In 2015, I returned to my family home to investigate an unexamined chest that, it turned out, held over 2,400 hand-written and typed family letters, postcards, marriage licenses, wills, death certificates, and grocery lists dating back 140 years. The memorabilia spanned two World Wars, numerous marriages — some happy, some not — college days, foreign travel, and even included the ephemera of death — wills, obituaries and lawsuits.
Out of the mass of dimly-penciled letters, stationary inscribed with sputtering ink, yellowing telegrams and official documents came three separate stories, all touched by World War I. One was family, a brother. One was a friend, a girl friend.
The stories were tied together by a young woman named Mildred Chapman. She happened to be my grandmother.
The first story was that of her best friend from college, Sarah Webster.
Mildred and Sarah had sung in the choir at Hiram College in Ohio. After Sarah graduated, she went to work at fashionable Halle Brothers department store in Cleveland in 1913. A year later, in 1914, she helped Mildred get her first job there as a telephone orders clerk. Mildred had greater ambitions for working but it was a good start.
Sarah’s life went a different way. Her father died, and she went home.
Three years later, in 1917, Sarah wrote a letter to Mildred saying that she had made up her mind. She was in love and getting married eight days from then in Oberlin, Ohio, on July 11. She wanted Mildred there because she remembered the nights when they would sit on their beds and discuss “our futures, and it seems to always come out differently than we thought.”
Sarah’s husband-to-be was Thomas J. Quayle, a 1st Lieutenant in an Army, that was preparing to go to war in Europe. On April 6, 1917, the U. S. had declared war on Germany.
According a contemporary trade publication, the Hardwood Record, Quayle had worked for the Hudson Lumber Co. of Akron, before enlisting. Born in 1886, he was 31. Sarah was 30.
Mildred mentions not liking him, an impression garnered from Sarah’s earlier not-kept letters, but she changed her mind when she met Quayle, and when she saw how much Sarah was in love.
Quayle had a “fine heavily built figure, not fat. He’s had too much training for that,” Mildred wrote to her mother, Ella, from the wedding on July 11th. “I should say he was playing Yankee with perhaps a little Scotch (Scots) mixed in.” His mother and brother attended as well as “about 60 of Sarah’s relatives.”
“Sarah was an adorable bride,” Mildred wrote. “She wore a short dress as was her veil. The dress had soft creamy net with lace little ruffles here and there. The altar was decorated with palms and lilies, and “The Lohengrin March was played.” Sarah’s only attendant was a “little cousin who carried a basket.”
Mildred Chapman at Sarah Webster’s wedding
Mildred noted that it was a double ring ceremony. She wore her new “shimmy” white dress and carried a basket of “sweet peas and the rings.”
The Webster house had a “mammoth” dining room that held a long table dressed with tall candlesticks with “taller pink candles and a solid silver coffee urn.” It was trimmed in roses with “pink and the red ramblers…and she had just great huge bunches of them everywhere — pink in the room and red in the others.”
After the wedding, the roses were plundered of their petals by Mildred and one of Sarah’s teenage cousins to throw over the newlyweds as they left.
It would be months before Mildred again heard from Sarah, an Army wife, who was moving from base to base with her new husband.
When I first started looking into the letters, there was little to no organization. My late father had made a stab at it, sorting them by decade, but he soon gave up. I found the letters from separate decades stuffed in light-weight brown envelopes. Excavating, I discovered postcards written made on wood bark, a letter sent by a distant great-cousin who went to the Klondike during the Alaskan gold rush and came home swinging a gold nugget from his watch chain, and chronologies for family lines that didn’t directly impact my own family.
The earliest note was an invitation a Jenny Lind concert when the Swedish singer was touring the U.S. in the 1850s. Ancestry.com became a good friend along with Google and Bing in the dating.
Out of the masses of letters from the 1900s came the second story of World War I.
Mildred’s older brother, Donald Chapman, loved his mother and younger sister and wrote to them quite frequently in a scrawl, which was, at times, unreadable.
At 28, he was working in Detroit, Michigan with automobiles, and expected to be drafted at any time. The Selective Service Act had been enacted on May 18th, 1917.
By November 1917, Donald wrote to his mother, Ella, living in Ithaca, New York, “I have not been called yet.”
In the meantime, he was thinking ahead. “If I do not have to go to war,” he explained, “I can make a lot of money in the spring. Second-hand cars will sell like hotcakes, as they are cutting down on the output of new ones.”
On December 15, he’d taken advantage of an “opportunity to enlist at my trade as auto mechanic… in the Ordinance Dep.” of the Third Division. A day later, he was transferred to a barrack that was “chock-full.” Crowding being what it was, and having some dollars, Donald spent the night at the Hotel Deshler at Broad & High in Columbus, Ohio writing a letter to his mother on its letterhead. “We expect to have in a day or so for some point in the south, and after three week training we go to France to work back of the lines and will be out of danger.”
He asked his mother to send a Christmas card to his girlfriend Maybelle Rahl back in Detroit so she wouldn’t be “lonesome. She has done a lot for me.” Later he would ask his mother to send part of his pay to Maybelle to pay off his debts.
By Christmas he was in Camp Grant, in Rockford, Ill, enjoying holiday dinner, but complaining about Army red tape. “Nothing accomplished in 15 days but get our uniforms and now because some BOB had to go and (get) the measles we ‘five hundred of us’ are quarantined here for two weeks and can’t even go to the Y.M.C.A. or leave our quarters,” he groused. The camp was about “ten miles square, 35,000 men and “cold as blazes.” And, he complained, that they hadn’t been “issued any army shoes yet not lots of other equipment.”
He apologized he couldn’t send his mother a Christmas present but “will send you one from Berlin next year.” He also scolded his mother to make sure she didn’t send him a gift. “Don’t try to send me any Christmas present because I will now you can’t afford it and will be more pleased if you spend what you can on yourself.” He promised Mildred that he would “send you some souvenirs from France,” and in a separate letter to his mother said he hoped that Mildred would get “those fool love ideas out of her head and gets married soon.”
He also commented to his mother that now she could “hang out a service flag. You never expected to do that, did you? Ha ha.” The service flag with a blue star signified that the family had a man serving in the armed forces. If the man died, it would be a gold star.
A few days later in January, with an eye to mortality, Donald took out insurance from the Bureau of War Risk Insurance for $5,000 ($88,113.87 in 2017) to be paid in installments to his mother in case he died.
Reading through the letters from 1917–1920, my memory was tickled by something I had transcribed a year before, a letter from Mildred to her mother talking about a wedding. Re-reading it, I realized that I was neglecting another source.
Reaching into a box of scrapbooks, I searched through Mildred’s college years and found a photograph of a tall brunette standing outside a house, surrounded by bushes. Below it was a business card. “Halle Bros. Sarah Webster.”
I finally had a face for the happy bride, now an Army wife.
In January of 1918, Sarah Webster Quayle might have been blissfully married, living in Montgomery, Alabama, in a house in town with a “cozy grate fire,” but she assured Mildred in a letter, “I am not going to feel so far away from my friends either as some of married friends have taken themselves.”
Her husband Tom, now senior first lieutenant was very busy with the new troops. “He gets in just once a week from camp now. It used to be twice. I go once in a while to camp but he is so busy there that I try not to bother.” She had made some friends but was still lonely.
“Tell me more about your work,” she urged Mildred who was employed by the Rochester (NY) Parks and Planning. “What a big little ambitious girl you are. I would love to see you and talk over our days that we spent together.”
“I am just as happy as I can be and my only hope is someday you will meet as kind and as good a prince as you saw me take for my very won, amid roses and pretty things.”
Sarah concluded, “Write soon.”
Emboldened by finding Sarah, I went back to the family archives. There were two small matching wooden chests in my father’s bedroom. I knew one of them held negatives and slides, already moved to digital.
The other was filled, to the brim, with photographs. Two hours later, I realized that while I’d had 2400 letters, I had at least 1000 photographs of the family and friends. There were daguerreotypes, a single glass negative, and stiff studio photos. There were numerous women in Victorian dress, and men in the high collars of the late 1800s. There were wedding photos and babies. But men in uniform? Mostly from World War II.
Then, out of a messy heap, a photo dropped into my hands, and I realized that I had found Donald. It was of a man in his late 20s who wore the uniform of the American Expeditionary Forces and stood amid trees with a smiling woman.
Donald Chapman in Europe in World War I
On his right shoulder was the patch of the Third Division, blue and white stripes, rendered as grey in a black and white photo.
I knew I’d seen the patch before. I went back to the boxes of letters.
By February 1918, Donald Chapman had been sent to Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama. Compared with Camp Grant, he loved it.
“The weather is great down here just like June or July up north,” he wrote his mother. He swore that he would never go north again for the winter. Confined to camp under quarantine, he complained “we have not had any pay since we enlisted so I don’t suppose you have received any of my allotment yet.”
He explained in more detail about pay in his letters to his family, written on Army-provided notepaper illustrated with pictures of the troops. “An allotment is made for persons who are dependent on the enlisted man or who are partly dependent.”
“Now as I know you have no income and are badly in need of money that is why I sent it, so get those fool ideas out of your head, and do as I say,” he ordered his mother. “In the army here we have to do as we are told and ask no questions, and that is what I want you to do.”
He also wrote that, “We all wish we could vote for T.R. (Theodore Roosevelt) and get some action… I don’t think T.R. could get elected as dogcatcher. And the mayor of Montgomery is about as popular in camp as a skunk at a tea party.”
Then the troops were moved in preparation to go to France.
In March, on a one-day leave before shipping out, he met Mildred at a Hostess Home in New Jersey, one of the many created by the Young Women’s Christian Associations, as places where soldiers could meet with friends and relatives. The Home (supplied by ‘some wealthy man” her brother told her,) had a “low beamed ceiling, huge red brick fire place (and) hanging baskets of ferns on every cross beam.”
One entire wall of the Home was books. “Each soldier may take one and then he returns it to the Y.M.C.A. in France, and it is given to a returning soldier,” a hostess told Mildred who selected one for her brother since he was expecting to leave the next day.
She wrote her mother that he had lost weight but looked fine and, “he would have come home only didn’t have time.” Donald didn’t tell his girlfriend, Maybelle, about the leave because he didn’t want her to spend the money to visit him all the way from Detroit,” as she would have.
Donald shipped out to France as part of the 3rd’s Ordinance Detachment.
Sarah had joined her husband in Petersburg, Virginia, in May and was unhappy there partly because she caught malaria. She wrote Mildred about that time, “We hardly ever saw one another (referring to her husband), but especially in these times we learn to be thankful for very small things, do we not?”
Quayle shipped out June 15th from Hoboken, N.J. on the U. S.S. Leviathan, which was once a German-owned liner, the S.S. Vaterland.
In July, Sarah went to Chicago to see her brother, Frederick, married. The ceremony reminded her of the past. “I could see my own wedding (a year ago) so plainly and how one does remember such things,” she wrote Mildred.
She commented that “I am so glad for everything that has happened, and most of all for the months I spent with one with whom one can be themselves absolutely.”
She had finally received a letter from her husband. “How good it seemed to know he was really some place. Before I felt as if I was writing letters to heaven, and wondered if they ever reach him.”
“I am so proud to give, but it is hard, for it means, separation during the best years of our lives, and I sometimes tremble for him for I so want him, Mildred, to come back to me well and whole.”
“I long for a home, a dear cozy one, where just we two can live and learn to know one another better and you can visit us. What would we do, if it were not for dreams, and hopes.”
“I just hope your brother and Tom and our American boys will come home safe. Aren’t they just splendid?”
Donald Chapman ran into his first taste of the war in late May.
In a letter dated a year later, he says he was near the city of Chateau-Thierry, which was being fought over by the French and the Germans who had destructively ransacked it.
Donald came away with postcards the he found when “it was still under fire in July (1918),” and, from a destroyed house, a set of Japanese toys that he sent back to Mildred.
I had a face for Sarah Webster Quayle but nothing else. So I went on the Internet to see what could be discovered about her. Ancestry.com gave me a birthdate and her parents courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Archive for Cleveland, Ohio. I found an announcement of her wedding in The Oberlin Alumni Magazine. The chest of photos and several scrapbooks gave me a view of Mildred’s vibrant years at college and her friends, including Sarah. Some papers that I overlooked provided a vivid picture of the death of Sarah’s father and her return home.
In August 1918, Sarah was still suffering from the malaria she caught in Petersburg. The war was omnipresent in her thoughts. She had gotten a letter from her husband and wrote to Mildred, “Received the sweetest letter from Tom last p.m. He wanted to say so much to me and couldn’t. They were packing up to leave, finally for the firing line. I am proud that he is there, but just the same, my heart sinks at times, for there are times for all of us, are they not.”
She wrote about what she felt the Army would need after the war ended. “A department, I think would be interesting later on, to teach disabled soldiers — for before long, we will have them being brought back and many of them will have to begin life anew, take up arts and crafts or interesting works.”
Mostly, she thought of her future. “I amuse myself after retiring, picturing that lovely little scene you spoke of; the crackling, roaring fire place. You and Tom would quite agree as to the entire coziness of it for Tom loves a fire place and he always longed for one of our own. There really ought to be a Thomas Jr. Maybe if I hadn’t been so sick.”
Then reality bit hard.
On October 24th, Sarah sent a short letter to Mildred.
“This is to tell you the sad news that my husband was killed in action on September 26. Just received word yesterday.”
“It was such a shock. I cannot think it through and you, dear Mildred, were so near to me that evening, July 11, (Sarah’s wedding) and only Tom knows how I love him and how he loved me.
She ended, “Love as ever, Sarah.”
The death notice was sent to his wife at her home in Oberlin, Ohio. It took a month to arrive.
Quayle was actually killed in action on the 29th, during the Meuse-Argonne drive according to the U.S. Adjutant Generals Military Records, He was buried in a military cemetery 1055, in France.
Thomas Quayle’s death came just over six weeks before the Armistice to end the war was signed on November 11th.
Going back to the letters and scrapbooks, I found a large cardboard poster printed “with the Compliments of the Y.M.C.A” that I had overlooked before. I hadn’t recognized what the handwritten name on the top. “Sgt. Don Chapman.” The poster listed the brigades and other companies that made up the Third U. S. Division, and all the battles they’d fought in — Chateau-Thierry, and the Battle of the Marne, Montsec and the Battle of St. Mihiel, and the Battle of the Argonne-Meuse, September 26, 1918.
A busty woman held a flag with the stripes like the ones on the patch on Chapman’s shoulder. It was a match.
Looking more carefully at the poster I discovered a listing for “Army of Occupation, December 1918 to January 1919.”
The Americans were there far longer according to Donald Chapman’s letters. Like most soldiers through time, all he wanted to do is go home.
The War to End All Wars ended but the Americans were still “over there.”
Donald Chapman was sent to Mayen Germany, then on to Anick where he was “billeted” with a German family.
By March 1919, Chapman was in charge of the “machine shop truck and the machine and welding for the Army same as when we were at Chateau- Thierry only it is more peaceful and has work to do.”
That Christmas he received a box of chocolate and a picture of his mother, and of his sister. “I received it all okay and was very much pleased with everything especially the photos of you and Mildred which are fine.” He also teased his sister that she must have gotten his rank mixed up with a Colonel’s “when she sent that silk handkerchief.”
Mildred Chapman and her box of chocolates for her brother
He was lucky to have gotten the box. Some of his letters didn’t make it home for months because “we found our mail never got past the organization that our outgoing mail went through. I have written you several letters from Germany that I suppose you never received as it was during the time we were attached aforesaid organization.”
His back mail from home arrived in June, but most of his replies centered around a soldier’s major questions: “When do we go home?” and questions about his pay or “allotment” which was tangled up. It had to do with his payments to his mother of $20 a month ($292.64 a month in 2017).
He ended up ordering his mother to do nothing and cursing the “dirty yellow backed slackers in the office of Washington for the problem.”
“I suppose they will always have damned follies and red tape in the government.”
He also commented, “I think they can send home some of those fellows who are having the big times in the coast towns in France and let the fellows who ate corn willie (canned corned beef) and hard tack for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and who worked every day from 8 to 15 hours seven days a week from July until Jan. and under fire go home, don’t you?”
When his sister mentioned in a letter seeing an aero show, he wished was home to see the airplanes commenting that, “It’s a grate (sic) sight to see about 300 of them in the air as once like I did at Verdun or the Argonne.”
In May, he went to Paris on a three-day pass and spotted General John J. Pershing drive by in his “Locomobile with the four stars.” He also stood “in the spot in the hall where the Germans will sign the peace treaty… also saw several of them (the delegates).”
By late July, life was better. He visited London where there were “hundred of wonderful girls — had a hard time to get away without getting married. I am very much in love with England.”
Then, in late August 1919, Donald Chapman came home. The Salvation Army War Department sent a telegram to his mother in Ithaca saying he’d arrived back at Camp Merritt, New Jersey.
After almost two years of unpacking, I had finished cataloging the vast majority of the letters. It was time to move on, to look for work again, to leave the past behind.
However, 2017 was the 100th anniversary of the entry of the U.S. into the First World War. I put the letters and their envelopes with the 3 cent stamps (now 75 cents), the poster, and the photographs into separate notebooks, and turned my attention to finishing their stories.
So what happened next?
Sarah Webster Quayle remarried in 1920 to Kenneth Green in Cuyahoga Country, Ohio according to microfilm. She appeared under her married name, Green, in the 1930 census but not the 1940. There were no more letters. The last trace of her was a notecard about a wedding gift she sent when Mildred married.
Mildred Chapman went to work as a storyteller librarian at the New York Public Library’s Harlem branch, and as a salesgirl at the now-defunct Wanamaker’s department store. She married in 1921 in Rochester, N.Y.
Her brother, Donald Chapman, married Maybelle Rahl in July 1920 but they divorced several years later. He married again and had one son. He served in World War II and passed away in Los Angeles in 1963.
1st Lieutenant Thomas Quayle’s body was returned from France to Oberlin, Ohio in 1921. According to findagrave.com, he is buried in Westwood Cemetery.
(This story was first published on Medium.com on Veterans’ Day, 2017, and is re-posted here so it appears on Linked-In. Tish Wells)
Update 9/7: My thanks to G. Bellamy for catching that Sarah’s age at the time of her wedding was 30, not 23 as originally written.