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Manatee History Matters: ‘War to End All Wars’ brought extreme local challenges

World War I soldiers
World War I soldiers Florida State Archives Memory Project

As we entered 1918, the “War to End All Wars” raged in Europe with high casualties in both the military and the civilian populations, and people on the home front were faced with their own daily challenges. Pride in patriotism was carried to extreme levels, where people not thought to be patriotic enough were ridiculed as being “slackers” — by not purchasing Liberty Bonds, saluting the flag, observing the one minute of silence, dodging or cheating the draft, not observing food and fuel regulations, or not contributing to the Red Cross.

Then-Sheriff Samuel Gates’ statement, “Go to war, go to work or go to jail,” reflected the local atmosphere.

No driving on Sundays and Lightless Mondays and Tuesdays were in place to conserve fuel, both controlled by the local Fuel Administrator E.P. Green. Under the Railroad Control Act of 1918, the federal government took over the nation’s privately held railroad systems; this act gave the government control of the primary transportation system for goods and travel. Farmers were pressured into growing more crops with fewer men to help with the harvesting, packing and shipping. The government would determine what crops were essential, making farmers hold their breath to see if their crop would qualify for railroad shipment.

Letters from sons were posted so all could read what was happening so far away; sadly, the deaths of some of those young men were also shared in the newspaper. Men died from disease, fevers and influenza having never left the troop encampments. Nor were they safe on the ocean; with the sinking of the Cyclops and the Coast Guard cutter Tampa, many Florida boys were lost to the sea.

In 1917, the federal government had taken control of the telephone and telegraph lines along with the nation’s food supply, and immediately began austere measures at home on items such as sugar, wheat and flour. Massive amounts of food were shipped to Europe to relieve the famine in many countries and to feed the troops.

Slogans such as “Eat potatoes save wheat, Eat rice not wheat,” policies of meatless Tuesday and Saturday, and no wheat products on Mondays and Wednesdays were the law. Food prices were published weekly, stating the cost of items and what merchants could charge; there would be no price gouging. Locally, food issues were handled by Food Administrator L.A. Morris; inventories of sugar and wheat products held by merchants were reported, and even substitutes for wheat flour were eventually controlled.

Canning clubs

Girls’ canning clubs in Florida helped to preserve fresh produce, eliminating the cold storage and transportation problems facing farmers. The canning clubs were large-scale productions using tin cans, not glass jars. Manatee County clubs led the state, with Miss McGriff at the helm. The clubs were at one point canning 6,000 cans per acre of vegetables. They were even canning celery.

Mrs. Louis Mills Marble of Canton, Pa., invented what she called Soup Flour. The product consisted of vegetables that were cooking then dried, and her trick was to grind the vegetables separately to keep more of their flavor. A soup could be made by adding the mix to water, barley or other grains, and fresh vegetables could be added to the base. She did not patent her recipe but freely gave it to the war effort. The government contracted with Amour & Co. to produce 500,000 soup rations per day from her recipe.

There was fun, too, during this time. Driving to Arcadia and Sarasota to see the “fly boys” in their planes made for an enjoyable outing; Fort Dade and the aviation camp soldiers often played baseball and had dances, bringing some male companionship to the area’s young ladies.

But everything during war seemed to come with a warning. One such warning was issued by the Commission on Training Camp Activities: “No young woman should approach or converse familiarly with a man in uniform unless introduced by a mutual friend or unless he has been properly vouched for by community organizations.”

Cindy Russell, research librarian for Historical Records, Clerk of Circuit Court, loves genealogy, sewing, needlework and puzzles of all kinds. Email: Phone: 941-741-4070