Local News
2:00 pm
Wed March 19, 2014

'Louisville and the Great War' Exhibit Recalls Camp Zachary Taylor Army Installation

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.

Three years after it started, the United States joined the fighting. And Louisville played an important role in the massive mobilization effort that was launched to get soldiers ready for the battlefield.

That role is the focus of an exhibit at the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum in Old Louisville.

Listen to the story:

The exhibit, called "Louisville and the Great War," tells the story of Camp Zachary Taylor, one of 16 Army training camps established by Congress to prepare young men for battle in Europe. 

Named for the 12th president, the camp’s 1,700 structures were hastily built on farmland just southeast of the Louisville city limits in 1917.    It was the birthplace of the 84th Division. 

More than 125,000 soldiers came through the installation during its roughly three years of existence, including a young F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would refer to it in The Great Gatsby.  

“It was a big fight among all the major cities in the United States to acquire one of these camps.  It was a major economic boom for whoever got it,” said Ken Maquire,  president of the Camp Zachary Taylor Historical Society.

He collected most of the items in the exhibit. 

They include artifacts like a food tin designed to protect soldiers’ rations from mustard gas.

There’s also a display dedicated to the great flu epidemic, which killed more than 800 Camp Taylor soldiers in 1918.

Maquire and the museum’s Margret Young led a recent tour of the exhibit, which occupies the Conrad-Caldwell mansion’s third floor.      Young says the story of World War I has faded over time. 

“There’s none of the soldiers now anymore, you can’t really refer back.   I know going through this I wish I could talk to my grandfather and see what his role was more,” she said. 

Some memories of Camp Taylor’s impact on the community are preserved in oral histories at the University of Louisville.

In a 1987 interview with historian James Holmberg,  Newton Owen recalled working at the small store his father and another man built on Preston Street, near the camp entrance, where they sold snacks, soft drinks and cigarettes.   Owen was ten years old.

“These soldiers would come over and there was another boy there, and he and I, we’d get out there and wrestle.  And some of these guys were coming back from France, and they would give us some French money, whoever won,” Owen said. 

Soldiers could also spend their free time at a nearby movie theater, or go downtown to clubs run by the YMCA; And this was before the armed services were fully integrated, so, like in the outside world, there were separate facilities for black and white soldiers. 

The Army did its best to ensure that its troops were not tempted by another kind of entertainment, demanding that the city’s red light district be shut down.

Most of the draftees who came through Camp Taylor were farm boys from Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.     Newton Owen remembered them all as friendly.

“Some of them you could tell were pretty homesick, though.    They’d tell you stories about they wish they were back home, back on the farm.  You felt right sorry for them,” He said.  

Ken Maguire’s collection includes a letter from Camp Taylor officer trainee Bert Hodges, to his brother, David, who was stationed in France.      It was written in November of 1918,  just as the war was ending.

“Dear Brother,  I expect the excitement we are having here over peace is nothing compared to what you are witnessing over in France," Bert Hodges wrote. 

"Your letter was certainly interesting as anything you may write about will be.  Here’s hoping that the time is not many months off now when you can tell us all of your experience without fear of censors cutting it out.”

"So he sends it to his brother in France, who was apparently killed in action when the letter was in the mail," said Ken Maguire.  " It took quite a while for the letter to come full circle and get back in his brother’s hands.”

Camp Zachary Taylor was closed shortly after the war ended.   Most of the land was parceled out for housing in what is now the Camp Taylor neighborhood.

There are just a handful of visible remnants of the installation remaining.

The exhibit "Louisville and the Great War" continues through June 8 at the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum.     In addition to tours, the museum is screening films about World War I and offering lectures about Camp Taylor.