A Catskill Catalog: May 16, 2012

My Uncle Eugene served in the First World War. I have his service medal. World War I was still a horse-drawn war, and Private Birns was a groom, attending the mules and horses that served his engineering regiment, paying particular attention to the Colonel’s horse, a thoroughbred, no doubt.

My Uncle Gene, a city boy, fell in love with horses during the war, and when he came home from “over there,” he continued as a horseman, keeping his English riding horse, Ebony, in a West Side stable. A treasured family photograph shows Gene and Ebony cantering through Central Park, he resplendent in boots and riding jodhpurs. Cut quite a figure.

Halcott’s Irwin Kasanof was our area’s last surviving World War I veteran. He lived long enough to be justly celebrated for his long-ago service. I remember him in an open car as the Grand Marshall and honoree of our Memorial Day parades. A banner proclaimed his last-vet status.
Today, we witness the dwindling of the World War II veteran community. At some point, one Memorial Day, we’ll sit up and say, “Oh, wow. This is the last guy.”

If you have never been inside the Margaretville American Legion Hall, on upper Main Street, find a way in this Memorial Day season. The south and east walls are covered with photographs of all the kids who went off to war between 1941 and 1945. The sheer numbers are staggering.

The late Marian Connell took the photographs. She had been science and math teacher to most of the young men, and the few young women, whose photo she insisted they sit-for, before they left town to ship out. Marian left our community the wonderful Marian Connell Wellness Series at Margaretville Hospital, but her museum-quality time capsule of one small town’s mobilization for war may be her greatest material legacy.

Go see it.

There is no such visual record of local mobilization for the First World War. Newspaper accounts, though, give us a pretty good picture.

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against the German Empire. Germany’s submarine warfare had led to several atrocities that embroiled American opinion. The last straw was an intercepted telegram promising Mexico would get Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico back, if the Mexicans joined Germany in war against the US. Enough was enough!

The United States declared war on April 6, 1917. Preparedness and mobilization blossomed, nearly overnight, all over the country.

The Delaware County Republican Committee announced they would immediately undertake a census of all men, living in the county, between the ages of 18 and 60. Had to know the available manpower.

The county sheriff received notification, from above, to identify and dismantle any and all wireless stations that might be in the county.

At the governor’s request, County Judge Lewis Raymond and Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, John Chambers, announced the formation of a County Defense Committee. The committee’s job was to implement, locally, “the plans of the national and state governments.”
William T. Austin, of Margaretville, was appointed to the committee from the east end of the county. Austin Street, in Margaretville, bears his name.

Home Defense required an inventory of military resources in the county – hunting rifles, included, I’d bet – and organization of a Home Defense Corps. The committee charge was “to stimulate recruiting and, in every way, back up the National Guard and Naval Militia,” and “to provide relief for the families of those in military or naval service.”

The railroad age was still in full swing in 1917 and the Catskills were crossed with tracks. Condition of the rails throughout America was a national security issue. “Local railroads have been asked to report to Washington,” the local newspaper reported, “as to the condition of their bridges, the length and height, and what facilities the roads have for rapid reconstruction in case of damage to the bridges.”

Sixty men began drilling in the park in Fleischmanns, ready to form a home guard for that village, and provide preliminary military training for those who might, later, enlist, perhaps when they
turned 18.

Both President Wilson and Governor Charles S. Whitman emphasized the importance of the farm to the prospect of America military success. Big crops would be needed to feed an army. “Men of all classes will be enlisted for work on the farm,” declared the Delaware County Defense Committee. “It is as important and patriotic to serve with a hoe as it is with a gun.”

Swords and plowshares. This war was going to take a total effort, coordinated, and directed according to national and state standards. The Great War had come to the Catskills.
billbirns@gmail.com