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.



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