Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Stumbing Upon World War I -- Part I

Oral histories are really the life blood of the Archives. As we talk to people and get their life histories, we get extraneous information as well, which  stimulates curiosity, research and connection. Connection is what I want to write about today.

Sheldon Axelson died in World War I
One of our oral history projects centered on Life On The Homefront During World War II. We gathered histories mostly from women in Emery County who had stayed at home and carried on while their husbands were at war. In one such interview Velma Allred told us about her Uncle Sheldon Axelson who died in World War I. She had never known him, but was impacted by stories told about him and the pictures she had seen of him. She said that he had died in the "closing days of the war in the Argonne Forest in France." In her albums and histories that she shared with us, there were pictures and a history of Sheldon. We scanned his photograph into the computer as we created a file in our Personal Histories  for Velma Allred. We also created a file for Sheldon Axelson.

In his file there is his history and a newspaper article telling about his death. He died in the last month of the war. The newspaper also included a letter he sent before leaving for France after completing his training:
I am feeling fine and glad I am able to do and do my share, and when in the trenches, I will always think of the ones behind...I hope Mother can stand it alright...I am keeping myself clean from women and whiskey so I can have good health and stand some hardships.
In the letter after his first experience on the battlefield he said,
I was just down and had a bath--the first time we have had a chance for one month--I feel so good to get clean....Last night I had a shave and washed my face and hands for the first time in ten days. We do well to get water to drink, say nothing about washing when on the line...if you heard the big guns shoot a few times you would think it was hell instead of war, but since war is hell, there is no difference...

Velma connected us to Sheldon Axelson's history, which connected us to World War I and that Sheldon was in on the bitterest fighting in that war which happened the last few days in the Argonne Forest in France, soon after the Armistice was signed and the war was over. This connection reminded us that war so long ago and so far away had an impact on Emery County and then we ran into another connection:

Orlan Mortensen driving a CCC truck 1936
A couple of years later we were interviewing Orlan Mortensen in Ferron about his experiences in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps.) In the process he asked a favor of the interviewer, Trinadee, concerning a memory from his childhood. He said that when he was a young boy living in Elmo, there was a soldier that was killed on the last days of World War I. He remembered that there was a procession going down the street for this soldier's funeral. There were beautiful, white horses pulling a wagon with his casket on it draped with a flag and most of the town following it. It was a spectacular sight in his memory. He knew the man's name was Sheldon Axelson, and he had seen his headstone and knew when he was killed, but he didn't know when the soldier was brought home to be buried. He wondered if we could research that date for him. He knew that it took a while to get the bodies of soldiers home from the war for burial back in WWI. He had often wondered about Sheldon as a person, and also wondered how old he, Orlan, was when this funeral parade was set into his memory.
Memorial Services in Elmo April 6, 1919  for Sheldon Axelson.
"A large crowd attended, many from neighboring towns."
When my assistant Trinadee told me his request, I immediately remembered Velma Allred's story about her uncle who had died during WWI and was buried in Elmo. We found his death date and began researching in the newspapers to find his burial date. We found the article telling exactly when he came home and a little bit about the event! We are always excited when we find information people are seeking. We copied the newspaper article for him; contacted Velma and asked if she were interested in talking with him about her uncle. She was so happy to talk to someone who wanted to know someone who remembered anything about her Uncle Sheldon funeral! We took him the article and that answered his questions. He realized from the date of burial, that he had only been three years old when he was so impressed with Sheldon's funeral procession. We connected him with Velma,and they talked about Sheldon.She was thrilled to hear his memory of the matched pair of white horses and the beautiful wagon. She had not been told those details.

Both people brought new elements to our county archives, and the connections to other histories expanded our interests and our fundamental historical value to the community.

1 comment: