During the days of World War I when soldiers were being transported across the United States on trains and troop trucks, there was a small haven in Denison where the soldiers, mostly young men at that time, could grab a sandwich, a piece of fried chicken, a piece of cake, some cookies, a candy bar, a piece of fudge or coffee or a cold drink.
That little piece of heaven was operated by volunteers at Denison’s first Red Cross Canteen located near the MK&T depot in the 100 block East Main.
Mrs. W.J. Leeper was chairman of the small unit of 35 women who began work in the newly built one-room brick building early in 1917. The women alternated in serving as captain every day. In an undated newspaper article in The Denison Herald many years ago, Mrs. Leeper told of remembering that as many as 3,000 soldiers sometime were served in one day and night.
The uniforms worn by the women were of blue cotton with the emblem of the Red Cross sewn on the front of the blouse and on the white brimmed hats worn for protection against the hot summer sunshine.
At that time there were no bans of censorship concerning troop travel and Claude Mansfield, then the chief dispatcher for the railroad, would tell the Red Cross volunteers the schedules of the incoming troop trains.
No matter what time of day or night the schedule listed incoming troops, the ladies would gather to pass out coffee, doughnuts, sandwiches, apples, cookies, candy, chewing gum and even ice cream cones to the hungry men.
Occasionally when the trains stopped for only a few minute or for about six hours after the war ended when the wounded were being sent home and they were unable to come to the canteen, the Red Cross workers boarded trucks with their baskets of food, pots of coffee and sometimes, tubs of ice containing churns of fresh country buttermilk brought in by farmers, and serve the boys on the trains.
The generous country people also filled the canteen with hundreds of jars of jellies and large country hams which were cooked by members at home because the unit was so small and not equipped with ovens. The women laughingly told of the blisters worn on their hands by slicing homemade bread for sandwiches.
Catastrophe stuck one day when Denison’s gas main was broken. Not to be outdone, however, the women built wood fires in front of the building and served hot coffee to 1,500 soldiers.
Even though each woman maintained a heavy working schedule, she found time to spend hours at the local Red Cross production and knitting rooms, doing every type of work from folding bandages, knitting socks and scarves to preparing small sponges. Workers on the home front as well as for the men in service, the women also made comforts for civilian use during the bitter winters which ushered in the dreaded flu epidemic.
Their Red Cross first aid course qualified them for treatment of the victims of the epidemic and their gallant work save many lives.
The newness of war that involved the United States for the first time in more than half a century was credited with a Red Cross membership drive in Denison in one day. Mrs. Leeper also acted as first Red Cross chairman here with Charles H. Jones as chairman of the men. The town was divided into districts and every house was canvassed. As a result there was a shortage of stickers for the windows of the patriotic citizens who pledged whole heartedly in the winning of the war.
Among the other pioneers in this field who were still living in Denison and who were continuing Red Cross work at the time Denisonians were operating the canteen were Mesdames J.C. Feild, Will Campbell, H.W. James, Hugh Scales, Will Darby, P.J. Brennan, Sam Boldrick, John Suggs, Bob Ellis, John S. Knaur, S.C. Knaur, J.A. Mayes, W.D. Collins, J.R. Handy, R. H. Peter and Misses Delle Leeper and Jennie Jackson.
The last name on the list, Miss Jennie Jackson, was the neighbor of the Eisenhower family when the baby Dwight David was born on Oct. 14, 1890, and remembered rocking the baby in a rocker on the Eisenhower’s front porch.
I don’t remember many happenings during World War II, as I was pretty young then, but I seem to remember a Red Cross canteen upstairs in the 400 block West Main. I remember that Betsy Munson was involved in it and that she was a familiar sight in her Red Cross outfit of a light blue dress with the Red Cross emblem on the bodice. I would be interested in knowing more about this group during and after World War II. Any information to be shared can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I know the important role these volunteers played during both World Wars. I ran across a letter written somewhere in Germany on March 5, 1945, from Edward J. Krenek addressed to “My Dear Young Ladies:” I think it is appropriate to print here even today.
“Late last Christmas Eve, a troop train rumbled across the U.S. en route from Texas to a P.O.E. (Port of Entry). The men were in their bunks, but most of them were awake, thinking of their loved ones and the Christmas Eves of years gone by. Being away that far from home on this particular night was pretty rough and the men’s spirits were naturally low. On top of all of it, they had been traveling across the nation that whole day and no one had so much as wished them a ‘Merry Christmas’.
“Then an event happened that none of the men probably never forgot. The train rolled into a town and baskets of neatly wrapped gifts were brought on board. The shout of ‘Merry Christmas’ was heard in the still night. This event made all the men feel pretty good. They knew then that someone appreciated what they were doing.
“You girls caused those men to fall asleep happy. For this we thank you with all our hearts. That welcome you gave us was a grand thing. Your gifts carried sentiment that was worth more than all the money in the world. Thanks again and may God bless all of you.”
No doubt volunteers such as these brightened the days for soldiers across the nation and I’m sure the reaction of the young men brightened their Christmas too.
In later years and still today, while the canteens may not be doing the same things today, there is special entertainment around the world where men and women are stationed during the holidays. I’m certain this brightened their lives during those days and at other times.
Donna Hunt is formed editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her column. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.