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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.


For the week of 11/11/2018
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Peace! Peace at last! That was the word on the street and in the battlefield on November 11, 1918, 100 years ago, when the Great War finally came to an end. The armistice with Germany was not unexpected. Secondary hostile nations had surrendered in the preceding weeks, including Bulgaria in September, and Turkey and Austria-Hungary in October. Germany itself had sued for peace in early October, but it took about a month for the terms to be agreed upon, during which time the fighting continued.

Private Alga Shivers from the Town of Forest played a part in announcing the armistice. Alga served with the 368th Infantry, riding a motorcycle all over France to relay dispatches. He wrote home, “Well, since I wrote last I have delivered the welcome message in the front line trenches for all to cease firing, and at eleven o’clock [Paris time] on the day gone by our bugles sounded the peace call along the whole front, which was echoed back by the German bugles. Since then we can sleep without the danger of being blown up at any moment...”

On the homefront, the news was received with great jubilation. The Vernon County Censor newspaper of November 13, 1918, proclaimed, “Germany Signs Armistice... Everybody Celebrates.” The large front-page article went on to say that “The greatest war in the world’s history came to a close at 5 o’clock Monday [morning, local time], after 1567 days of most bitter struggle... Crowds poured onto Main street [in Viroqua], cars brought boxes and wood and a rousing blaze soon painted the business fronts a ruddy glow...”

A large contingent of drafted men from around Vernon County was scheduled to leave for training camp that morning. They said their good-byes and got on the train in Viroqua, as planned. But, “their train was stopped at Westby and ordered to return to Viroqua. So fate ordained that they should be the last to go and the first to return... all November draft calls had been cancelled by the President and general staff, and the boys were honorably discharged and told they were free to go home. They left in all directions by car during the evening and the next morning.”

The newspaper goes on to list the names of the men in the contingent, under the heading, “The Last Honor Roll”. The group included people from all over the county, including Tennis A. Larson of Chaseburg, Chris Knutson of Coon Valley, Samuel A. Macauley of De Soto, Albert Krause of Genoa, Joe Novachek of Hillsboro, Leland Getty of La Farge, Fred W. Myers of Mt. Tabor, Gilbert Anderson of Readstown, Clyde Winchell of Rockton, Edward Seidel of Stoddard, William G. Smith of Valley, Pearl Wilder of Viola, Sever Lavold of Viroqua, Oscar Nundahl of West Prairie, and Sigurd Christianson of Westby.

All across Vernon County, people celebrated the armistice. Because of the influenza epidemic, which was at its height in the fall of 1918, indoor gatherings were forbidden, so people went out onto the streets to shout and cheer and wave flags. Bells rang, bands played, and impromptu parades formed and marched up and down. The Censor article concluded that, “Truly it was a great day, undoubtedly the greatest day in the history of the world.”


WWI Parade
Parade in Westby on November 11, 1918, to celebrate the end of the Great War.


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For the week of 11/4/2018
by Kristen Parrott, curator

A century ago on November 9, 1918, a representative of the American Red Cross wrote a letter to Miss Jane Butt of Viroqua, accepting her as a Nurses’ Aid for one year. She was instructed to travel to New York City to join a group of aids, and then they would sail for France. Their work would be related to the war relief efforts, but the specific assignment was unknown, and they would have to be flexible: “May I urge that you accept conditions without comment or criticism and make every effort to adapt yourself cheerfully to the environment.”

Many young women joined the Red Cross during World War I, expecting to help care for soldiers wounded in battle. But Jane, the daughter of Civil War Colonel Cyrus Butt, wasn’t very young – she was 46 – and the war was over by the time she received the letter, because the armistice was signed on November 11. It was wonderful news that the terrible war was over, but it also must have been a little deflating for the new Red Cross recruits, as they didn’t know if they would even be needed anymore.

Jane set out for this great adventure anyway. In New York, she purchased her official Red Cross uniform; the most expensive item on the list was a grey Oxford suit at $36. (She could also buy a Red-Cross-approved heavy wool long-sleeved corset cover.) Her group arrived in England on December 7, and stayed there for nearly three weeks, because no one knew what to do with fresh nurses’ aids now that the war was over. Jane wrote to her family that “There is really no work for us to do and many workers are going back home. However if something turns up that is worthwhile I shall go to it.” Something did turn up, and shortly after Christmas, she was sent to France.

Miss Jane Butt had no experience in nursing. She was an actress, and had spent years teaching elocution and touring with acting companies. But she did have experience doing war work, because in January of 1918, she had taken a clerical position with the Army Ordnance in Washington, D.C., and worked there until joining the Red Cross. And fortunately, once in France, she was not asked to be a nurse, but instead to work as a librarian and hostess at an American Officers’ Club in Paris.

The purpose of the club was to provide officers with “wholesome” entertainment, to keep them out of trouble and occupied with worthwhile activities, now that the fighting was over and they were waiting to go back home. Jane chaperoned dances and theatre groups and sight-seeing excursions all around Paris, visiting “Versailles, where the peace treaty will be signed,” and the Louvre, which was “in course of housecleaning. You see they took all their treasures out of Paris” to protect them during the war. She wrote home, “I’m destined to be frivolous instead of social service I begin to think….”

The museum is fortunate to have some of the letters that Jane wrote to her family during this time, and they are interesting reading, full of her forthright opinions and her clear descriptions of England and France as they were 100 years ago. You are welcome to visit the museum to look at our collection of WWI-era letters during our current hours of Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, noon to 4PM.


Jane Butt
Jane Butt of Viroqua, who served with the Red Cross just after World War I


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The previous two articles:

October 28, 2018

October 21, 2018