Friday, July 10, 2015

The Great War -- Part 1

WWI Doughboys, in downtown Indy, 1919
The Brookville Public Library contains a book that I originally thought would kick open some doors to the history of Fairfield of the 20th century.

The book, an Atlas of Franklin County, dated 1925, is a peculiar publication. It's bound, is about 18 inches by 24 (I don't measure things often) and it's maybe 100 pages long.

I opened it thinking it would reveal life in the Whitewater valley as we would know it after the turn of the century.

Instead, it has page after page of names ... names of men who were eligible for, were drafted into, or volunteered to serve in the U.S. military during World War I.

The war had been over for about 7 years. The details were intriguing, complete and ... frankly, a little frightening. Names of men from as far west of Brookville as Columbus or Greensburg.

On and on, the pages went, telling where men had been recruited, where they were stationed, and inevitably where they served. Later in the book, there were items on those who did not return.

Mixed in with this, as a token effort to assert that it was indeed an Atlas of Franklin County, maps of all the towns. Street maps.

No stories on commerce or social life in the valley, as had occurred in a couple of other older atlases that spent time exploring the biographies of those who could afford to have one published.

The curious part was that the war had been over for SEVEN YEARS and, one assumes, that the publishers of this Atlas deemed it necessary to somehow record all this information for posterity.

No wonder. World War I was an event unlike any other in history. It wasn't called World War I then ... it was the Great War.

The last of its kind.


I've found a lot of documents that detail life in the Whitewater valley during that war, and it's safe to say that the conflict did more than just touch a few lives.

But it evidently took seven years to compile all the information that the Atlas contains, and one would assume that the publishers found a compelling need to scrap the fluff. The war had been fought, and won.

Evil had been vanquished.

Or so they believed.

Virgil Davis, who compiled his own history of the valley in 1958, writes this in an essay:

"All wars are tragic but World War I was doubly so for Franklin County.Beginning in the 1830s the county had seen a large migration of Germans bringing with them the customs and culture of their "Fatherland" and enriching us thereby.

"They settled principally in the southern and southwestern sections of the county and in Brookville. There they established their churches, schools and villages. St. Peters St. Mary's-of-the-Rock, Cedar Grove, Oak Forest, and particularly, Oldenburg, became German centers and there the old world customs and languages were preserved until well within the 20th century."

Davis has the benefit of experiencing the next world war in 1939.

Davis is taking us in a unique direction in relation to the first world war.

Anti-German sentiment was not only prevalent but encouraged. The German settlements of Franklin County endured a national distrust. Yet, the county was quite diverse and, according to Davis, much more tolerant than in other parts of the country. That's his impression.

"Although we experienced some 'war hysteria' when we attempted to stamp out all evidence of our German heritage (by substituting 'Liberty cabbage' for sauerkraut and forsaking the language in church services) we soon regained our sanity, and gave living proof that, although we might cling to the German culture and customs, our basic loyalty was to the 'new country' and not to the 'Fatherland.' "

I've never heard that Hoosiers of German heritage were badly mistreated, though there were stories of verbal abuse.

What happened after World War I is more disturbing, but that will be part of a separate blog entry.

Meanwhile, the 1925 Atlas of Franklin County has yielded some compelling stories. Later on those.



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