December of 1917 at home and away

Sandy Vasko

    One hundred years ago the world was at war. The United States was sending her troops to Europe, some had already arrived by the time December came. At home the morale was high but the money, food and coal was scarce. Set the way-back machine for exactly one hundred years ago this month.
    The month of December started out with a panic. We read in the Wilmington Advocate, on Dec.7, 1917, “At midnight last Sunday 13 convicts - all of them the most desperate criminals in the Joliet pen - made their escape from the prison. Four of the prisoners who were confined in the solitary sawed their way through two sets of steel bars and then liberated nine other prisoners and over powering the guards they then struck out headed for Minooka.”  
    “Near Du Page crossing the convicts stopped an electric street car and held up the 17 passengers, among whom was Wm. Horton of this city, who was returning to Morris where he is employed in the paper mill.
    “Horton with the rest of the passengers were made to disrobe and exchange clothing, also hand over their valuables. Near Morris eight of the convicts were caught and later four others were captured near Seneca, leaving but one, a murderer, free.”
    It is no surprise that a Wilmington boy worked at the paper mill in Morris. The paper mill in Wilmington had been shut down since the previous July. It had been the only large local employer, with 80 employees more or less. The shutdown affected the economy of the entire town.
    We read, “Harry Mills and George Jones, formerly employed at the paper mill are now working in Coal City. As there is no work to be had in Wilmington many of our citizens have got to find employment in other nearby cities. In the past six months eight families have moved from here to Joliet and it is said four other families will leave here for the Stone City by spring.”
    The previous six months had been good for one organization though. “The output of the Wilmington Branch of the Red Cross since its inception in June to Dec. 31, 1917, is as follows: 187 pair knitted woolen socks, 171 knitted woolen sweaters, 59 knitted woolen mufflers, 35 pair knitted woolen wristlets, 89 hospital bed shirts and 29 pair pajamas. The department of surgical dressings have made and forwarded to headquarters 17,528 surgical dressings.”
    December in the war zone was documented by Ronald Jardine, stationed with the British Expeditionary forces in France. He writes on Dec. 12, “By this time we have begun to realize that Christmas is approaching. Have received several packages, will tell you about them later. Got one from Miss McElin containing a big box of cream chocolates, part of a fruit cake, a lot of mixed candy and dates stuffed with nuts. It was for all the “730 boys.” Wasn't that good of her?”
    “Received a dandy package from the Wilmington Red Cross. It had in it paper and envelopes, Hershey's and Whitman's chocolate bars, dates and figs, pencils, stick candy, gum, a towel and some toilet soap, all done up in an attractive Dorothy bag.” (Author's note: a Dorothy bag is one that is gathered together at the top with strings, which are then used as the handles.)
    “Got some candy from Janette, but it was no good when it got here. Evidently it had been stored next to the boilers, for it was melted and granulated - a nasty mess. I was sorry but out of it I managed to fish out a couple of packages of gum which were protected by the wax paper. Have a package from some girls in Evanston, which I haven't opened, and one from you. I'm keeping them until Christmas to open them.”
    “Must tell you that I have received that bath robe from Mrs. Trew. It is a gray woolen one with black and white corded edges, pockets and trimmings around the buttons. It is a dandy. She put in some cookies, candies and little books for soldiers.”
    “Have received the fourth pair of socks. They are just fine, but do not send any more. I have plenty. The Red Cross gave us grey sweaters, cloth gloves and two pair of socks.”
    “You spoke about money. If anything should happen my money would be yours. On the boat we had to hand in the name and address of our beneficiary. I told you about my insurance. If I was to “snuff it” you would get $5,000 and father $5,000 too.”