Saturday, November 10, 2018

The 100th Anniversary of the End of World War I

by Bryan Whitledge

Sunday, November 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of fighting in the First World War. Long-simmering tensions across Europe exploded into official declarations of war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Approximately 20 million people - military and civilian - died as a result of the war and nearly 24 million service members were wounded because the conflict. The impact of war stretched far beyond the battlefields of Gallipoli, Verdun, or Flanders. Thousands of young men from Michigan enlisted and made their way overseas.

In an era before satellite phones and internet video calls kept members of the service in contact with their loved ones, hand-written letters were the way those on the front sent and received news to and from home. Some of these letters have been preserved over the past 100 years. They give us a glimpse of what life was like during the Great War.

Letter from R. Wiltenburg
Private Lake sent a letter to a friend in Brooklyn, NY dated November 1, 1918 that shows how much caution men on the front took with daily activities. He mentions his desire for leave time away from the front to a place with “electric lights” that can be used at night time. This was different from his experience at the front, where, “if you light a match at night here, you will hear something singing in the air (and it is funny music).”

Another letter comes from Rudolph Wiltenburg of rural Ottawa County, Michigan, who wrote to his brother in December of 1918, after the fighting had ended but before all of the troops returned back to US soil. He wrote about the rumors that he would be returning soon and his plans after he was done in the Army: “Sometimes I think of going back to farming, and if the opportunity looks good, perhaps will. […] We may have a chance to get a little farm close [to] home and, as we talked [about], work it together.”

Plans for the future are common themes in letters from Doughboys. Dreaming of the future didn’t necessarily mean after the War was over and everyone returned home. Some of the dreams are like those of Alex Bayne of Grand Rapids, who sent a letter to his father in July of 1917. Bayne was recuperating from an injury, but that did not lessen his ambition to join an aviation unit. He wrote to his father, “I feel very lucky and also greatly indebted to Coty for making me acquainted with most of the men in his escadrille. […] They are the nicest bunch I’ve ever met and I’m certainly going to try and make good in school.”

During the War, the speed of letters crossing the Atlantic was quite slow and news was infrequent. Many servicemen note this in their correspondence. Alex Bayne closes the letter to his father in July 1917, “Don’t be worried if you don’t hear from me real often – the boats are uncertain and no news is always good news.” Private Lake, writing to his friend on November 1, notes, “I just received your letter dated September 11.”

Letter from F. Sigourney
It wasn’t just mail that crossed the Atlantic slowly. Fred Sigourney of Gratiot County, Michigan wrote a letter to his family chronicling his journey from New York to the front. He was aboard a ship for two weeks to reach French soil. Once on dry land, Sigourney traveled by rail and by foot through different parts of France for three months in preparation for combat. Only then did Sigourney’s unit start their march to the front. They arrived at the front on November 4, 1918, just one week before the armistice ending the fighting was signed. As Sigourney notes, the Armistice was a big deal for everyone – military and civilian alike: “We got news that the Armistice was signed and they rang the church bells enough to break them. Miss Margaret Wilson gave an entertainment in the opera house that night.”

100 years after Fred Sigourney witnessed the bells of the church in Domgermain, France break, we take a moment to reflect on the legacy of the Great War and the lives of all who were affected by it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Tragedy and Crystal Lake

By Frank Boles

On October 17, Stacy Leroy Daniels spoke on the history of Michigan’s Crystal Lake.  Located in Benzie County, Crystal Lake is one of the largest inland lakes in the state. It was considerably larger before Archibald Jones began an ill-fated canal project.

In 1873 various individuals interested in expanding commerce at Frankfort conceived of a canal between Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake. The canal would open up much of the interior to Frankfort, an idea designed to boom both farming and lumbering.
To accomplish this, Archibald Jones, who had arrived in the area a year earlier, began to sell shares in the Benzie County River Improvement Company.  The plan was straightforward – lower the lake level about four feet, and use that water to raise the depth of the Betsy River. With the addition of a few locks, this would create an easily navigated channel between Frankfort and Crystal Lake.
Survey work was begun, and soon construction started on an approximately eight mile long canal. By August the channel had been dug. What exactly transpired next is a bit unclear. Some accounts have Jones removing the “temporary” dam at Crystal Lake to let the water from the lake flow downstream and wash away much of the remaining dirt in the proposed canal route. Although stories in which Jones “pulls the plug” makes for a good tale, a more likely explanation for what happened is that violent storms washed out the temporary dam, freeing the water from the lake to flow downstream.
Whichever account is true, on Saturday, August 23, 1873 the dam broke, and within a short time the roar made by the water could be heard five miles away. When the roar finally ended, approximately one-quarter of the water in the lake had flowed into Lake Michigan. The water level in Crystal Lake had dropped eighteen to twenty feet, from about 615 feet above sea level to about 595 feet above sea level.

“Shorn of her glory” and “desolate looking” was how some contemporary observers described the lake a few weeks after the dam broke.  Perhaps all might have been forgiven had the canal really worked, but it soon became clear that a boat of any size still could not move up the Betsy River from Frankfort to Crystal Lake.
Unsurprisingly, at the time there was a good deal of finger pointing. In the long run, however, “pulling the plug” created lasting economic benefits that went far beyond moving lumber and agricultural products from the inland areas to Frankfort. Prior to 1873 Crystal Lake had almost no beach.  But by September 1873 almost 21 miles of very desirable beach had been exposed. Eventually a control dam was built and a good deal of legal proceedings resolved who owned all that newly available beach. Today, Crystal Lake is maintained at a level of approximately 600 feet above sea level in the summer, and about a foot lower in the winter. The beach front property is valued at approximately $660 million.
Archibald Jones, however did not to enjoy any of this long-term windfall.  Once it was clear that the Betsy River remained unnavigable, he moved to Illinois and later to Kansas. It was quite a story, one those present enjoyed.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The French in 19th Century Michigan

The French in 19th Century Michigan
By Frank Boles

On October 2nd, CMU Professor Amy Ransom gave an interesting presentation discussing the ongoing presence and influence of the French in 19th century Michigan. Professor Ransom, who has a particular interest in Quebec, used the lecture to talk about the long history of French-speaking people in our state.
Michigan was originally part of New France. And although the British took political control of Canada in 1763, the Europeans who lived along St. Lawrence River valley and near the Great Lakes remained a French-speaking community largely populated by the descendants of French settlers or Metis, people of mixed French and Indian descent. Similarly when the English ceded Michigan to the newly formed United States, the residents of Michigan, located in Detroit, Monroe, Mackinac Island, and Sault Ste Marie, remained a French speaking group of communities, whose political establishment consisted of a dusting of English speaking officials.

Map of Michigan in French from
France at Mackinac; a pictorial record of French Life and Culture 1715-1760 by Eugene T. Paterson 

One of the most interesting points about these French communities during their formative years was the determined independence of the residents. French “habitants” were clear in their own mind that they were not “peasants” under the thumb of some nobleman, but rather free residents of the land, who controlled their own fate. As such they were quite capable of standing their ground against French authorities, and later against British or American political leaders who crossed well established boundaries.

A depiction of Cadillac's Landing at Detroit from
Lingering Shadows of the Fleur De Lis by
Edith Watkins Worley Ash
Professor Ransom also noted that while the great wave of “Yankee” immigration which began to arrive in Michigan during and after the 1820s did much to dilute French influence, it was mixed with  a smaller wave of Quebecois immigrants, who left French speaking, and British governed, Quebec to seek their fortunes in Michigan. The quick ferry ride between cities like Detroit and Windsor made crossing the border between British governed “Upper Canada”, today’s Ontario, and the United States a simple matter. More to the point, no one would ask questions of a French speaking person boarding a ferry in Canada and getting off it in the United States. And a habitant would not be bothered much about something so superfluous as an international boundary drawn on a map he or she had not been consulted about.

From Cadillac's Village: Detroit under
the French Regime by the Detroit Historical Museum
As Professor Ransom easily demonstrated, there remains a longstanding French presence today, seen most notably in a host of generally town and street names. Although contemporary pronunciation of the words would make a true French speaking person shed tears of sorrow regarding what we have done to the language.
It was an interesting talk.