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Collecting pieces of Minnesota's past for the future


The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.

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WW1 Daybook

A Slow Day in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps - July 9, 1917

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | July 9, 2017

David Backus occasionally had fairly low-key days in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. On July 10, 1917, he had his usual breakfast of coffee and bread, and he proceeded to perform maintenance on his assigned car. When he was finished, he turned his attention toward weapons maintenance. Backus cleaned a few French sabres and bayonets, and he greased a French carbine, which is a lightweight firearm typically used in highly mobile divisions. Since Backus had relatively few tasks to perform, he and his fellow ambulance drivers took two long walks that day, and Backus even purchased four pounds of chocolate from the nearby Army Commissary. He looks forward to moving once more, this time toward the 66th Division approximately eighteen kilometers outside of Paris.


Tuesday July-10-17
Rolled out 9:30 Cap coffee & bread. Worked on car - oiled it, cleaned some French sabers & bayonet I have - greased a French carbine & wrapped it up. Took a walk, bought 4 pounds of chocolate from Army commissary. Charlie, Guy, Skinner & Phil Fisher got back from Permission - helped Duckie put the star on our Que de Guerre on all the cars. Milburn, Joe WIlson & Johny Herrels went on Permission. Duckie & I took a long walk after supper, long talk on section, going into American Army, etc. Hope we move - we are going to Shell - 18 kilometers out of Paris, where 66th Division is in Repos.

Citation: David Backus Collection. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. [123.D.10.5B]

"Air Raid on Heart of London Worst of War is Belief" and "French Win Great Victory" - The Daily People's Press. July 8, 1917.

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | July 8, 2017

French Foreign Legion Soldier Collects Convalescence Papers

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | July 7, 2017

A native of Canby, Minnesota and a resident of Minneapolis, John Bowe had volunteered to serve in the French Foreign Legion soon after the outbreak of war. Like so many others, he was injured in combat, and he was forced to recuperate at a military hospital in Lyon, France. In order to return to the United States, Bowe was required to obtain a variety of official documents, including a “Certificate of Convalescence” reproduced below. This official paper certified that Bowe had “convalesced,” that is, recovered after a period or illness or injury, and he was safe to return home. In addition to his convalescence papers, Bowe required seven other documents, including a steamship ticket, a railroad ticket, and military and civil authorization. Though Bowe returned a hero from the First World War, his actions during the Second World War were far less honorable. During the 1930s and 1940s, he wrote extensively to promote nationalism and anti-Semitism.


Citation: Corresp. and Related Papers, undated and 1675-1919. Bowe, John and Family Papers. Minnesota Historical Society. [P1473]

St. Paul Children Raise Red Cross Funds

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | July 6, 2017

On July 6, 1917, the St. Paul Chapter of the American Red Cross received a donation of $3.25 from local young girls. Perhaps inspired by the recent Red Cross Week, which ended on the 25th of June, five girls aged four to ten worked to raise money within their community. They describe their efforts as “a little patriotic play,” and they include each of their names at the end of the document written in careful cursive.


St. Paul Minn
July 6, 1917
To the Red Cross
Dear Sirs.
Inclosed [sic] find check for three dollars and twenty five cents which five of use girls made in a little patriot play we had. We are sending the money to help the Red Cross. Marion Moulden, Marion Mellgren, Marjorie Mellgren, Frances Holmes, Doris Dunlap. The ages of the girls were 4 to 10.

American Red Cross, Northern Division, records, 1915-1921. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. [P781]

Philip Longyear's First Ambulance Lesson - July 5, 1917

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | July 5, 2017

A few days after he last wrote, Philip Longyear sends his mother an update on his progress at his Medical Corps training camp. He describes his first driving “lesson,” which was really a simple exam designed to allow experienced drivers to skip portions of training. In order to pass, Longyear was required to drive around a track, change a tire, and answer basic questions about a car’s mechanical parts. He anticipates receiving much more strenuous training once he arrives in France. In his letter, Longyear also describes a recent camp-wide track meet held at their grandstand. Many members of the public attended the event, and Longyear recounts with pride that his team won the broad jump, though not the overall competition. Unfortunately, one of the runners fainted during the five-mile race, and another Medical Corps recruit rescued him using one of their new ambulances. Upon witnessing this act of heroism, the crowd cheered, no doubt in part because these recruits would soon perform similar duties at the front.


Allentown, Pa., July 5, 1917.
Dear Mother:-
We are getting well settled in camp now and it begins to seem as though I have always been here. I have gotten used to my cot and sleep well. [...] I took my first Ford Lesson yesterday, and got by my exam the first thing. They let anybody who can drive a Ford take the exam right away and not go through the course. It was very simple. I just had to drive around the race track a couple times, reverse, start the engine, stop it, answer a few simple questions about what the carburetor and magneto are for, etc., and put a tire on a rim. I am through now till we get over to France, where they put us through a stiff road test. We will probably have to drive our own car from Bordeaux to Paris in a certain time. The ambulances are chain drive and geared very low. They won't go over thirty. The rear axle and wheels are very strong. The front part is a regular Ford chassie. A bunch of them are arriving every day. They had a chance to used one yesterday. We had an inter-unit track meet in front of the grandstand in the afternoon. I never saw such a crowd in my life. It looked like the auto races at the Minnesota Fair. [...] We won first place in the broad jump. In the five mile race, one of the runners fainted after about three miles and somebody in khaki rushed out with one of the new ambulances and picked him up, to the great applause of the visitors. [...]

Citation: Longyear (Edmond Joseph and Family) Papers. Family correspondence 1908 - 1944, Vols. 1, 2, and 22; A .L860 Box 2

"Supplies and Horses Arrive" and "German U-Boats Attack American Fleet on way to France; Driven Off" - The Duluth Herald. July 4, 1917.

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | July 4, 2017

US Army Military Uniform

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | July 3, 2017

Sergeant First Class Ernest B.L. Eckberg of Minneapolis, Minnesota, served with the U.S. Army’s 79th Division during World War I. His soldier’s uniform consisted of four parts: a coat, trousers, belt, and hat. The belt is made of brown cloth, while the coat, trousers, and hat are made from green wool, which is quite brown in appearance. Eckberg’s coat features a name pin on the right breast pocket, and its arms are embellished with a number of patches: a military chevron on each sleeve and a 79th Division patch, a cross of Lorraine, on the left shoulder. The breech style trousers, which feature buttons along the calves, match the color of the coat.

Citation: 2011.101.1.A-D

Philip Longyear's Progress in Medical Corps Training

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | July 2, 2017

Philip Longyear of Excelsior, Minnesota again writes to his family from his Medical Corps training camp in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He tells his mother that the past few days have been more relaxed than he anticipated, and recruits have had ample opportunity to see concerts downtown and entertain themselves inside their camp. Recently, the Pasadena unit used their German Red Cross dogs as entertainment for the other recruits. In their demonstration, one man would volunteer to run a great distance and lie down in the field. Then, the German dogs would be given an article of that man’s clothing, and in a matter of minutes, they would locate the “wounded” man. These dogs were to be used in the “no-man’s land” between enemy trenches. At the end of his letter, Longyear returns to more serious considerations of his military duties, and he confesses his worry that he will be too squeamish to provide first-aid at the front.


Allentown, Pa., July 2, 1917.
Dear Mother:-
[...] Yesterday there must have been 10,000 people out here seeing the sights. The Pasadena unit, which has a couple German red cross dogs, got them out working for entertainment. They are the most wonderful trained animals I ever saw. One of the men would hold the dogs at one end of the half mile race track and another man would sneak away up to the other end and lie down in the grass with his hat beside him. Then the first man would let the dogs smell some article which the other had touched and say, "Go get", pointing in the direction. Off they would go, zigzagging till one of them would sight the fallen man and rush toward him. The dog would grab the man's hat and carry it back to the first man, put his paws on his chest and hand him the hat. They are to be used in No-man's land. They look just like a pair of wolves. [...] Our lecture this morning was how to treat burns, etc. It looks as though we might have to do some of that first aid work. I don't think I will shine too much at it or find it too agreeable. [...]
Lots of love,

"British Fighting for Lens" and "To Teach Germans Humility" - The Daily People's Press. July 1, 1917

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | July 1, 2017

Gold Star Roll: Private Dwight R. Smithson - June 30, 1917

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | June 30, 2017

Today marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Private Dwight R. Smithson’s death while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in France. A native of Stillwater, Minnesota, Smithson immigrated to Saskatchewan, Canada as an adult. At the outbreak of war, he volunteered to serve in the CEF along with the British Expeditionary Forces. In addition to being passionate about nature, Smithson was quite musically talented, and he even played in the 96th Battalion’s band before being transferred to another unit. At the time of his death, Smithson was serving in the 15th Battalion near Martincourt in Northeastern France. His squad of seven attempted to move to a post closer to the front, but they came under enemy fire, and Smithson was killed along with five other members of his squad. Smithson’s Gold Star Roll description paints him as a quiet but friendly individual with strong convictions. The description ends, “He was very peace-loving and enlisted reluctantly, but it is said by his comrades, he was afraid of nothing.”



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