The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Twenty

June 1-8, 1917

“Registration day. Ten thousand men have registered for military service. Home defense men came to house to get names of men residing here between the ages of sixteen to thirty for registration purposes.” A world away but never far from the minds and hearts of American citizens was the war being waged in Europe. Sometimes called the “Forgotten War,” back in 1917, it was anything but forgotten. Wealthy widows like Kate Roosevelt, her extended Roosevelt Family, friends and neighbors living close to her home in New York City and her country farm in Hightstown, New Jersey were all effected by it.

Song Book Cover, 1917

When Kate Roosevelt noted in her diary that men from the selective service were knocking on doors in this small rural town not far from Princeton, she was documenting the first day that the selective service also known as the draft was instituted by President Woodrow Wilson to raise a national army for America’s participation in World War One.  This congressional act was the solution utilized to fortify a relatively small army compared with Germany’s mega-military machine. Then Captain Hugh S. Johnson, a West Point graduate who would be named a brigadier general by war’s end, was the promoter of this form of compulsory enlistment.

Brigadier General Hugh S. Johnson, Enoch Crowder and Roscoe Conkling at Camp Upton, 1917

As usual, when dealing with Kate Roosevelt’s sometimes off-the-cuff comments, I did my fact checking and found her information to be slightly askew. Those eligible for the draft in 1917 were men aged 21-31 and in 1918, the age range was expanded to 18 to 45.

Quentin Roosevelt

Luckily for Kate and her grandsons, Langdon and Shippen Geer were still little boys when World War One was declared, but for her cousin, former President Theodore Roosevelt, the war hit home and left a gaping hole in his heart when his youngest son, Quentin was shot down during an aerial battle over France on Bastille Day in 1918.

During the first week of June, 1917, the most earth-shattering event that happened to Kate Roosevelt’s innocent little grandsons were Shippen’s leg becoming infected after it was bitten by a flyng ant and Langdon’s thermos bottle breaking while he and his grandmother were on their way to Hightstown to fill it with ice cream, requiring a quick trip back to the family farm, Merdlemouth.

Earliest washing machines on display

The rest of the week included picking wild strawberries, arranging flowers and having to deal with yet another disaster, a disgruntled laundress. Last week the laundress, Ina, who was brought down from New York City abruptly quit and her unnamed replacement did the same. I suppose with two little boys and lots summer visitors and entertaining there were mounds of washing and ironing to be done. But reading a few days ahead in the diary, I stumbled on the reason for such a quick turn- over in laundresses.  It seems the water engine was broken and was waiting for the farm’s handyman, Elmer McCue to get it up and running. Back in the day, water engines had many uses.  They were the mechanisms that ran washing machines and apparently the one at Merdlemouth was “on the fritz.” The Miele Company, a German manufacturer of high-end domestic appliances made the type of washing machine most likely used at Merdlemouth. From 1914 to 1960 their washing machines, comprised of a wooden tub with a rotating star-shaped handle built onto the cover got clothes clean by rotating them in to and fro movements powered by pistons connected to the water engine. According to the company’s history, “These washing machines were common in rural areas.”

And Merdlemouth, Kate’s farm nestled in the woods of Hightstown, New Jersey would certainly be considered rural even though it was a summer refuge for a member of one of the most prominent families in the United States, the Roosevelts.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Draft Day, June 5, 1917
Library of Congress

Photo Two:
Song Book Cover, 1917
wiki

Photo Three:
Brigadier General Hugh S. Johnson, Enoch Crowder and Roscoe Conkling at Camp Upton, 1917
Library of Congress

Photo Four:
Quentin Roosevelt
wiki

Photo Five:
Earliest washing machines on display
Library of Congress