One hundred years ago, the people of Louisville joined together to make a memorable Christmas for the thousands of young soldiers who were being trained at Camp Zachary Taylor, the largest military base in the region. Most of them were away from home for the first time, missing their parents, brothers and sisters and girlfriends. Their prospects were gloomier still, with the trenches of France and the bloody battles there awaiting them.
That year, the people of Louisville — led by the city’s chapter of the American Red Cross and the staff of the Courier-Journal, then one of the nation’s leading newspapers known for its attention to local causes — joined hands to provide a memorable holiday for the boys in khaki.
The call went out at the beginning of the month from the newspaper and leaders of the Red Cross, which was the primary civilian organization to support the troops during the First World War. In the December 5 edition of the Courier-Journal, Red Cross Great Lakes regional president James R. Garfield published a call for contributions of gifts to the soldiers from all civilians in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.
“I come to Louisville to find out that Santa Claus is none other than Marse Henry, my father’s friend and the greatest figure in American journalism,” wrote Garfield, who was also the son of the late president. “We are glad to know that you are trying to make a Merry Christmas for every man who is away from home.”
“Marse” Henry Watterson was the editor of the newspaper and a nationally known political force; the following year he would win the Pulitzer Prize for his lusty editorial call to arms against “the Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns.”
After Garfield’s piece was published, literally thousands of gifts flowed into the city, mostly by mail or by railway. Even a rare December blizzard on December 8 failed to deter the generous citizens involved in the drive.
That storm, which dumped nearly 20 inches of snow on the city, did create many hardships. Ten thousand soldiers at Camp Taylor were snowbound in their barracks, and the city’s streetcars ground to a halt as the tracks were buried under the snow.
“Roaring fires were built in all the barracks, while a special fire detail kept watch in every building to lessen the danger of a serious fire from overheating,” the newspaper reported.
The blizzard was the harbinger of a very unusual winter for Louisville. Throughout the months of early 1918, repeated storms would challenge a city that was already experiencing shortages of coal, gas, and food due to the war effort.
By Christmas Eve, the snow had melted and a cold, steady rain had begun to fall. At Camp Taylor, the soldiers were preparing for Christmas.
“It was originally planned to have 21 giant Christmas trees — one in front of each regimental headquarters — but at the suggestion of Brig. Gen. [Wilber E.] Wilder, this plan was changed to an indoor celebration with 228 smaller trees. This new arrangement, it was agreed, would make the celebrations more homelike and more individualized, and would insure comfort for the boys if the weather is disagreeable.”
The Courier-Journal’s “Cheer Club,” furnished those trees and their decorations as well as 36 miniature trees for the base hospital.
Even men who were in the guardhouse for various infractions were permitted leave to attend the big party. “The Louisville cantonment [the name used in 1917 for training camps] is the only in the United States where the 1917 Christmas celebration will be an organized community effort,” a front page story in the Dec. 24 Courier-Journal reported.
It helps to remember that in 1917, there were few organizations or institutions that had the scope or influence of a big paper like the Courier-Journal. There were no radio or television stations; transportation was limited to street cars and primitive autos and trucks. Horses and mules still were often seen on city streets. Organizing a party for thousands of soldiers took the hands-on participation of thousands of citizens of all ages.
And the Louisville people — folks of all walks of life — pitched in. An entire floor of the Courier-Journal Building was cleared of advertising and circulation staff and turned over the Santa’s helpers, who assembled 20,000 gift packets. Many soldiers received packages from their families, but those who did not got very generous gifts including razors, soap, chewing tobacco and cigarettes, candy, reading materials and clothing items.
And the party was one few present would ever forget. The newspaper’s front page reported on the celebrations: “Rain and cold and mud and darkness outside; inside, light and warmth, the tinkle of pianos, shouts of laughter and merry voices raised in song — the men of Camp Zachary Taylor were celebrating Christmas.”
But there was also a note of sadness in the account:
“It was an occasion at once of festivity and solemnity … Many there were those whose thoughts strayed in unconscious contrast to the Yuletides of former years, others pondered on things hidden behind the veil of the future and wondered where Christmas 1918 would find them…”
This Christmas of 2017 seems like another world from what the soldiers knew a century ago. Yet the feelings they had aren’t unlike many today, including our own men and women in uniform, serving in danger spots around the world.
“It was not the presents in themselves so much… ” the Courier-Journal reported, “as the fact that someone had thought about them, that there had been a universal response to an appeal for them. It was a time of full hearts when few words were spoken and few were needed.”
Later it would be noted that the Louisville celebration was the largest of its kind in the entire country. Certainly it is a moment in our city’s history that deserves to be remembered and cherished.
Keith Runyon is a retired editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal, where he was a writer and editor for 43 years.