Many Yellowstone County homes had empty chairs at the table on Christmas Day 100 years ago.
Mrs. C.M. Wright, a widow living at 3324 First Ave. S., already had three sons serving in World War I. A fourth was eager to enlist as soon as he came of age. Mr. and Mrs. J.A. Shoemaker, owners of Billings Automobile Warehouse and Service Co., returned to Billings in early December after bidding their son Lt. Shoemaker goodbye as he sailed from New York toward France.
Sons were celebrating the holiday in Army training camps and on Navy ships or in cold and muddy trenches thousands of miles away in Europe. Several area women had answered the call to serve as nurses on the front lines. Montana troops began embarking to the battlefields just before the holidays, so casualty reports were not yet darkening the season.
But 1917 was a subdued Christmas compared to past years of high spirits and community revelry, The Billings Gazette reported.
“The weather was ideal, but no public demonstration of any kind was held, the citizens spending the hours at homes and in the evening attending one or another of the many amusement places,” the newspaper noted. “Services in Billings churches have been on a bigger scale than ever before, the various ministers encouraging the giving of funds for the relief of war victims rather than distributing of candies and gifts among the congregations.”
Women of the Associated Charities packed hundreds of baskets with clothes and food for the city’s poor, as usual, but much of the community’s Christmas efforts focused on providing Christmas cheer for troops far from home.
Billings was a prosperous place as the nation entered the war in the spring of 1917, and much would be asked of it before the guns stopped firing on Nov. 11, 1918. Citizens had been called upon — sometimes under pressure — to open their wallets wide to buy government-issued Liberty Bonds to help finance the war effort.
Although there is little evidence that Christmas giving flagged during the first year of the war, Billings residents were urged from the pulpit and the government seats to support the war effort by giving Thrift Stamps (U.S. War Savings Certificates) as gifts and Christmas bonuses. Billings sales manager for the campaign, E.V. DeClercq, noted that the stamps carried 4 percent interest, and that Thrift Stamps that cost $4.12 in December will be worth $5 when they matured in 1923. People of German descent, keen to show their loyalty, were especially generous in their stamp purchases.
Other organizations, from the Red Cross to the Billings Young People’s Federation, were also soliciting donations. In addition to its other work, the Red Cross raised $350 to provide 300 Christmas packets for soldiers serving overseas. The charity enlisted Billings women to knit winter gear for troops freezing in the trenches.
The Youth Federation boys and girls gathered in the basement of the Methodist Church to make candy for the soldiers. In November, the federation presented khaki-covered Bibles to recruits leaving Billings for Camp Lewis near Tacoma, Washington.
The Soldiers’ Comfort Club, chaired by Mrs. John Yates, put out a call for Christmas boxes for enlisted men who were not covered by organizations that supported draft recruits.
“Knitted garments are especially desired by the soldiers, according to letters received here,” Yates told The Gazette.
Families were urged to mail Christmas gifts to their sons and daughters serving abroad by Nov. 15 so they would arrive for delivery on Christmas morning. The postage rate was set at 12 cents a pound.
Mailing early was good advice. Thanks to a reorganization of the Post Office that cut the number of employees and reduced wages for the rest, chaos reigned, and many Christmas packages could not be delivered on time.
“Hundreds of people in Billings and the towns along the southern branch of the Burlington Railroad have been disappointed this Christmas because of the woeful lack of facilities for the proper handling of mail, which has caused the local railroad terminal to be piled high with unworked sacks,” The Gazette reported.
It would have been even worse, the newspaper noted, if local postal employees hadn’t worked through the night to help sort the mess.
Several Billings postal workers had lost their jobs or quit because of the severity of the pay cut. New clerks who would accept the new wage scale were hard to find.
“Many of the local clerks were forced to sell their homes at a great sacrifice in this city and to move to new locations,” the paper reported. “Others who have been in the department for years were thrown out of employment at an advanced age or forced to work at a greatly reduced wage.”
Hardships and disappointments aside, Billings’ support for its troops seemed boundless. Recruits headed for Camp Lewis were feted by the community and each soldier was assigned a “Sammie backer,” a citizen volunteer who pledged personally to provide whatever support the soldier needed abroad and at home while the war lasted.
Many of the recruits wrote letters home reassuring the community that they were being treated well and were enjoying their time in training camp.
“This is sure an interesting life,” Sgt. Charles Butler, a former employee of The Gazette, wrote in early December. “All the boys take it just like a vacation.”
“This Army life is all right; rather tough at times, but a fellow just has to grin and bear it,” Pvt. Leighton Pierce wrote his father, B.E. Pierce of the Rowe Furniture Company in Billings. He was writing from Camp Mills in New York, where troops were gathered waiting for passage to France.
Pvt. George A. Clark wrote to his father from Camp Lewis in Washington state that the Billings contingent was taking to training like ducks to water. Camp life was not half bad, he claimed, but he missed the Montana sunshine.
“We have only seen the sun twice since arriving,” he said. “It certainly is a beautiful sight to see between 25,000 and 30,000 men on the campus at one time.”
A report from Seattle described the enthusiasm of the Montana troops as they passed through on their way to Camp Lewis.
“Many of the Montanans were in picturesque garb of the cowboy,” it said. “They made their presence distinctly known with a series of whoops and cheers as they marched uptown to dine as guests of the Great Northern Railroad.”
At home in Yellowstone County, residents were settled in to a new wartime reality by Christmas. They had been exhorted to change their diets “as a matter of conscience with each woman giving active service in the important ‘second line trenches.’"
Christmas treats were baked without wheat flour or butter and with a reduced amount of sugar so that vital food stuffs could be saved for the troops. Recipes using alternate ingredients like vegetable oils and corn flower were broadly circulated.
Prices on food and other necessities escalated as the war dragged on. Montana’s attorney general announced he would soon be moving against war profiteers. Complaints from Billings included assertions that druggists, tobacco dealers, grocers and others were using war taxes on consumer goods to inflate their prices.
Threat of a “coal famine” loomed and Yellowstone County Fuel Administrator A.J. McIntyre warned against hording.
“There is at present less than 400 tons of coal on hand in the city as compared with 3,000 tons in storage this time last year,” McIntyre said. “Heavy purchases by a few people would use up all the surplus, but this can be avoided if people buy only enough to last a month. By purchasing comparatively small amounts, everyone who needs coal will be enabled to get it.”
In early December, Billings learned that one of its own was officially a war hero honored with a gold medal. John R. Benham, the city’s first war wounded, returned home for Christmas after being wounded under mysterious circumstances at Camp Greene at Charlotte, N.C.
He told The Gazette he couldn’t disclose how he suffered gunshots to a lung and a leg at the training camp.
But he couldn’t resist a hint.
“Since it happened, there’s one German less for the Americans to whip.”