles long, this will prove a great convenience to the farmers who heretofore have had to haul their produce to the docks.” 

history-fullautoadBeyond the practical value of early trucks, the novelty of the touring cars became a favorite with locals just wanting to get out and take a ride.   The Traverse City Record Eagle took note of the joys of auto touring: The Traverse Traction company…received yesterday a twenty horse power Olds touring car… and will be open to charter by private parties. The car is one of the most handsome in the city and will undoubtedly prove popular with those who like auto riding but do not own a machine… many have taken advantage of it to take the beautiful rides along the bay shore.”

On June 29, a trial run of the Old Mission routes was tested out. The vehicles were loaded up with company stockholders and prospective stockholders as well a newspaper reporter, all eager to experience the bus ride. Indeed, it may have been the first ride in a motorized vehicle for many of them. The trip out and back took an average of two hours and twenty minutes. One car had mechanical problems and had to stop for nearly an hour to make repairs, a common occurrence with early automobiles. The twelve-passenger bus went on its test run the following day, presumably without difficulty.  The trial run had not gone perfectly, but results showed promise.

One issue that came to light during the trial run was the sorry condition of roads.  At the time, rural roads were maintained by the people who used and lived on them.  Pleadingly, the Traction Company asked local farmers to try to keep the roads near their farms in good condition.  For the most part, they were willing to do their part, though some demanded proof the company was serious about providing transportation service to friends, visitors, and family. Even with their compliance, washouts were common, and sand on the road and in soft areas could make it difficult to get through.

Daily Old Mission service began on July 10.  It was scheduled twice daily with fares .75 cents one way or $1.25 round trip. This service was to provide transportation for resorters as well as Peninsula locals wanting to go into town and back. The Traverse City Record Eagle was enthusiastic about the possibilities of success for the new company, “…the facilities for rapid transit which the project provides are certainly attractive, and when the regular street schedule is perfected the service will prove of great convenience and benefit. To the peninsula people the line will be of especial value, both as to convenience of passengers and to quick handling of fruits…in addition to the proposed street and freight service the arrangement is for charter parties to the various resorts is admirable and will be favored during the summer season.”

The Traction Company employed twelve drivers, two wipers, a stenographer, and a chief engineer, who maintained the vehicles. A facility to house and maintain the cars and busses was established in the Boughey building on the corner of State and Cass streets. Large double doors and an approach from the street were added in order to accommodate the busses into the building.  The facility not only serviced the busses, but also operated as a general auto repair shop.

Prominent citizens of Elk Rapids also showed an interest in the bus service and talked with company officials to see if Elk Rapids could be added as a stop on the route.  Everyone could see the advantages of road travel over the horse-and-buggy or even the infrequent trains.

The busses were used for just about any need one would have to get from one place to another: taking people from train depots to resorts on the Peninsula; conveying them to dances, the circus, or other entertainments; or providing a means for chartered group outings.  One car took two doctors from Elk Rapids to deliver a man to the Asylum. Even locals who had cottages at one of the East Bay resorts used the bus service regularly.  It was not only cheaper than keeping a horse, but more convenient.

Only one accident was reported during the summer of 1905. While on its East Bay route, one of the busses hit a tree.  The Record Eagle reported that its top caught some low hanging branches which drove the car into the tree. The top was wrecked, one front wheel sprung and the lights damaged, but no one was hurt. 

The service was successful throughout the summer months, but as tourist season came to a close, the need for the busses dwindled.  Sadly, on September 23, 1905, this posting appeared in the Record-Eagle: “…owing to the decreased traffic, the Traverse Traction company will cease operating their busses tomorrow for the season. It is stated that the busses will be shipped soon to some southern city for the winter.”  The September issue of The Motor Way reported that the company was pleased with the patronage received and the service will probably be repeated next summer.”  Mr. Blake told a Record-Eagle reporter that he liked Traverse City and had considered making it his home. However, the service must not have been profitable enough for the investors, as Mr. Blake stayed in Cheboygan and there is no evidence of the company still existing the following year.   

Bus service in town was not dead, however. In October 1908, Morgan’s livery added an auto bus and a touring car to their fleet, providing service to Edgewood and East Bay resorts in the summer months and were available for hire as well. It took some time for riders to convert from horse-drawn transportation to automobiles. During the years the two modes overlapped, the noisy machines spooked horses, causing runaways and novice drivers sometimes didn’t realize the speed of their machines, resulting in accidents. 

As years passed, the novelty of the “horseless carriage” wore off as automobiles became affordable for just about everyone.  As better roads made travel more predictable and less hazardous, autos forever changed how people traveled. Some tourists began bringing their own machines in on the ships they arrived on, or else braved the uncertain condition of roads and drove themselves up from major centers of population like Chicago or Grand Rapids. Locals too, eventually set aside the old ways and purchased vehicles. Over time, the demand for passenger ship and rail service diminished, finally disappearing altogether–thereby bringing to a close the era of big resorts and summer-long vacation stays in Northern Michigan.

Julie Schopieray is a local historian and writer. She is currently working on a project concerning Jens C. Petersen, a Traverse City architect who practiced in this city from the early 1900s to 1918.

The Earliest Butterfly of Spring: The Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak Butterfly, image courtesy Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wildreturn/.
Mourning Cloak Butterfly, image courtesy Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wildreturn/.

It is a sunny day in March, the temperature hitting close to sixty degrees and I am out hunting for Mourning Cloak butterflies.  The drifts of snow still covering the north slopes and hollows do not discourage me because I know their habits: they emerge early in spring–earlier than any other butterfly–seeking sweetness in damaged trees leaking sap as well as mates to continue their life cycle.  Up ahead among the hardwood trunks of beech and maple I see a dark flutter—Mourning Cloaks, two of them flying in a tight spiral, a mating dance.  I raise my hands to the sky for a moment as an expression of joy at my discovery.  As I do, another Mourning Cloak I had missed in my concentration upon the first pair draws close and boldly lands upon the sleeve of my jacket.  It flexes his wings once or twice and I beam with joy: What an intelligent and friendly animal this is!  We bask in each other’s company.

Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults, crawling into warm spaces underneath bark or stones, close to soil that remains unfrozen all year long.  Among the earliest wildflowers, the Spring Beauties and the Hepatica, they dance in the sunlight, ready to mate, lay eggs, and die, thereby completing their life cycle within a calendar year.  The eggs, laid upon host plants poplar and willow, hatch into dark spiky caterpillars, creatures one would hardly guess would change into a splendid adult butterfly.

The adult is mostly a uniform purple-black, a muted yellow border on its wings with a row of blue dots inside of that.  Having lived a year already, its wings might appear battered and faded, not furnished with the glowing colors it showed upon its emergence from its pupal case.

This butterfly, like many others, is territorial, males often proclaiming their rights by lighting on the highest object around, understory trees, for example, or hands outstretched in joy at having found Mourning Cloaks in the first days of spring.  Or, then again, with that behavior they might be proving they are especially intelligent and friendly insects!

I have found Mourning Cloaks in Northern Michigan hardwoods–consisting of beech, sugar maple, white ash, black cherry–in the months of March, April, and May.  They disappear for much of the summer as eggs hatch into caterpillars, caterpillars transform into butterflies, and butterflies “sleep” during the hottest summer months, aestivation the term given to this period of dormancy.  In late summer and early fall they appear again, the new adults, seeking nectar and food to get them through our long, cold winters.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica, one of the earliest spring flowers, adored by Mourning Cloak's and people alike. Image courtesy of Jason Sturner, https://www.flickr.com/photos/50352333@N06/.
Sharp-lobed Hepatica, one of the earliest spring flowers, adored by Mourning Cloak’s and people alike. Image courtesy of Jason Sturner, https://www.flickr.com/photos/50352333@N06/.

The Mourning Cloak is the animal equivalent of Spring Beauty, Trailing Arbutus, and Hepatica, the first wildflowers to appear in spring.  We welcome it as we do those flowers, the earliest sign that warmth is returning to the world.  Whether you visit the woods for morels or for wildflowers, keep an eye out for these butterflies.  And if you hold your hands up, you just might get one to land on you.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

Reminiscing on Nursing at Munson Hospital: What Nursing Means to Me

In honor of Frances (Fran) Virginia Fall Beattie, R.N., who recently passed on February 16, 2015, your editors are pleased to publish Fran’s short piece, both a moving tribute to the profession of nursing and her time spent at the medical hospital here in Traverse City. Fran was born in March 1921, and graduated from Traverse City High School in 1940. She attended the Traverse City State Hospital School for nurses, earning her registered nurse designation in 1943. She was promptly hired in General Duty Nursing at James Decker Munson Hospital, where she remained for 30 years. While raising her two young daughters she worked part-time occasionally, but never quit the field.

Frances Virginia Fall Beattie, R.N.
Traverse City, MI

Licensed in the State of Michigan, Registration number 31774, Employed at James Decker Munson Hospital, General Duty Nursing.

“You are a pretty nurse and you are a good nurse!”

The voice came from a little brown wrinkled Indian lady.

“Thank you, my dear!”

Inside I felt good–also, very humble and somehow the day’s work seemed lighter. We cherish things like this and store them away in our memory, hoping that we too will give encouragement and praise to those we are caring for.

Frances V. Fall, graduated from State Hospital School of Nursing, August 19, 1943.

I was trying to recall just when I decided I wanted to become a nurse and why. It was in my first or second year of high school. It was just a gradual feeling deep inside of wanting to help others. There was no dramatic inclination and I had no glamorous ideas about the nursing profession like some girls have. At the time I decided definitely, I had been a visitor to the hospital just once.

I remember as a senior student nurse, I was holding a child about eighteen months’ old, while an emergency tracheotomy was being performed. Before the operation was completed, the child died. As soon as I could leave, I fled to the utility room with tears streaming down my cheeks. Yes, there are heartaches to be sure, but the joy of seeing patients improve and get well, more than makes up for the heartaches.

A pillow turned or staightened, a bedside table moved where more convenient for the patient, a glass of juice; yes, a smile and a cheery word or two, these little things mean so much to the person confined to bed.

Frances V. Fall (Beattie) and classmate Fern Rinehart (Collins)
Frances V. Fall (Beattie) and classmate Fern Rinehart (Collins)

This is a challenging profession! Take the critical patient or the one with a long convalescence–sometimes we spend weeks and months in caring for these patients. The patient becomes discouraged, we get weary. But we keep a cheerful smile. Time goes on and very little improvement. Then comes a gradual improvement until the patient goes home. We wonder how they will get along. A few weeks later, we look up to see a smiling face at our side, looking the picture of health. Yes, you say to yourself, this makes it all worthwhile. This is why I like nursing.

“Mr. Thomas, what did you do to your bed?”

“Wal, I don’t know. I’s crawled back into bed and I can hardly get under them sheets. Then I feel somethin’ like paper that I’m on and oh, is so tight. I thought, what’s wrong, never been tight like dis before, so I pulled it all loose.”

By then, everyone in the room was laughing and when we told him he had tried to get under the draw sheet, he laughed and laughed, his big white teeth looking so very white in his shiny black face.

After twenty years of nursing, I can truthfully say to you young people, I would do it again and I encourage you to enter the nursing profession. Life is not easy come-easy go, the things worthwhile, we strive for and acquire.

Frances, Standing at entry to Munson dorm (now a State office building).
Frances, Standing at entry to Munson dorm (now a State office building).

There will be times while in training that you will become discouraged, you will wonder if it is worth the effort, but it is, Don’t give up! Once you have become a registered nurse, you have something which you can make use of the rest of your life. If you marry and raise a family, you will be better equipped to face the future having had the training.

There is a variety of fields in which to practice and you will find the one you like best. There will always be a demand for nurses and you will always have work if you want it. There is sadness, gladness, weariness and fun, a great variety, but it all adds up to a wonderful life. Won’t you join us?