The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, and although it may be a bit late, a new exhibit recalls Beaver Dam and Dodge County’s contributions to what was called, “The War to end all Wars.”
The exhibit honoring the war’s 100th anniversary is on display through spring, open Wednesday through Saturday at the Dodge County Historical Society Museum, 102 Park Ave.
Curator Kurt Sampson organized the exhibit, partly at the urging of museum board member Mary Cudnohfsky. At an earlier board meeting, Cudnohfsky said, “Beaver Dam played a huge role in World War I and we have to celebrate those who were involved in fighting for a cause so far away from their homes. They suffered tremendous hardships, and many did not return.”
“We have a large number of items from the war,” Sampson said. “This marks the first time that we have prepared a special exhibit about the war and Dodge County’s contributions to it. I went through our archives and exhibits and chose items that reflected not only what local people thought about the conflict, but what the veterans themselves experienced and remembered.”
Sampson recalled that it was particularly difficult for German-Americans who had to fight their former countrymen. Anti-German sentiment was rife even in Beaver Dam, where the German National Bank changed its name to American National Bank in response to customer pressure. Many Germans hid their ethnicity. Sauerkraut became victory cabbage, frankfurters became hot dogs and dachshunds became liberty pups.
About 775 men in Dodge County were eligible for the draft, and while Sampson is not certain how many were selected, he does know that 26 men from Beaver Dam were killed in the war — along with 49 others from around the county.
Dodge County’s Company K joined many soldiers from Milwaukee’s Company D and other recruits. They were massed into larger infantry units, and from there into the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division that could reputedly pierce any enemy line.
Wisconsin troops, including those from Beaver Dam, were among the first to see action in the trenches — and some of them were among the first to die. By the close of the war in 1918, more than 4 million Americans were in uniform, with roughly half in Europe.
Items on display include a disarmed hand grenade manufactured by Western Malleable Company in Beaver Dam, a uniform of worsted wool worn by a local soldier (reportedly too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter), captured German guns and other arms brought back to America by veterans (including a German machine gun), many photos, posters, medals and other items preserved by soldiers’ families.
On the home front, farmers in Dodge County boosted wheat production by 40 percent, families planted “victory gardens” to augment their supplies of rationed goods, and many women — as they would in World War II — took jobs in industry to fill the vacancies of men who left their jobs to fight abroad.
“Beaver Dam also got behind every Liberty Loan and Red Cross drive and raised $220,650 through bonds sold in the city,” Sampson said.
The local American Red Cross was housed in the former J.J. Williams mansion on Park Avenue, since demolished. Local women sewed pajamas, hospital gowns and property bags for wounded soldiers. Others knit scarves and gloves for soldiers in action. By the middle of 1918, 200 women met regularly to fold gauze and muslin for bandages and wound dressings.
A notable name from that time includes Lt. Col. Phillip J. Zink, who fought bravely in many key military actions. He was one of few non-French soldiers to receive the Croix de Guerre for bravery in action. Upon returning to Beaver Dam, he organized a local branch of the American Legion. The local post was named after Cpl. John E. Miller — the first local man to be killed in action. Col. Zink’s wife was one of the organizers of the Gold Star movement honoring the mothers of sons killed in action.
A false report of an armistice on Nov. 7, 1918, was widely circulated and Beaver Dam quickly held a celebration and parade. When word came that the armistice was actually signed Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month), Beaver Dam celebrated again.
“It was touted then as the biggest celebration the city has ever had,” Sampson said. ”Whistles blew and bells rang. There were numerous bands and parade floats. The parade was led by a young woman in armor mounted on a horse. There was a huge gathering at the intersection of Park Avenue and Spring Street and everyone in the city and the surrounding area gathered there. Dignitaries made speeches and songs were sung by the Liberty Chorus. The celebration concluded with a huge bonfire in the middle of the intersection that burned all night.”
It was a fitting end to a chapter in which Beaver Dam, and the rest of the county, played an important part. To learn more call the museum at 887-1266, or visit during regularly scheduled hours. Admission is free, although donations are gratefully accepted.