The “Great War” – A Retrospective

Last year, I completed my PhD at the University of Connecticut. While attending this land grant college, I studied the history of these institutions (places that derive their mission and authorization from the Morrill Land Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890) with a focus on Home Economics. My doctoral work did not include a study of this particular university. I have since had an opportunity to take a second look, however, while curating an exhibition on the University of Connecticut 100 years ago. Given my interest in how these universities grow in tandem with the warring state, this was a chance to reexamine the significance of the Great War “at home” in Connecticut. What follows is some of my writing on what’s  featured in the exhibit, “The Land-Grant College at War: A Retrospective.”

5.30.17 Connecticut Lookout

One hundred years ago, students at the Connecticut Agricultural College were trudging through campus to attend spring classes and to take part in one or many extracurricular activities, most of which would still be familiar today. While some co-eds might seek out or even play basketball (yes, basketball was a big deal, even then) others could pass the time by writing for the school paper, acting in a drama club, or attending social meetings at a fraternity.

But the spring of 1917 was also charged with a feeling of anticipation. These same students were gearing up for war. Between March and April of 1917, students and faculty members at Connecticut Agricultural College, hereafter cited as CAC, saw their futures change dramatically within a matter of weeks. On April 6, 1917, the United States formally entered the global conflict known as the Great War. How the people of Connecticut, and those at CAC in particular, mobilized to “do their part” in order to win the war is the subject of a retrospective exhibition hosted in the galleries of the Dodd Center at the University of Connecticut.

When considering how the people of Connecticut contributed to the war, service in the armed forces is usually what comes to mind. A small, but proportionally significant number of male students from CAC (and other in-state institutions, of course) would be called up for military service. But this was not the only way that Nutmeggers or CAC students demonstrated their loyalty. A fresh look at archival materials from CAC shows a much wider concept of service to the war effort, work that did not marshal guns as its weapon of choice.

Though war had loomed for years, the US’s official entry changed campus life rather dramatically. By April 30, the student paper, The Connecticut Campus and Lookout was filled with news of student departures and other adjustments to be wrought on campus. In addition to those who would be called overseas, there was a buildup of forces to do work on the agricultural front in the fields and farmlands of Connecticut. Each age group, indeed every citizen, male and female, was thought to have a special role in serving the warring nation. Throughout the state, youth grew corn and managed crops for the Junior Food Army and adult women joined up with a farming program known as the Women’s Land Army. Meanwhile, faculty at CAC taught thousands how to conserve food and agents traveled to provide demonstrations on food conservation. The central thread with all of this work was the notion that food and crop management were vital to winning the war. For contemporaries, the notion of a “homefront” was expansive, including domestic spaces as well as on-campus laboratories, farms, and civic halls where families learned proper food saving methods.

In addition to shedding new light on the war effort in Connecticut, the objects curated for this exhibition offer a wide view of what life on campus was like a century ago. Alongside propaganda posters from the period, photographs of dormitory rooms, dance cards, and other student belongings will be put on display. Other objects from throughout the state, including letters from “The Front” in France and images of youth activities with the Food Army will also be on view.

In selecting objects, IMG_8225I was perhaps most taken with the dance cards used by CAC students at ROTC balls. I was captivated with the thought that these passed through the hands of students who, 100 years ago, may have found these nights are rare respite from a tremendously difficult time. A young lady who danced with a male friend in 1916 may discover a very different co-ed once he returned from service one or two years later. Likewise, at war’s end, that young woman was also changed, altered by a world that had declared this “the war to end all wars.” Holding this dance card, I imagined that perhaps this was a tether to a period of relative calm (at least when compared to the years of martial involvement and “readjustment” that came after the war).

I also had an opportunity to examine letters and postcards sent home by George Hanford, a medical corps soldier from CT. George wrote primarily to his mother; in time, these files have made their way into a slim archival box at UConn. In writing home, for the most part George shared how he filled his days during training, what France was like, and what he did to celebrate the Fourth of July abroad. The letters were not terribly surprising or shocking. There were no major twists or turns. In fact, they were relatively banal considering the context. What hooked me on George’s story was the idea of how these letters and postcards might have been received. Census records revealed the dense network of the Hanford family in Kensington, CT.  A maternal grandmother lived with George’s parents, Frank and Priscilla, who had seven other children. The family also resided Swedish, Irish, and English immigrants. Did they, too, huddle together to learn George’s news of the front? What didn’t he share in the letters that would later be offered upon his return? What would he never share at all? No matter how rich these records are, I’m fascinated by George because of all that we can’t know. Notably, he never moved far from the Kensington area. Unlike his parents, however, he raised just one child.

IMG_8219.JPG Postcard sent by George Hanford to his family. 

“The Land-Grant College at War” is one of several World War I themed exhibitions on display in Babbidge Library and the Dodd Research Center this Spring, marking the centennial of the official involvement of the United States in World War I.

I especially recommend the work of Mary Mahoney, a historian writing a cultural study of Bibliotherapy. Her excellent work on the science of prescribing books during the Great War can be found here.

More coverage on the centennial exhibition here.


Women of Hopedale

I recently had the opportunity to arrange a women’s history program in Hopedale, MA. This event was part of a series of civic dialogues set to take place throughout the Blackstone Valley. After successful sessions on climate change and black history, respectively, this last session was set to focus on the long fight for equal pay and women’s equality.

The day of the event, March 26th, turned out to be rather bleak.  The sky was gray, rain was drizzling, and even the clouds seemed weary of the month. It was just cold enough to make one wonder if the skies would soon turn, with snowflakes rather than droplets falling on the greening ground. This is the type of March weather that often keeps New Englanders cozy in their houses.

Despite the weather, our turnout was great with one demographic: local Girl Scouts.

Last fall, I had worked with this same local Girl Scout troop on a project related to historic preservation. Pleased with the success of that program, in January, I asked their gracious leader if they would be interested in taking part in a public program related to women’s rights. My plan was to prepare excerpts from women’s speeches and other 19th century texts for these young ladies to read as an opener to the civic dialogue. All of the content would be from pieces  written by women who had once lived or been associated with their hometown, the former commune known as Hopedale.

While we waited for the magic hour, anxious and hopeful that others would soon arrive, I watched as these young ladies gathered together, practicing and anticipating their big moment. At the start of the program, they lined up, one by one, ready to recite short speeches or lines from Hopedale Reminiscences, a book of “childhood memories” from the commune years, roughly 1841 through the early part of the Civil War. Though the audience remained thin, they seized the moment. One young woman shared the words of Worcester rebel Abby Kelley Foster, an abolitionist and key leader in the first national woman’s rights convention in Worcester. Reading Abby’s words, she asked, “Woman’s labor is as intrinsically valuable as any other, and why is it not remunerated as well?” This is a question, of course, that we have yet to answer.

Another scout shared the reflections of a young woman who grew up in Hopedale who had often observed “work being done mostly by women clad in bloomers.” Yet another read the words of Ida Smith, a resident of Hopedale who later recalled that “twenty-five women, all clad in bloomers, went in a barge to Worcester,to attend a Women’s Rights Convention.  They attracted so much attention that the police were called upon to protect them.” Line by line, these young ladies told the story of how women from Hopedale created their own utopia while also reaching out to the “weary world,” engaging with radicals and activists near and far.  Together, they painted a picture of a place and time that should seem far removed. Yet their words, when read aloud for all to hear through strong and youthful voices, remind us that this was a community aching with struggles so similar to those of our own time.

An early Hopedale hymn notes that the community was founded by “parents, sons, and daughters” who sought “To live a truer life.” The curiousness of Hopedale–a place where women worked openly in bloomers, where talk of abolition and women’s fair pay was commonplace–was a central theme of the day. The panel of experts assembled for the program, noting that our audience was primarily under the age of 12, deftly focused on that aspect of the community. Why was this place so peculiar? What was so alarming about the notion of equal opportunity? While providing important contextual information, these experts also let the young women take charge. Their questions drove much of the agenda. Above all else, this aspect of the program made me glad for those empty chairs.