A Fragile Peace

On June 28, a hundred years ago today, World War 1 came to its second end with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, shown in this 1919 painting. Representatives of defeated Germany hunch over the treaty, penning their signatures. Across the table, with what appears to be a newspaper (or documents), the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson looks on. To his left sit the mustached Georges Clemenceau (France) and Lloyd George (Britain). On the right side of the painting stands the final member of the Council of Four (or Big Four): Vittorio Orlando (Italy), with his full head of white hair.

Hall of Mirrors, treaty

William Orpen (Ireland, 1878-1931). The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919. Oil on canvas. Imperial War Museum, London.

Seven months had passed since the guns fell silent for the Armistice, on November 11, 1918. Over those many months, the victors discussed ways to achieve the competing goals of humiliating Germany with full blame and, at the same time, establishing an international body that might respect all nations in time of discord, a league of nations.

It was just after 3 o’clock when they gathered in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Afternoon light flooded through the garden windows, reflected here in the mirrors–some 357–that line the long hallway in this opulent French palace. The painter, William Orpen, shows the reflected windows in a fragile state, nearly shattering above the heads of Wilson, Clemenceau and George.


For Wilson, the treaty had that fragile feel to it. He had hoped, had argued for months, that a durable peace could only be achieved if Germany could recover, and, equally important to him, if all parties could agree on an international group to moderate disagreements in the future. Although the treaty dealt Germany a heavy blow, Wilson did convince his colleagues to include his proposal for a league of nations in the peace treaty, to be signed by all parties.

In 1920, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his proposal. But in United States, the idea met defeat in Congress. The Republican-held Senate comprised a large number of  isolationists. They weren’t interested in the kind of global community and world order Wilson envisioned. Senators feared a loss of sovereignty if they agreed to an international body that would arbitrate disputes. While the American public largely supported the treaty and the formation of a league of nations, the Senate did not. America never ratified the Treaty of Versailles.

And so a third ending was needed before moving the Great War to the pages of history. On August 25, 1921, months after Wilson left office, the U.S. government signed the Treaty of Berlin, which stated that the U.S. would enjoy all the “rights, privileges, indemnities, reparations or advantages” specified in the Treaty of Versailles. There was no mention of the League of Nations, which America never joined. (1)

World War 1, like many (perhaps like most), proved harder to end than it was to begin. And Wilson’s hope for world peace? That dream stayed on the table in Versailles.


William Orpen (Ireland, 1878-1931). The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919. (detail) Oil on canvas, 1919. Imperial War Museum, London.



(1) “The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles,” Office of the Historian, Department of State, United States of America. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/paris-peace


The negotiations and Wilson’s contributions fascinate me. I recommend the biography of Wilson: O’Toole, Patricia. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Also informative are these websites (among many):






A Thaw at Christmastime 1919

Christmas Dykes Farm
Christmas approached, and homes like my grandmother’s welcomed the holiday. Here’s a picture of gifts around a tree at the Dykes farm, probably taken around 1915-1916.

The weather had changed mid-December, an event that made the front page of the King City Chronicle on December 19: Three Weeks of Winter and It Began to Thaw. Ice covered the roads, it was reported, but cars (or “autos”) could pass with chains. And enough snow remained to create a nice surface for sledding. All in all, the Chronicle concluded, “splendid winter weather tho the coal was short.”

A thaw, with a persistent chill. This also describes my grandparents’ relationship in December. They hadn’t spoken much since mid-July, a conclusion I’ve drawn from the absence of letters. But on a Monday night in early December, Grandpa sat down and wrote a letter asking Grandma to give him another chance (or at least, hear him out). The letter started and ended in uncharacteristically formal language, addressed to “Miss Inis Dykes” and signed by “Thos W. Alderson.” Grandpa requested a “hasty answer.”

December letter, 1919, 1December letter, 1919, 2December letter, 3

King City Mo

Mon Night

Miss Inis Dykes,

If you will allow me to I will relieve myself of a few words this eve. I expect you will be a little surprised, but I feel justified in doing so. I never did figure out the difference between us, whether it was your stubbornness or mine. Sometimes I feel a whole lot of blame on myself, I am not getting down on my knees, please don’t mistake me. I am going to tell facts. I know I have acted Dignified with you, but also respected you above reproach also tried every way to show you I was gentleman in ever respect which I think you will agree. You know just how I feel, although I have been holding out, I think just as much of you as I ever did, and as I have told you before this is a whole lot, now again, I am not asking of you to come back again, all I ask of you at the present is an answer and a true one don’t write me a flowery one, one from the Heart whether it suits me or not, it will be a favor for I am living a lie and have been the last five months, now I have overcome my stubbornness, not asking you to, just asking you to give it to me as you feel and I will make the best of it either way, because I have to. I have told you before which you will well remember I can live without you, but it is not with pleasure. I know about your man you write to and don’t let me interfere with that for that is not my intentions, what I want to know is just how you feel, and you will do me a great favor by letting me know, I also ask you if you would accept a Xmas present from me with pleasure

So with love,

I will close

Thos W Alderson

Hasty answer

Not having Grandma’s letters, presenting her side of the story, I’m left to decipher these matters of the heart from Grandpa’s suggestions. “I never did figure out the difference between us, whether it was your stubbornness or mine.” So, a misunderstanding fueled their separation, and a digging in, it seems, on both sides. An honest response, he writes, would “be a favor for I am living a lie and have been the last five months.” They split up around the middle of July, by his account. I’m not sure what kind of lie he means. But I’m fairly certain that “your man” refers to Stanley Brown.

Grandpa did send her a Christmas gift, with or without her permission.


One thing I know about Grandma’s family, Christmas was an especially important holiday. They gathered every year. I remember hearing Grandpa say, “I always promised to take your grandmother home for Christmas.” On this Christmas, in 1919, her older sister Mattie returned by train from Flagler, Colorado, where she was completing her first year teaching school. The Chronicle noted her homecoming, “Miss Mattie Dykes came in Sunday [12.21.19] to spend the Xmas vacation with home folks.” And over at Grandpa’s place, his people gathered, too. His younger brother Marshall arrived for a visit earlier in December, the Chronicle noted. I believe he lived in nearby St. Joseph, Missouri at the time, selling life insurance.

I can imagine how the presence of family at Christmas may have thawed the ice drawn tight around my grandparents’ faltering romance. Their families, like most, had their opinions, along with their shared hopes and dreams. Grandpa’s mother was fond of Grandma, as was made clear during the war correspondence. In a letter Grandpa wrote after Christmas, he admits that through the “conflict,” the Dykes family had always been nice to him. It’s not hard for me to see some nudging and free advice being passed around their holiday tables.

But I come back to a word Grandpa used in his letter–stubborn. This describes the man I knew, or comes close to describing what I saw as a proud man. Grandma, on the other hand, led her life (at least in my eyes) in a steady, deliberate way. She didn’t have to be right, but she needed to know something was right. She took her time. Once, she told me about fishing, how it was important to go far out in the water and wait, sitting still in the boat, trusting the fish would come to you, in due time. That’s how I remember she lived her life, equal parts trust and patience. That Christmas, in 1919, was she waiting for marriage to be the right decision?

She answered Grandpa’s letter, which made him happy. In his response (a long one), you’ll find references to local gossip and how he resented the way townspeople had meddled over the summer in what was none of their business. He also admits he left the Christian Church in King City because of the “black eye” he’d received. And that mistake of July 3? He doesn’t elaborate.

12-28-19, 112-28-19, 212-28-19, 312-28-19, 412-28-19, 512-28-19, 6

King City Mo

Dec 28, 1919

Dear Inis

Last evening after a long and hard also muddy trip from Maysville I reached home about eight oclock, finding I had a letter of yours waiting me I was very well pleased. So I am going to answer which I hope will be as gladly received as your’s was. I hardly know what to say but in the beginning I will tell you why I sent you the parcel. As Xmas was drawing near I thought I would not feel right if I did not remember you, although Xmas not being the only time my mind wanders that way and knowing how nice and good you have and always was, and especially during my war period, been to me so my conscience would not allow me to buy any one else a remembrance without remembering you. Now I am a “black sheep” which I guess you know already, and if you would do me the way I deserve you would never speak to me, but I know you have too much sound sense and reconsideration for such as that. Now I am speaking the truth and not trying to flatter anyone. I realize and have for several months that the night of July 3rd last I made the mistake of my life, but you are the first one I have told it too. But I hope I am not the only one that makes mistakes and each day brings me nearer to the idea and thinking how Fickle I was. Now I am not blaming you for anything, only taking on myself what my conscience brings forth each day. Now pardon me for speaking so plainly but you know it my nature, but I have a deep love for you and always will have regardless where I am or who I am with. Now there is one thing I must comment the Dykes family on, is during the “conflict,” as people look at it, was just as nice to me as ever. Now the public in general gave me a black eye, for my actions which I feel it not the business of every one. I have quit the Christian Church at King City and entended to stay quit as they took something on themselves that didnt concern them. Now this don’t cover all them, but during the period which I am speaking I am saying and can say I did nothing that was disrespectful and nothing to be ashamed of even though as I have already told you I made the bad mistake July 3rd, but you will agree with me it was nobody’s business but yours and mine. Now I am not getting down on my knees any oftener than my conscience tells me too, and think I be a man with lots of nerve to ask you to mark off the past and forgive but one thing I ask you is an opportunity to talk with you. So I am leaving it to you and thinking you will allow me the privilege also if satisfactory you may set the date and I will respond at any time.  Guess you have hard I am seeing a woman at town at present and having a nice time as she is very nice and jolly girl but I am only killing time. Now don’t think that the “window” getting married brought this forth. It did not only put it off but it was coming anyhow. Now I am going to close as I know you are growing weary of such a long letter so I do so sending my love and looking for an early answer

I am as ever


Apparently, Grandma responded to this letter with yet more concerns. On the back of a small New Year’s card, Grandpa scribbled this note. His reference to “the program at Winslow” is presumably the Christmas program at the church he attended in Winslow, a little town south of King City.

Happy New Year's 1919 message

Dear Girl

I have been undecided whether to ans(wer) your most welcome letter or not as you did not say to. As the rush is over I am going to take a few minutes in writing. I have had a very nice Xmas, hope you were served all right. I helped in the program at Winslow. They say I did real good for a new beginner anyhow I guess. I see by your letter you did not understand me in several places, am real sorry, I tried to make it plain, and I have not room to go to details this time, but I can talk as good as ever, Ha Ha, now don’t think I am crazy for I am not. An answer will be highly appreciated, use your pleasure


Grandma “used her pleasure” to hear him talk “as good as ever.” She must have liked what she heard because three weeks later, on January 15, 1920, they were married. The Chronicle ran the wedding notice, concluding with this description of their wartime romance.

He answered his country’s call and went to the front in defense of his country’s flag and what it represents. He was at the front in reality and will ever, during life, wear the marks of the hero in the cause of right. She, in the realm of noble womanhood, remained at home, but was ever active and doing and cheering by word and deed, that noble influence and help that are so necessary to encourage and support those at the front. We tip our hat in honor of their “well done” efforts and hope for a bright future and much happiness for Mr. And Mrs. Alderson.

King City Chronicle, January 23, 1920, p. l

1920 wedding

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Alderson, wedding photos, 1920.


I want to begin this post with an explanation of my absence. We’ve been fixing up our old house. My thoughts (and sometimes my laptop) disappeared into the dust and chaos that disturbed our lives for weeks. Grandpa would have understood. I remembered these old photographs and realized what a metaphor it offered for the thoughts I share below.

Effingham house 1952

My grandparents’ home in Effingham, Kansas, 1952.

In 1952, Grandpa and Grandma fixed up this house in Effingham, Kansas. It’s the house I associate with them and all the many wonderful days I spent there. Next to Grandpa is a workman, and on his other side, my mother, Grandma with me as a baby, and, in front, my brother and sister. At the time, my grandparents ran a lumber yard. They knew their way around construction. They knew how to fix things up.

These were the kind of skills they needed in 1919, after Grandpa came back from war. Their wartime romance was falling apart and, I suspect, they didn’t have the tools they needed to repair it, at least not initially. In my last post, I introduced Stanley Brown as one possible cause for the tension. Here, I want to explore another, namely Grandpa’s need to make sense of his war experience. He wasn’t the same man who had left this small town 17 months earlier. My grandparents couldn’t build a life together, I think, until Grandpa rebuilt his own. He did that work, in part, by going public with his stories of war.

Grandpa returned to King City on April 9, 1919, arriving unannounced. “I don’t want the people to make a fool of me at the train,” he wrote Grandma in a letter dated April 5. He succeeded in staying under the radar, but only for a short week.

On Friday, April 18, word spread through King City that Maurice Sealy—one of Grandpa’s war buddies—was arriving on the evening train. A band assembled at the station. Rufus Limpp, a prominent businessman, arrived in his “big truck” (so named by the newspaper) and drove Sealy through cheering crowds to the reception up town. Judge Sullinger was providing welcoming remarks when someone interrupted him, pointing to Grandpa in the crowd.

This young man came forward and was invited to take his place on the truck that he, too, might be given a recognition even if a little late. Then three hearty cheers were given for the returned heroes. . . The talks by the returned soldier boys were listened to with marked attention and interest. We hope to hear from them again. King City Chronicle, April 25, 1919, p l.

That impromptu talk was the first of several Grandpa gave that spring and summer. On May 2, after the morning train delivered “professor” Finley, a high school teacher, the ritual repeated itself, with the band playing patriotic songs and Rufus Limpp providing transportation in his “big truck” to the site of the reception, this time the auditorium of the high school. Returning soldiers Finley, Ferris Keys, Paul Turner, and Grandpa were all invited to speak. After the others declined, Grandpa took the stage and stole the show.

Thos. Alderson made a splendid and much appreciated talk, giving quite an outline of his war experiences, and it was listened to very attentively. He told the story so interestingly that we wish thousands could have heard it. Chronicle, May 9, 1919, p 1.

As the “presiding officer” at the 4th of July festivities, Grandpa spoke on behalf of the soldiers in attendance. Grandpa Alderson“Thomas Alderson always pleases his audience and he did so again on this occasion.” Chronicle, July 4, 1919, p. l.

I sense from these newspaper accounts that Grandpa enjoyed telling his war stories to the people he knew around town. He also–and perhaps unwittingly–participated in government efforts to get these same people to pay war debts. In May, for example, he agreed to give a talk at “Victory Day,” a fund-raising event for the fifth and final Liberty Loan drive. Here’s an ad for that campaign. Grandpa’s name appears, lower left, on the list of “reported wounded.”

May 1919 liberty loan ad

Chronicle, April 18, 1919, p. 3.

I try to picture my grandfather as a small-town celebrity. Did he enjoy that attention? It’s hard to say, but maybe he did. I wonder, though, if he really liked being cast as a hero. How did he respond to the patriotic language used in this ad?

Sixty thousand Americans died in this war. The bravest and the best we had. They gave all they had for their country. Our country. They gave it gladly. It is our sacred duty to see that these dead shall not have died in vain. We must carry on the task they left for us. We must pay our share of the cost of Victory. Their share is paid.

More certain to me is Grandpa’s affection for the men he served along in battle. On June 4, he went to Kansas City to attend what the Chronicle called the “great home-coming welcome and reception” for members of the 89th Division. Grandpa wrote about this trip in the one surviving letter I have from this time.

6-7-19 envelope6-7-19, 16-7-19, 2

Kansas City, Mo

Sat morn

My Dear Inis, I know you think I am mean the way I am staying away, and I kinda think so myself, I intended coming home today but they talked me in the notion of staying over until Mon as my co will be here then with the 356th Inf. I am not doing much running around just taking it easy, am going to the ball game this afternoon. I hope it has dried up at home by now, or by the time I get there. I stay in St. Joe Wed night and Thurs. Saw Lieut. Carson on the street was glad to see him, also heard that Harry Carder was in the states. Well I think I will be home Mon or Tues and I will try and get down and fuss with you as I believe you were feeling that way when I talked to you Wed, from town.

so I close with Love


This letter suggests to me that Grandma felt over-looked. Grandma WartimeShe wanted “fussing,” Grandpa’s word for paying her some attention. While Grandpa was making sense of his war experience through speeches and reunions, I imagine Grandma was sorting out her own feelings, including her expectation that they would been engaged by now.

One day, or maybe over a couple of days, those feelings came back to her in an unexpected and haunting way. In the mail, she received two letters she had written Grandpa in February, when he was still in France. Those letters, which I posted on March 9, 2019, had gone to France and then come back to Camp Funston, Kansas, in search of Grandpa. He never read these letters, but now she would, again.

returned envelopes

Two letters came back to Grandma, one (above) postmarked June 20, from Junction City (Camp Funston) and the second (below), postmarked on reverse, June 19, also from Funston.

Grandma wrote in one about her friends’ happiness when a boyfriend or husband returned. “Believe me it is one happy one I’ll be when you come home too.” She wrote about how busy she was with her mother away. “But any way I like it, the experience I’m getting.” Grandma was ready to welcome Grandpa home, and start housekeeping. That’s how I understand these passages.

In the other letter, written just two days later, she referred to something Grandpa had written.

16 Feb 19, Gma, 2 cropped

16 Feb 19, Gma, 3 cropped

February 16, 1919 letter Grandma sent to Grandpa, returned mid-June.

In your letter you spoke about taking a sleigh ride or that a Ford wouldn’t be bad. Well so far as that is concerned it wouldn’t make any difference how we were going just so it was you I was with, or whether we were going any place at all.

She folded the letters and slipped them back in the envelopes. She put them in the box with all the others, tied with a string. Did she feel sad at these memories, so sweet, so certain? Or did anger cloud her feelings at a time she felt he was pushing her away? In less than two weeks, on July 3, Grandpa would make what he later described as “the mistake of my life.” The damage would take months to repair, and require tools to understand how the war had changed them, as individuals, and changed the kind of  future they dreamed of building, together.


Photo by Charlene Reichert.

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Broken Hearts, Shattered Dreams

Not long after Grandpa returned to King City, on April 9, 1919, he and Grandma had a falling out. This surprised me. The letters they exchanged over the spring, just weeks before his return, were filled with a shared dream, it seemed, of settling down. In time they did make a life together, but it would take nearly ten months—from April, 1919, to January, 1920—to break and repair their wartime romance.

Daddy and Gma on boat

Daddy with Grandma, 1977, on a vacation in Wisconsin.

Many years later, about the time this photograph was taken, Grandma cranked a piece of paper into her portable typewriter and began recording her memories. Grandpa had died–in 1967–and I imagine my father thought it was time for Grandma to fix her life story in print. I pulled out the transcript to see if she wrote about Grandpa’s return.

remember, cropped

She did recall Grandpa’s discharge from Camp Grant, and how he didn’t let them know when he’d be home. Her recollection matches Grandpa’s, who wrote in one of his last letters that he didn’t want people to “make a fool of me” when his train came in.

When he reached King City he called me, rented a horse and buggy and came out to our house for dinner. I went home with him for a few days. We dated only a few times when we had ‘a little tiff’ and he went his, and I went mine.

She gave no details on the nature of their quarrel. What could have gone so wrong? I only have two clues.

The first clue is a name I’ve shared on this blog: Stanley Brown. Like Grandpa, he had been drafted for service in Missouri (in Madison, which lies to the east of King City), trained at Camp Funston, and sent to France, where a war injury placed him in the same convalescent facility as Grandpa. It was there, in a hospital complex that served thousands of American soldiers, that the two men first met and discovered that each had the same picture of Grandma tucked in their wallets.

I found a notice in the King City Chronicle, dated August 1, 1919, that mentions a visit by Stanley Brown to King City. In the clipping shown here, the names of Mr. and Mrs. Lucian Frank are those of Grandma’s uncle and aunt (Aunt Susie being the sister of Grandma’s father).


King City Chronicle, 1 August 1919, p. 3.

Grandma vividly recalled a summer visit with her aunt and uncle, one that apparently started before this August event reported in the newspaper.

Early that summer Uncle Dot Franks were up from Madison. They insisted that Mary, me and Dorothy and Sidney go home with them for a two weeks vacation, and they would bring us back. What was supposed to be two weeks lasted most all summer. What a time we had, for they were fine hosts. (. . .) Aunt Susie was also good at seeing that everyone had a date. She didn’t have to worry about me for I began dating a boy I had met there before—Stanley Brown.

Had Stanley Brown crowded into her friendship with Grandpa? Maybe. It’s possible, too, that Grandpa’s war experience had introduced new, unexpected elements into their relationship. He was injured, tired, burdened now with helping his 72-year-old father run a farm. Maybe he was restless, too, “like a bird out of a cage,” the term he used to describe soldiers coming home from France.

Without knowing what caused my grandparents’ quarrel, I think it’s fair to imagine it came along the frayed edges of expectations. The dreams they held during the war, the ones that sustained them over the long months, didn’t materialize at the time of their reunion. The war had changed both the dreams and the dreamers.

That second clue as to what caused the tiff? That’s the subject of my next post.

Nothing more to say

dormitory.jpgThe simple caption, “interior view of dormitory,” leaves the meaning of this image up to the imagination. It appeared in the booklet, Souvenir of Camp Grant, Ill. and presumably shows a dormitory there. But I’ve run across other commemorative booklets of training camps that have similar (often identical) images of life at camp–the dormitory, mess hall, recreation facilities, scenes of physical activities and military drills. Most of these souvenir booklets were published in late 1917 or early 1918.

When I look at this photo, I let my imagination sort out its meaning. It’s April, 1919, I imagine, and that one soldier, sitting on his cot, is my grandfather two days before the end of his military service. On April 6, in the letter posted here, he told Grandma that he had walked around camp with his hometown (King City, Missouri) buddy Oda Fuller, before coming back to the dorm to take a nap.

I see him on the cot, looking directly us–at Grandma, his family, his future, as well as his immediate past. He is surrounded by the trappings of a life forced on him, some 18 months earlier. Like thousands of other men of his generation, he wore a regulation coat, hat and uniform, carried a regulation pack, slept in a cot that was identical to all the others, and stored his boots and other items in one of the simple wooden boxes that were placed at even intervals on scrubbed wooden floors.

In this dormitory, light comes in from a window in the distance and, given the shadows, from windows on the right. The exposed beams and rafters support the weight of this equipment and, in my way of understanding a soldier’s life, represent the enforced structure of service, laid bare here in its simplicity and absolute clarity.

Not shown, but present I imagine, is the burden of memories my grandfather carried. The memories of the miserable conditions at the front, of making a bed in the mud and being grateful to live another day. The memories of jumping over bodies of his dead comrades as he raced forward in battle, or beat a hasty retreat to safety. The enduring memory of being wounded, now sketched into his right arm, a permanent and daily reminder of his service. My grandfather carried good memories, too, of the friends he’d made, the men he’d learn to depend on and who depended on him.

I look at that lone soldier on his cot, thinking he represents my grandfather, and wonder about one more thing. Is he ready to face the new unknown, ready to go home to a place that, like himself, has been changed by the experience of war?

That afternoon of April 6, 1919, after finishing a nap, he wrote Grandma a short note, concluding, “I have run out of anything to write.” One chapter of his life was coming to an end.

4-6-19-envelope.jpg4-6-19, 14-6-19, 2

Camp Grant Ill

April 6 “19

My Dear Inis

Again a line to let you know I am thinking of you and how I am. This is Sunday eve just think of what next Sunday may be. I am at the Y.M.C.A. came over since supper. It is awfully warm and has been all day. I think it will rain tonight, tried to last night but only sprinkled. Well I got up at four oclock this morn and worked until noon then afternoon I cleaned up and Oda and I walked over to the edge of the camp, came back and laid on my bed the rest of the afternoon. I still don’t know for sure whether I will get to leave here Tuesday or Thursday but you know the one I want it to be. There was lots of visitors here today so many boys here from Chicago and their people come out to see them. I didn’t get any mail today. Here’s hoping I get some tomorrow. We had ice cream and cookies for dinner today. Some of the boys said they was feeding them that trying to induce them to reenlist.

Well my love as I have run out of anything to write I will close, sending lots of Love and Kisses



Coming Home, but on his Own Terms


A postcard in the collection of Grandpa’s correspondence.

Rarely, in his wartime letters, did Grandpa allow emotions to spill out onto the page. He had followed the advice of the army, and in fact was subject to their censorship, to keep letters upbeat and generic. The war effort would be successful, the argument went, if civilians and soldiers alike remained cheerful and optimistic.

The letter posted below, dated April 5, 1919, stands out as an exception to that practice. It’s still written in a style I know from my Midwestern childhood, newsy and following a familiar script: I’m fine, got your letter, hope to see you soon. But tucked between the lines are suggestions that Grandpa felt anxious about going home. How would people greet him? Would life be the same? Were his parents all right, not having received mail from them? Was it possible to simply slip back into the nostalgic picture of home he’d held all these long months?

The moment of truth, he imagined, would come when he stepped off the train. “I would wire you when I am coming,” he wrote, “but I don’t want the people to make a fool of me at the train. I mean the townspeople. So I would rather they not know exactly when.”

This passage surprised me. Yes, I knew my grandfather to be a proud and sometimes stubborn man, but did he not fully understand how the townspeople wanted to celebrate his return? Grandpa AldersonThe people of King City, and those who farmed nearby, had known him his entire life. They’d cheered as he left for war, raised money for Liberty Bonds, spent countless hours knitting and sewing for his needs, buried his comrades, and, of course, penned hundreds of letters meant to keep him wedded to this small, rural community in northwest Missouri.

Was it wrong for them to want a return on their investment of hope and goodwill? Was it wrong to celebrate the return of men like my grandfather?

Not in my mind. Nor was it wrong for Grandpa to refuse it. He had no responsibility to be the hero or brave soldier or whatever else the townspeople wanted him to be. He was coming home, but on his own terms. This was a decision that carried consequences he may not have imagined that day, as he hatched a plan to slip back into town, unannounced.


4-5-19, envelope

Soldiers, their upraised arms eerily similar in shape to the bare tree branches behind them, engage in exercises or drills at Camp Grant.

4-5-19, Camp Grant, 1

Signal Corps, in what seems to be a carefully staged photo to demonstrate disciplined precision.

4-5-19, 24-5-19, 3

4-5-19, 4

Troops share a meal during field training. These images from Camp Grant refer to military training before the war.

4-5-19, 4:back.jpg

Camp Grant, Rockford, Ill.

April 5 “19

My Dear Inis

Only a word tonight to let you know I am still feeling fine. I just now took a bath in cold water so you see I am not very timid. But I never was that way was I? I have been working in the kitchen this afternoon. Got through pretty early, I got your letter today written the 30thof March. Was a good newsy one, was glad to hear of you being aunt. I know you are proud. And you are getting slim, I guess the long walk you and I taken after the cows when I was home in April cut you down, but I know you didn’t mind it.

Wish I could have gone with you for the cows this eve. But wont be long. Think of it. Eighteen months day before yesterday since I went to Funston. Would hate to do that eighteen over. Hope anyhow the next will find me with you.

I heard this afternoon that we could not get away from here until Thurs.

I would wire you when I am coming, but I don’t want the people to make a fool of me at the train. I mean the townspeople. So I would rather they not know exactly when.

My Service Record and Discharge is complete also got my railroad slip this afternoon, but I am pretty well to the head of the list and there is quite a lot to do. We have to be paid yet.

I still haven’t heard from my parents but presume they are all right or you would have told me. You said in your letter that Jack Call had rented the Mrs Gore farm so I suppose the folks have moved. I don’t like the place they rented but if they do, I should be satisfied.

Well my dear, I will close as I am going to get up at four oclock (over) in the morn to help get breakfast. I am hoping it wont be long until I will be helping you get breakfast, wont it be nice. I sure think it will, so in closing I am sending lots of love and kisses, (more than ever)


PS I am sending a picture of this camp also “but it don’t amount to much”


Camp Grant, Illinois

Camp Grant Souvenir cover

Souvenir brochure in Grandpa’s collection, featuring 21 photographs of the camp.

Grandpa arrived in Camp Grant, Illinois, on Thursday, April 3, 1919. He started writing letters to Grandma, and presumably to his family as well. He wrote every day, a luxury he hadn’t enjoyed in months.

Located in Rockford, Illinois, Camp Grant lies about 90 miles west and slightly north of Chicago. Like Camp Funston in Kansas, and Camp Merritt in New Jersey, it opened in 1917 to train men like my grandfather for combat in Europe. From Grandpa’s letters, dated April 4, 5 and 6, and the illustrated “souvenir” booklet he sent, life at Camp Grant had many similarities to the other camps, with one major exception: here, he would end his military service.

The first letter chronicles these last days in the army . . . health inspections, signing discharge papers, promising to return government-issued equipment “in good condition.” He responds to the news from home, gathered, I presume, from letters, newspapers and accounts from his buddies at camp.

I picture him, a day’s trip away from his home in King City, Missouri, ready to return to a life interrupted by war. A phrase comes to mind, something I remember hearing him say after we returned from a summer vacation. “The best part of the going away,” he’d say with a broad grin, “is the coming home.”

Here’s the first letter in this group from Camp Grant, dated April 4, 1919, and postmarked the next day.


Envelope holding April 4 letter to Grandma.

4-4-19, Camp Grant, 14-4-19, Camp Grant, 24-4-19, Camp Grant, 3Camp Grant, Rockford, Ill.

April 4, “19

My Dear Inis

I just finished reading your most welcome letter written April 3rd, and believe me it was a pleasure to me, as I was getting awfully hungry for one. I know by the way you talk you think I have been getting your mail regularly, but the last one received was the date of Dec 15th. (Again, neither knows at this time that her letters, written in February, were never received. Was Grandma hurt that he hadn’t responded to these, and perhaps other undelivered mail?)

Well we got here a little sooner than we expected, was in Chicago yesterday morn when we woke up but didn’t get out here to the camp until about noon. I am feeling fine outside of a cold I caught on the train. We have been kept pretty busy since our arrival. Took my final exam this morn was marked good although I got a 15% disability on my arm. This afternoon we have been signing up papers. Saw my discharge. Sure looks good. I have been helping in the kitchen some.

Camp Grant mess hall

Mess Hall, from Souvenir booklet in Grandpa’s collection.

Guess we will be here until about Tuesday or Wednesday. Then hoping to be home by Thurs or Fri. don’t that sound good. Some of the boys are being sent to the Hosp. and are disappointed as they are all anxious to get home. Oda got a letter from his sister, said Ferris Keys was at home (i.e. in King City).

Camp Grant YMCA interior

I am at a Y.M.C.A. now just finished signing a clothes slip “saying I would send all the Government property home or back in three months” and in good condition (meaning the very clothes worn into battle?)

Tom Wright the fellow that has been with me all the way through received a letter from his wife today. He sure was tickled as it was the first since the first of Oct. Well my dear I will close and write more tomorrow night. So I send Love and Kisses





Pictures from the trip home: Syracuse and Niagara Falls

Grandpa didn’t write much on the trip from New Jersey to Illinois, where he would be discharged at Camp Grant. He sent this postcard on “Wed morn,” which would have been Wednesday, April 2, 1919. He also sent a souvenir booklet that same day from Niagara Falls. It’s unclear if he visited either place. And, it’s unclear (to me) what this postcard shows, other than people outside a building.

Syracuse postcard 4-2, 19


Wed Morn–Now leaving Syracuse N.Y. will reach Camp Grant about tomorrow night.


Niagara Falls postcard booklet, 4-19

Postmark, April 2, 1919

The postcard booklet had 22 scenes, enclosed in a mailer that romanticized the “Maid of the Mist.” Native American legends were recast (often inappropriately) for the tourist market.Niagara with trainNiagara with manNiagara postcard back

Waiting, waiting

The New Jersey leg of his trip home lasted over a week. Twice he went into New York, but mostly he spent his time, as he writes here, “not doing anything today only sticking around.”

3-29-19, Camp Merritt NJ, 13-29-19, Camp Meritt, NJ, 2

Camp Merritt N.J.

Mar 29 “19

My Dearest Inis.

Again I endeavor to send you a line. I am feeling fine getting pretty well rested up. We are having some winter, but not so bad either. Not doing anything today only sticking around. Going to leave here Monday. I don’t think we will be over a couple days going to Camp Grant. I was at a show here in the camp last night but didn’t care much for it. May go tonight “only wish you were here to go with me.” Think I would like the show better. I think it a little one sided me seeing so much without you but you know I am a good talker “don’t you” and might tell maybe one or part of it, but you can say that every boy that went to France earned all he got to see and more.

Our boys are buying insignias of all kinds, they look like a bunch of circus clowns. I don’t like so many. One thing I wear that every one don’t is a wound stripe. They are sure trying hard around here to get the boys money, and are succeeding in most cases. Some of the boys are getting mail. I wish I could have a letter from you. I think I will get it. Send it as I directed you, to Hoboken Casual co no. 335 Camp Grant Ill. I have run across several of the boys that were in the Hospital with me here. It seems just like a reunion. Well my love it seems like there is not much to tell you but hoping it only a short time when I can tell you all, so I will close

With love and kisses


Hero’s Return

One hundred years ago, on March 27, 1919, Grandpa put an American stamp on a letter to Grandma. This was the first time in months that he’d been required to use a stamp, as postage had been waived during his overseas deployment. That 3-cent stamp was one of the first indicators of his return home.


The letter details the day he left the ship on Sunday, March 23, after twelve miserable days at sea. His group immediately boarded a train for Camp Merritt, an army camp in New Jersey.3-27-19-camp-merritt-nj-1.jpg

Now Thursday morn and I am ashamed I haven’t written you but I believe I can redeem myself. I got off the boat about noon Sunday. Took the train for here getting settled down about five oclock and the bunch was all so tired we went to bed real early. The next day we were busy with inspections and delousing. Also moved a little further over in the camp.

The next day he got a taste of what the country–in small and large towns–had organized to welcome home the victorious troops. New York City staged a huge parade for the return of the 27th Division. And Grandpa happened to be in the crowd, a bit of good luck, he wrote.


Early the next morn they began giving passes to New York so my name beginning with A put me at the head of the list. So I felt lucky as that was the big day. The 27th Div parade. Sure some crowd. They say the largest New York ever saw.

I posted a link below to a surviving silent film of that parade, shared by the National Archives. I really can’t imagine how Grandpa felt that day, standing in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people. After months of misery and hospitalization and over a year of being away from home, did he feel like a returning hero? Was he thrilled at the attention or puzzled by the scale of it?

One thing was certain, he wanted to be with Grandma. “I am anxious to hear from you,” he wrote. “I think the last letter was dated Dec 15.” Four long months without a letter! Of course he had no way of knowing that she had written, and that the letters were lost in transit. And she, of course, had no way (or not yet) of knowing her mail wasn’t being delivered.

This breakdown in military mail delivery astounds me, and at the very time soldiers needed to find a way to transition back into civilian life, to reconnect with the people whose letters had sustained them during long months of service. Without a reliable means of communication, my grandparents soon ran into a wall of confusion, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings. But that was weeks off. In this letter, Grandpa imagines his own hero’s return.

I will soon be with you and that will be a glorious day.

Here’s the complete letter, including Grandpa’s conclusion that “the boys are just like a bird out of a cage since coming from France.”

3-27-19, Camp Merritt NJ, 13-27-19, Camp Merritt NJ, 23-27-19, Camp Merritt NJ, 33-27-19, Camp Merritt NJ, 4

Camp Merritt, N.J.

Mar 27 ‘19

My Dear Inis

Now Thurs morn and I am ashamed I haven’t written you but I believe I can redeem myself. Got off the boat about noon Sunday. Took the train for here getting settled down about five oclock and the bunch was all so tired we went to bed real early. The next day we were busy with inspections and delousing also moved a little farther over in the camp. Early the next morn they began giving passes to New York so my name beginning with A put me at the head of the list. So I felt lucky as that was the big day. The 27thDiv parade. Sure some crowd. They say the largest New York ever saw. Also went to the Hypodrome* Theater and it was by far the best thing I ever saw. I came back about nine oclock, only about an hour ride from here to N.Y. So yesterday morn I had got me some paper, started to write when they began to give out passes again, and a friend of mine said I could have his pass so I beat it for New York again. After roaming around all afternoon went to a show and came back about 1:30 last night. I felt sorta sleepy this morn, but managed to get up for breakfast. It is a little cloudy this morn but sure has been fine since we landed “nothing like France.” I was sure glad to get off that boat being on the water twelve long days and every day got longer. I was sure sick the first two days then I felt pretty good until the last two days out when we hit a storm and it was some rough sailing. My head hasn’t hardly quit swimming yet. The first day here when I was standing up I would have to brace myself to keep from falling over but I think now I will be all right when I get caught up with my sleep. We are not doing much, waiting to be sent out. I hear we go about Sat, go to Camp Grant, Ill. to be discharged so I feel like I will soon be with you and that will be a glorious day. I weighed the other day weighing 168 so you see I am pretty fat “but not [word?].” Oda is still in the co with me but Jessie Smith was taken to the hospital as his wound was not completely healed. This is a real nice camp. I like it better than Funston. The boys are just like a bird out of a cage since coming from France, but I think I have enough of the big city, and will stick around the rest of the time here. We are signing the payroll today so I guess we will get paid soon. I haven’t been paid since Aug so I will have a nice bunch. There is some of the keenest Y.M.C.A. here I ever saw. Real Library rooms with large leather bottom seats. Also a large Theater and all kinds of ways for entertainment. I am anxious to hear from you. I think the last letter was dated Dec 15. You then had heard I was wounded. I don’t think you better write me as I would not get it, but if you want to take a chance address me Hoboken Casaul [sic] Co 335 Camp Grant, Ill and I might get it there, but if I don’t hoping to be with by April the 15 so I close sending

Extra mount of love and kisses


*I think he refers to the Hippodrome Theater, a huge event space with seating for more than 5,000 and a stage big enough to hold circus animals and huge choirs and, well, over-the-top performances.