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Looking at History, "Letters from the Boys"


April 12, 2018

School children celebrate peace - this photo, provided by the Monticello Area Historical Society, is from 1918.

Tell a friend that you're reading a book by an economics professor, and the likely response will be along the lines of, "I'll bet that's a real page turner!"

In the case of George Mason University economics professor Carrie Meyer, her latest book is just that, a real page turner. And the story of how Meyer got to writing this book is interesting. She was doing research into her previous book, Days on the Family Farm. Meyer was raised in the country, just northwest of Rockford, IL. She had found numerous notebooks written by one of her relatives, who kept excellent records and recollections of her many years of rural living at the turn of the 20th century.

It was during her research for Days on the Family Farm in newspapers in Brodhead, Brooklyn and Monticello that she found numerous letters sent home by local men and a few women who were serving in Europe during WW1. She said she was pleasantly surprised by the number of letters the recipients chose to share with their local newspapers.

At that point she realized what a treasure these long deceased soldiers had left behind. Letters that told of the hardships; the waiting at the back of the battle lines until they were called to the front to relieve their fellow brothers and sisters in arms during the prolonged battles.

Green County, along with the rest of Wisconsin, was in a rather precarious situation when WW1 broke out because of the large population of German people living in Wisconsin. Germans at that time made up 30-40% of Wisconsin's population. Their loyalty was questioned, but Wisconsin had only 2% of their young men who failed to register for the draft, compared to 8% nationwide. Wisconsin also held the distinction of having a higher percentage of war deaths than any other state. Monroe was the only community in the United States to hold a referendum on if or not the United States should go to war. They voted 90% against going to war.

History often is not written by the history makers, but by authors who had no direct connection to the histories they write. One exception to that is Wisconsin author, Steve Ambrose, who authored many excellent books on American history that focused more on the people fighting the wars, rather than cold hard facts and figures.

May Howe, a nurse, wrote to the Brodhead Independent Register. "We have a slush fund. Each nurse gives five francs, (about $1) each month and a certain sum is used to decorate our graves (each hospital oversaw its own cemetery). A roommate had a dear boy out there. The fellow in the trench back of him was cleaning his gun when it went off and shot him in the back. He had to be operated on here on his arrival and hemorrhaged several times afterwards and died. He was so nice and was one of her first cases. She thought so much of him."

A September 12, 1917, letter in the Brooklyn Teller newspaper from Arnold Hansen told of the battle. "Our progress the first few days was rather slow on account of so many German machine gun nests. After they were cleaned out, we had clear sailing. But the Germans sure put up a fight where they got a chance, especially where they know that the Americans are fighting them. The Wisconsin boys sure have kept up the old Wisconsin war standard."

"Crops over here are looking fine and at many places the German prisoners are harvesting the grain. They sure have a bunch of prisoners, and most of them seem to be glad to have been taken prisoners."

Reuel Barlow of Monticello on February 4, 1919, wrote from Rengsdorf, Germany, to the Monticello Messenger. "I certainly enjoyed the many letters from the homeboys in uniform which appeared in your issue of December 25. I can hardly wait until Stanley and I get together; then you're probably hear shells whistling and bombs exploding and Boche (German) planes buzzing and the whole war being fought all over again. I remember once seeing two veterans of the Civil War sitting in a room. When they started they were about 10 feet apart. As their memories became more active and their enthusiasm grew, they kept edging toward one another until finally they sat with their chairs almost touching one another, face to face, slapping each other on the shoulder and pounding each other on the knee. I often wonder if we will ever get like that."

The armistice was begun at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Monticello staged an impromptu celebration on November 7th, due to an incorrect story by the United Press. The people of Monticello celebrated again four days later, on the actual date of the armistice. The Milwaukee Road Railroad train crew that served Brodhead, Albany, Monticello and New Glarus, upon hearing of the armistice, blew the train horn from Brodhead all the way to New Glarus to let the rural people know that this God-awful war had ended.

"Don't worry, for as they say the shell that hits you, you never hear. Much love," Roger Skinner, Brodhead.

Author Carrie Meyer has certainly done an excellent job in putting out to the public a book that tells the WW1 stories of our grandparents, great uncles and aunts. The letters she worked with make you feel like you are sitting in a room with the veterans, hearing them relate their stories just to you. The veterans' stories make you laugh, smile, cry, and wish you had known each one of them in person.

Letters from the Boys is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The Monticello Public Library has the book in stock, and the Oregon and Brodhead Public Libraries probably will have it on hand sometime this week.


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