Abilene at War: April to May 1917

By Andrew Pankratz

Dickinson County Historical Society

On April 6, 1917, the United States officially declared war on Germany and entered the war on the same side as England and France.  Now it became time to gear the country towards war by raising an army and increasing the manufacture of war materials.  Abilene newspapers began exploring how Abilene citizens could patriotically serve their country.

Co. H Abilene Mess Hall on Hodge Block between 2nd & 3rd St in 1917

Company H settles in for lunch in the Hodge Block in downtown Abilene

According to the Abilene Weekly Reflector of April 12, the United States entered the war to defend its safety “and for the advancement of humanity.”  “They [government officials] have pledged our men, our resources, and our prayers to the cause.”  While the war could be long or short, the American people owed it to their country and themselves to back the president and congress in going to war.  “This is our nation, the greatest nation the world ever knew, and as a peace-loving yet patriotic people all should aid in making its destiny sure.”  Every citizen had a patriotic duty to support the war effort, no matter their views on the war before the United States had entered.

Co. H at the Seelye Air Dome in Abilene in 1917

Company H at the Seelye Air Dome on NE. 3rd Street

Even with the country now at war, the Abilene Weekly Reflector still tried to keep things light and poke some fun at current events in their April 12th issue.  In the first statement, the Reflector stated that “the movie heroes ought to make good fighters in the front line.”  If the Reflector had its way, the actors who portrayed movie heroes might find themselves having to demonstrate their ability to turn acting into action on the front lines in France.  The next statement argued that “Abilene is in no danger from submarines or gunboats until there is a good rain.  Mud Creek wouldn’t float a gold fish.”  With the lack of rain providing a natural defense against the German U-boat, Abilene citizens could focus on supporting the war effort wholeheartedly.

Leroy Garver

Leroy Garver Ready for Duty

As the United States went to war, some worried that the citizens of the country could possibly over-react and start hunting for supposed traitors.  According to The Dickinson County News (also published in Abilene) of April 12, “notwithstanding the fact that we are at war with Germany, it is the duty of every American citizen to keep cool.  There will be many stories circulated, and the newspapers will be full of reports of men who are not loyal, but let us not judge too hastily.  Let us ascertain the facts before censuring someone who may be entirely innocent.  Help your country in the way your conscience tells you to, but at the same time do not let your prejudices get away with your judgement.”  Quickly jumping to conclusions that someone was disloyal just because they did not support the country or the war effort in the same way as the majority, not only caused a possible injustice to be committed but could also harm the war effort of the country as a whole.  Local citizens needed to keep calm and not fall victim to every rumor or story passed around.  Not everyone heeded this warning to keep calm and as the war progressed, some mobs formed to enforce support for the war against supposed slackers through the use of tar and feathers, threats, and even attempted lynching (mostly against members of the Mennonite churches in Marion, Harvey, and McPherson counties).

For the Abilene Weekly Reflector of April 19, the entrance of the United States into the war would bring an end to the notion or even motivation of the “possibility of prosperous aggression.”  Prosperous aggression was the motivation for going to war for financial, land, or other gains.  America’s entrance into the war marked “an epoch in the world’s moral evolution” and that only the United States had entered the war out of duty and disinterested motivation.  If the war was a moral duty, then it was the responsibility of every moral citizen to support it.  As the war progressed, other Kansas newspapers even began referring to the war as almost a crusade and nearly having religious qualities.

The Abilene Weekly Chronicle of May 9, 1917 stated that not everyone in Abilene could bear a gun and fight on the front in France, but that “we shall all enlist for the war and do our bit- one boy at the front and his brother at the plow; one father at the bench and another at the desk; one woman in the Red Cross ministering to the present soldier and another in the home or class room directing the hearts and hands that shall carry the flag of liberty in future wars.  With love for mankind and with malice toward none we enlist in the battle for human rights.”  Everyone needed to aid in the war effort, either by fighting in France or helping out on the home front.

By May 1917, the United States had been at war for only a month and was having to come to terms with how to carry out a war with a small army and even less war material.  Over the coming months, the United States would raise an army through the draft, increase production of war materials, and send both to France to help England and France defeat the Germans.  The months leading right up to and after the declaration of war, though, help provide a glimpse into how Abilene citizens viewed the potential of war and how they should respond to it.  With the country at war, it now remained for the citizens of Abilene to determine how to react to the different challenges brought by the war.

 

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Abilene on the Eve of War: March 1917

By Andrew Pankratz

Dickinson County Historical Society

By the beginning of March 1917, it began to look like war was inevitable for the United States.  With the interception of the Zimmerman telegram from Germany to Mexico, Germany’s declaration of unrestricted warfare (Germany’s declaration that any ship, whether civilian or navy, would be subject to being sunk if found in the waters around Great Britain), and the breaking of diplomatic ties with Germany, the United States began to edge closer to war with Germany.  Abilene’s newspapers now began to discuss the likelihood of war and how local citizens should respond.

On March 7, 1917, the Abilene Weekly Chronicle wrote that Germany’s government had plotted against the United States since the beginning of World War I, even while claiming to be the friend of the United States.  Germany, according to the article, had even attempted to bring the United States into the war on Germany’s side and against the United States’ true friends (England and France).  The article argued that the German people themselves are “admirable, loving, and lovable,” but that the German government, especially the Kaiser, was controlled by self-interest, militarism, and a desire for more territory.  For the Abilene Weekly Chronicle, “what the future holds none can tell, but there is satisfaction in the fact that at least we know our enemy.”

World War 1 #3

Combat on the Front Lines

Another article on March 7 in the Abilene Weekly Chronicle argued that England and France were fighting the United States’ battles in Europe.  If militaristic Germany defeated England and France, “the United States would thence forth be the only first class power in the world denying the divine right of kings and proclaiming the doctrine that the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness so far from being a creation of government, and is its moral justification.”  In other words, it was past due for the United States to recognize that it had a responsibility to aid England and France in the fight against Germany.

Arthur Capper

Kansas Governor Arthur Capper

Kansas governor, Arthur Capper, released a proclamation that was printed on March 29 in the Abilene Weekly Reflector.  Arthur Capper stated that “today, despite a patience too prolonged, the American nation is verging on war.  The spirit of Kansas is stirred as it has not been stirred for a generation…. But that the world may know Kansas stands as ready now as ever to do her full duty and more, I hereby designate, Friday, April 6, as Loyalty Day.  I further urge that beginning today all public offices and the people generally give expression to their loyalty by a daily display of the flag upon their houses, their automobiles, their public buildings, and places of business, and that school exercises be opened daily by the singing of patriotic songs.”  It was time for Kansans to prepare themselves for war and show the nation that they were ready to do their patriotic duty.

As war came closer, the Abilene Weekly Chronicle responded on April 4 to Germany’s claim that Germany had never attacked the United States but instead wanted to be friends with the United States.  The Chronicle argued sarcastically that the United States should therefore play by the same rules as Germany by not declaring war but creating new, arbitrary, and self-interested rules that it expected other countries to adhere to.  This was in response to Germany’s setting off an area around Britain as a war zone and declaring any ship as fair game to submarine attack that sailed into that zone.  (This article, though, stayed silent on England’s use of the blockade to starve out Germany by preventing any ships from reaching German ports, even if those ships belonged to neutrals.)  Another step the United States needed to take, the Chronicle reported sarcastically, was to ban all submarines from the Atlantic Ocean, with the penalty for breaking that ban “being blown out of the water.”  For the Chronicle, the next rule would be that the United States would go to Europe to liberate Belgium and that “if any German were so ‘reckless’ as to get in the way and interfere with these rules, they might get into trouble, but that would be their own affair, not ours.”  As this article demonstrated, the Chronicle, and many Americans for that matter, was fed up with the actions of Germany and determined that the United States should not passively submit to Germany’s outrages.

AWR 4-5-1917

Abilene Weekly Reflector – April 5, 1917

Then on April 5 the Abilene Weekly Reflector reported that the entire population of the United States would support President Woodrow Wilson in his declaration of war, no matter their political party.  “It [the nation] will forget the unfortunate history of the past two years of ‘watchful waiting’ during which we wasted valuable time in preparation…. It will back congress and the president in their resolve finally to get busy.  The United States is entering on a long and unfamiliar road but it will do so courageously and hope and believe that in the end it will make for assurance of national honor and for world peace.”  War had finally come and it was time for the United States to swing into action.  This hope that the war would assure world peace became widespread throughout the duration of the war and served as a common thread in government and newspaper statements on the goals to be accomplished by the end of the war.  Unfortunately, as is well known now, this hope for World War I to be the war to end all wars was to prove overly optimistic.

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Abilene’s Debate Over War: February 1917

By Andrew Pankratz

Dickinson County Historical Society

Two articles from the Abilene Weekly Reflector in February 1917 deserve a closer look.  On February 15, 1917, the Abilene Weekly Reflector printed a proposal responding to the cutting off of diplomatic ties with Germany on February 3 and a rebuttal of that proposal that led to an interesting discussion on the role of the citizens and the government.  During a community meeting held on February 8, 1917 in Lasita, Kansas (in Riley County, north of Leonardville), a resolution was passed that argued that the majority of Americans desired peace and that the cutting off of diplomatic relations with Germany was a step towards war.  In light of this, the resolution asked the federal government to put the question of war up for a nationwide referendum.  Every United States citizen had the right to have their voice heard and the citizens of the country should have control over whether the country went to war.

Charles Harger 1

Charles Harger

The editor of the Abilene Weekly Reflector, Charles Harger, took issue with this resolution stating that it sounded good but would not hold up to analysis.  Charles Harger argued that: “this is a republic, governed by our representatives and we must trust to them to take such action in peace or war as is provided under the constitution that is the basis of our government.  If war comes it will not be because the people want it…but because it is deemed essential to the sustaining of our national existence and national life that we must take action.  And when emergency arises there is no time for referendum.  We must trust our president and congress to act and act promptly.  If the nation is threatened it must be preserved no matter what a referendum would show; if it is not threatened our government is not going to war.  This is a time for patriotic sustaining of the government- not for tying of hands or holding referendum.”  Members of congress and the president were elected to represent the citizens of the United States and to make informed decisions on how best to serve and protect the country.  A nationwide referendum would not only hamper the government’s ability to act but could prevent the government from responding quickly enough to a national emergency.

WWI article 2-15-1917

Abilene Weekly Reflector, February 15, 1917

The second article, printed on February 22, 1917, made an unlikely comparison between World War I and Abilene’s time as a cowtown from 1867 to 1871.  Howard Courant, as reported by the Abilene Reflector Chronicle, used an example from the cowtown days in Kansas to illustrate why the United States needed to stay out of the war.  He argued that during the wild days in the cowtowns in the 1860s and 1870s, people had the “horse sense” to stay away when cowboys got to shooting at each other.  Even though every citizen had a right to walk freely through town, they knew better than to get mixed up in the fight.  In the same way, the United States should refrain from sailing in European waters until the fighting stopped.  Americans needed to use their “horse sense” and not sail on boats going into the war zone and if they do, they should not be surprised if they got hit by a torpedo.  It made no sense for Americans to complain about American ships being sunk by German submarines since those ships insisted on still sailing in areas of the ocean declared a war zone by the German government.

A rebuttal to this argument was made by the Kansas City Star and was reprinted by the Abilene Weekly Reflector.  According to the Kansas City Star, the cities of Abilene and Dodge City did use “horse sense” and stayed out of the gun fights on their streets but that was only good for a short time.  There then came a point where nothing could be done and people were unable to attend to business, church, or school.  The “horse sense” of staying out of the street during a gun fight, in the long run, did not benefit the local citizens but only the gunfighters.  Local citizens finally used “horse sense” in hiring the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson to drive the gunfighters from the streets.  While some pacifist citizens argued that it was immoral to drive the gunfighters out using violence, the Kansas City Star argued that the gunfighters “…wouldn’t listen to prayers…so Wild Bill was engaged, and it happened that he was the man for the job.”  For the Kansas City Star, “one may now walk the streets of Dodge City and Abilene, and by exercising reasonable control of his mouth, may get back to the hotel without being carried on a screen door.  Horse sense is always right, but the kind of sense the Abilene pacifists would have used to this day if they had prevailed, wasn’t horse sense.”  In other words, it made sense for the United States to avoid sailing in European waters for a time, but “horse sense” now called for the United States to intervene and make it safe to sail the oceans again.

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Abilene Ponders the Horror of War: January to March 1917

By Andrew Pankratz

Dickinson County Historical Society

World War I, though not as widely known as the war that followed it, played a large role in shaping the rest of the 20th century.  While largely fought in Europe and in some places in the Middle East, World War I affected countries and people throughout every continent.  For the citizens of Abilene, though, the war remained a distant concern until late 1916 or early 1917.  When the war began in August 1914 between the Entente (England, France, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), it had little to do with the United States and seemed a distant, though shocking, affair.  As time went on the war slowly began to spread and its consequence began to affect countries all over the world, including the United States.  With war looming on the horizon, the newspapers printed in Abilene during the early months of 1917 can provide a glimpse into how the citizens of Abilene viewed the coming of war.

World War 1 #2

Rest in the Trenches

From 1914 through 1918 the war raged in Europe and led to the deaths of over 8.5 million soldiers on all sides due to wounds and disease.  In one battle, the Battle of the Somme, which lasted from July 1 to November 18, 1916, the British lost over 420,000 soldiers and the Germans lost over 450,000 soldiers just to see the British gain only seven miles.  On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British had a total casualty list (killed, wounded, and missing) of 57,470, with 19,240 killed by the end of the day.  For reference, as of 1915 Abilene only had a population of 4,257 and Dickinson County had a population of 25,339.  When more than four times the population of Abilene died in one day, it is no wonder that the citizens of Abilene, or the country at large, wanted to stay out of the war as long as they did.

Woodrow Wilson addresses congress

Woodrow Wilson Addresses Congress on April 8, 1913

By January 1917, the citizens of Abilene, while still wanting to stay out of the war if possible, began to recognize that war just might be coming.  With Germany’s declaration of unrestricted warfare, the sinking of the Lusitania and other ships with Americans on them, Germany’s actions in Belgium (invading a neutral country and killing innocent civilians), and the soon to be published Zimmerman telegram (Germany’s promise to support a war on the United States by Mexico) a growing sense of anger and willingness to go to war began to take hold throughout the United States.   Even so, President Woodrow Wilson still tried to find a peaceful solution to the war and tried to put himself forward as a mediator between the countries at war.  Both sides, though, largely pushed his advances aside in the belief that the war would be won shortly.  The Abilene Weekly Reflector on January 18, 1917, in light of President Wilson’s inability to arbitrate a peace, stated that “Now that Christmas is over why wouldn’t Santa Claus be the proper person to settle the war in Europe?  All nations recognize him impartially.”  Unfortunately, as time would go on to show, this proposal was also not taken seriously by the combatants.

As war appeared to loom on the horizon, the Abilene Weekly Reflector of February 8, 1917 argued that “papers that are getting excited over a possibility of war with Germany should keep calm.  Does not Wilson keep us out of war?  Surely he will not fail just because election is over!”  President Wilson had run for reelection in 1916 under the slogans “he kept us out of the war” and “a vote for me is a vote for peace.”  In another article in the same issue, the Abilene Weekly Reflector also argued that while Americans “…desired to keep from any direct connection with the European war…” they also needed to recognized that “…if the worst comes and we are involved in active fighting, such as Europe is now carrying on, then the United States will ‘do its bit’ with its money and its men.”  The Abilene Weekly Chronicle concurred in an article on March 7 stating that “we do not want war, if it can honorably be avoided.  We will suffer some loss from injustice in the interest of peace.  But we are not a nation of cowards!”  While entering the war was undesirable and that much should be done to preserve the peace, the citizens of Abilene needed to prepare for the worst and support their country no matter the outcome.

 

 

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The Mosher House

913 NW. 3rd Street

The Mosher House

Built in 1886

Donald Hedden 1

Donald Hedden

The Queen Anne style home Theo Mosher built in 1886 on what was then Grand Avenue was pictured in A Gem, The City of the Plains, Abilene, published the next year as a “concise and reliable book or reference” about the city.  The home reflected the highly decorated American architecture preferred by wealthy businessmen during the late 19th century.  Mosher was a cashier at the First National Bank.

The house was modernized in the 1920’s and converted into apartments in the 1940’s.  During the 1980’s, Don and Diana McBride reconstructed much of the interior trim when they restored the home to a single family dwelling.

913 NW 3rd #1

This Queen Anne home reflects the highly decorated architecture preferred by the wealthy in the 1880’s.

913 NW 3rd #2

The front door features a side light.

Original to the home are the stained glass window in the entryway, the hardwood floors and the living room’s bay window.  French doors replaced the missing sliding pocket doors that separated the library and living room.

The second level holds three bedrooms and a sitting room connected to the master bedroom by French doors.

The present owners, Don and Janet Hedden, enjoy the four-and-a-half-foot clawfoot bathtub on a raised platform that was installed when the back staircase was restored.

 

Originally published in Historic Homes of Abilene, The Heritage Homes Association, written by Cecilia Harris, photos by Bob Paull, 1994.

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