s
s
Sections
You've read 3 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 6 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

There are at least four exhibits in Sonoma County museums about America’s role in a century-old conflict known in its time as “The Great War,” or, ironically, “The War to End All Wars.”

Given three more decades and a myriad of unsolved issues, it would become World War I — the First World War — a prequel, you might say, to World War II and beyond.

There is enough diplomatic history of those times to fill a library with textbooks, fractured peace treaties, shattered pacts, broken promises and hastily drawn maps.

The History Museum of Sonoma County tells the story in “home front” posters, asking citizens to donate their horses to the cavalry, feed their children corn meal mush to “save the wheat for the soldiers,” use less coal to help the Navy evade German U-boats, send money to feed the “starving Belgians” and the people of the “Bible Lands” threatened by the Turks.

Petaluma’s exhibit is truly “hometown,” with century-old uniforms worn by their Home Guard and the photos and letters sent home, family treasures. There are two smaller exhibits as well, at the Healdsburg Museum and Luther Burbank’s Home.

We are reminded, by the familiar names, that war stories are people stories. Repeated and remembered, handed down through generations, they provide a history more human than all the statistics detailing who emerged victorious, at what cost and how the world changed as a result.

hhhhhh

There are no Sonoma County “old soldiers” left to tell us what that war meant to them and to this place. But some of us were privileged to know a few of those men and women and hear their accounts firsthand — “primary sources,” the social scientists would call them.

I remember Hubert Danhausen of Healdsburg who had just celebrated his 98th birthday in 1993 when he showed me a piece of material, yellowed with age, and I read the note written on it:

“The first balloon of the 9th Balloon Co. shot down by the German aero planes Aug. 28, 1918. Nobody hurt. We shot down the plane that shot our balloon down in flames.”

When I asked what places in France the war had taken him, he replied, “All over hell!”

I let it go at that.

Tom Barkas, born in Greece, was 105 when I met him in 2000. He was drafted in Fresno in 1917, trained as a company cook and sworn to U.S. citizenship with 400 others. “All us boys who had come from Europe, they sent us back,” he said.

Earl Murphy was 103 in 2000. He was an Ohio farm boy when he enlisted in the Navy in 1917 and volunteered for submarines, learned all about their electrical systems and stayed in the Navy until 1934, when he retired, but not for long. He came back to the Navy in ’42 and was a lieutenant aboard the battleship USS Iowa in ’43 when it carried FDR to Tehran for his meeting with Churchill and Stalin.

hhhhhh

We don’t fight wars with cannons and biplanes as we did 100 years ago. And, so sophisticated are we technologically, very few of us take pen in hand, buy a stamp and post a letter anymore.

But they did in 1917. That war came into Sonoma County’s consciousness from France in letters from young men who had never been farther from home than maybe San Francisco, maybe not even that far.

The Press Democrat and other hometown papers published these letters — the ones with “Somewhere in France” as the return address. They provided the first clue to the folks at home that their boys would return with wide eyes and a much broader view of the world.

Excerpts of these letters appear in books about local history. Reading them, you might find yourself humming a few bars of that Sophie Tucker/Eddie Cantor ragtime favorite, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?”

You might hum along to these excerpts:

Pvt. Merlin Meeker discovering the French café. “They have ... small gardens in front with tables. They do not drink quickly, but sip and talk. The town has places dating back to B.C. almost.”

Marine James Williams “went out to dinner with a little French girl. I had some time talking to her. She didn’t understand anything.”

Williams had better luck with the “pommes frites” — a new way, he wrote his family, to prepare a familiar vegetable — translated, of course, as “french fries.”

Sgt. Coe Brown reported to his parents that “All the houses are made of stone and some are very old.” He had seen “an old castle, over 400 years old!”

The directional signs the German army had posted stunned Lt. Fred Duhring of Sonoma. “Immense signs with words on them of never less than 25 letters each,” he wrote. “It would take a well-educated Hun fifteen minutes at least to read just one of them.”

Cavalry Lt. Frank Sedgley of Cloverdale wrote two pages about a new winter uniform he ordered from a French tailor and added, “I now have a pair of riding boots that the King of England is jealous of.”

“I know it’s narrow-minded,” wrote Pvt. Joseph Dearborn, “but their customs are certainly queer — and I think it worth being shot at to see it all.”

hhhhhh

Sonoma County was a nation of small farms in 1917. The population was nearing 50,000 with just about 8,000 in Santa Rosa, a railroad center that depended on agriculture.

The impact of war on this economy went well beyond astonishment at German words and french fries. It is not overstatement to suggest World War I not only opened the county’s farms and farm towns to a greater world but, with the destruction in Europe, the value of at least three important local crops increased dramatically.

People were starving in parts of Europe and the Middle East. Sonoma County’s French prunes and dried apples packaged and shipped very well. And the hop fields of Bohemia and the Czech Republic lay fallow, sending the price of Sonoma County hops — always volatile in the world market — soaring.

With the already robust market for dairy and poultry products, walnuts, pears and cherries, World War I transformed a rural farm area into an agricultural giant.

Farm cooperatives were organized. California Packing Corp.’s cannery, beside Santa Rosa’s railroad tracks, provided hundreds of jobs in harvest season.

By 1920, with the country still in the “small family farm” mode, Sonoma County ranked eighth in the entire nation in agricultural production. It was a prosperity that lingered into the Depression years, still listed as 10th nationally in 1935.

hhhhhh

Wandering through these museum collections about WWI, we have to think about what came next. Some historians argue it never truly ended, that the treaty promising world peace divided Europe and the Middle East in such a disastrous fashion that the ongoing conflicts of today can trace their roots to the crayon markings on a map of the western world put forth for the Treaty of Versailles.

There are those who think it’s been all one war — The 20th Century War, they used to say. But now we are in the 21st and the wars go on. We need a lot more than a new name — we need a new map and a better way of looking at each other.