Story by James Gregory, Registrar of the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar
Photos courtesy of the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Life changed drastically in Stillwater after the U.S. joined World War I. To increase patriotism and support for the war, a Council of Defense was established in May of 1917. The organization had a wide range of tasks, including publicity, conservation of food and fuel, and military preparedness, as well as promoting Liberty Bonds, war savings stamps, and Red Cross campaigns. The Payne County council was headed by C. L. Burdick, and John L. Bishop directed a war bond sales campaign.
Harry B. Bullen suggested building a special building to headquarter the community’s efforts in supporting the war. He offered to furnish all materials from his lumberyard and to find volunteer workers for the job. Thirty-five volunteers went to work at 8am on Wednesday, April 17, 1918 and by nightfall had completed Stillwater’s historic War House, on Eighth and Main Street. It became headquarters for the Council of Defense, Red Cross, the war bond drives, and other activities.
The Council of Defense organized events to raise patriotism throughout the town. Large groups of citizens gathered at the train depot to cheer departing enlistees. The Council had a large parade and dinner event to honor those called upon in the selective draft. Patriotic addresses were given in town to crowds close to 15,000. Parades escorted the young men to the station when they left. The group also attempted to raise food and money for the war effort. They were authorized to assist local farmers through several means in order to yield more crops that could be sold to the government. The men also heavily promoted drives for the Red Cross and savings bonds, to surpass their quota.
Unfortunately, the Council of Defense took their patriotism to an overzealous extreme. As the group took up the bond drives, they began to aggressively target those who did not contribute. One source states that a man who lived east of Stillwater was brought before the Council because they calculated that he could give $47.50 for the war effort, but gave only $10. A roomful of observers shouted “try the slacker.” The Council had no real legal power, so they released him, but his reputation in the community had been harmed. The Gazette reported that a Cushing man was painted yellow, head to foot, for not giving enough to the drives. Another man was reportedly hoisted on top of the War House and his head and beard trimmed until he agreed to give $10.
The Council also sought out those who they believed worked counter to the United States government. In a “confidential” letter to the Payne County Council of Defense from the State Council, they were warned of the Farmers Non Partisan League which they believed harbored anti-American beliefs. They were told the group banded together “disloyal persons of all descriptions, grumblers, pro-Germans, and socialists.” The Payne County Council was asked to investigate this group and report to the State level. Despite these problems, the group did in fact raise large amounts of food and money for the war effort.
To ensure that food was rationed, the council instituted a weekly system in which some type of food was not eaten. Mondays and Wednesdays were wheat-less days; people were expected to do without wheat flour at least one meal every day. Tuesday was a meatless day, with no meat from cattle, hogs, or sheep. Saturday was a pork-free day. Finally, merchants must sell to consumers buying wheat flour, an equal amount of other cereal grains. The council also pushed for community Victory Gardens for every family in the county. The gardens meant that families could grow enough to feed themselves, so that their other crops could support the war effort.
A “bureau of speakers” was organized, and men were sent to speak in the various communities. The combination of the speakers and draft regulations enlisting boys for the war led to an increase in support for the council and the war effort.
The Council of Defense continued its work until March of 1919. At its end, the Council published a pamphlet called “Sooners at War.” It recorded the activities of the Oklahoma State Council of Defense, the county councils, and all of the war work done in Oklahoma. In this pamphlet, it claimed that the greatest challenge the council faced was the “general apathy” found in the counties. The Payne County Council of Defense, though at times overstepping its authority, banded together the citizens of Payne County in order to support their boys and the American war effort during the First World War.
Learn more about the Payne County Council of Defense at the Stillwater History Museum’s new exhibition about World War I and Stillwater, opening August 2nd. Museum admission is always free to the public. Hours of operation are Tuesday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Weekends 1 to 4 p.m. Visit sheerarmuseum.org for more information about the exhibits and programs.