It was a rough Christmas for Thomas Bass in 1917: The Kentucky man, who’d enlisted in the Army in August of that year, was stationed at Fort Riley, Kan. It was World War I, and Bass said he wanted to step out and fight for his country. But he was lonely and had received no Christmas presents – until he got a package from Otter Tail County.
The Christmas present was filled with all kinds of goodies, from useful, everyday items to special treats. Bass was thrilled.
“I received your package and glad to say that I was more than pleased with it,” he wrote in a thank you to Jessie Sherin, of Pelican Rapids, who spearheaded Otter Tail County’s Christmas box effort. “That was the only present I got, but I was just as happy as any of the boys. I was proud to think that there was a friend so far away to remember me.”
The boxes were part of a National Red Cross effort, and in Otter Tail County under Sherin’s guidance, more than 1,200 boxes were filled and distributed in 1918. Sherin organized the box distribution to Red Cross chapters in the county’s towns and townships where volunteers filled each one with useful items and treats for the soldiers.
Each box contained an olive drab waterproof bag, talcum powder, shaving stick, tube of dental cream and six cakes of soap. Other suggested items included prunes, soap, chocolate, powdered milk, sugar, tea, sardines, tinned meat, pepper and salt, jam, corned beef, cheese and raisins.
The soldiers were thrilled to get presents, and many sent thank yous to Sherin who kept their cards and letters. The thank yous are archived at the Otter Tail County Historical Museum in Fergus Falls.
Some give a glimpse of Christmas during war times.
“Things are more quiet right now so I will make up for lost time,” wrote Carl Salmonson who received his box in December 1917, but was unable to send his message until April 9, 1918. “We had it pretty hot for a while, and the worst part of it was rain and mud at all times. It is always raining here so it is not very pleasant fighting the Germans.”
Marinius Peterson described celebrating the holidays in his Jan. 1, 1918, letter.
“We had a very nice Christmas and some dinner,” he wrote. “We have a tree in our barracks, even if it’s a cedar. We were all like a bunch of kids and drew presents from the tree – useful toilet articles. I got some talcum powder and shaving cream.”
Peterson, who described himself as a Dane, said he’d enlisted in Minneapolis and only had distant relations in the U.S.
“Received your gift and those filled dates were real good,” he wrote. “I want to tell you it was the first time I ate them that way. Very, very good. Also are using those tablets when we hike and in our coffee.
Arthur Elefson was thankful for the package he received while in the hospital. He was there recovering from the mumps.
Some of the letters are written on YMCA stationary. The YMCA was a place where soldiers could socialize and take a break from war preparations. Soldiers were encouraged to write, and the YMCA provided the stationery for letters home. In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt, using the model set by the YMCA, pooled resources and developed the USO.
While some of the soldiers were stationed stateside, others had to be more vague of their whereabouts simply saying they were “somewhere in France.” To disclose their locations could prove harmful if the letter was found by the enemy.
Not all the boxes arrived in pristine shape, as a man named Damschen wrote in his March 11, 1918, letter.
“Everything in the package was in good shape which was lucky because most of the boxes and stuff are torn and broken up and unpacked and another thing, we don’t get over half our box.”
Conrad Langlie’s thank you was indicative of most letters. “I want to add that a person does not realize that just how these packages are accepted in a camp without seeing it in person,” he said. “All the boys are glad to get them.’
While it’s not known what happened to all of the soldiers who wrote to Sherin, some digging into Bass’ history has yielded a tragic tale, said Missy Hermes, education specialist at the Otter Tail County Historical Society. .
The man who’d had no presents at Christmas wrote to Sherin about his young family. At the time he was in Fort Riley, Bass had five children ranging in age from 10 to a baby boy. Two of his children were twin boys
“I have never seen it,” he said of the baby, “and I don’t guess I will get to see them until the war is over for it would take $35 to make the round trip.”
At the time he wrote the letter, Bass was 29 and was married when he was just 17.
He had been a railroad section foreman before joining the Army and went from nearly $60 a month to $30 in the Army.
“But this is everybody’s war,” he wrote. “I felt it my duty to step out and fight for my country … It is our aim to win this war before we stop.”
But once the war was over, times got tough for his family. His wife died during the influenza outbreak of that period. He was listed as a widower when he died in prison of pneumonia on June 13, 1930.
During the war, Sherin and her husband, Cecil, bank president of Pelican Rapid’s J.P. Wallace State Bank, strived to help in the war effort wherever they could. Both were very active in the Red Cross
Through the Pelican Rapids Red Cross branch, they helped conduct community events, including a shower to “fill its quota of linen supplies so urgently needed by the hospitals in France.” Those who attended the shower donated sheets, towels and handkerchiefs.
Pelican Rapids men leaving from the Great Northern train depot in Fergus Falls carried comfort bags filled with items like soap and tobacco provided by Jessie Sherin.