Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Every year on Memorial Day, I pause to recall my grandfathers, both of whom saw combat in World War I. One fought in France, the other, improbably in Siberia. I can recall Floyd Ross showing me his doughboy helmet and gas mask where they hung in a garage. And one of my most special possessions is a little diary containing Vernon Basler’s recount of leading a troop of men.
However, there have been many thousands of men and women who served their country during wartime in vital ways that did not involve combat. I was reminded of that fact this week while browsing through the autobiography of one of Northwest Colorado’s leading historical figures: “Confessions of a Maverick” by Farrington R. Carpenter.
As the fighting in Europe during World War I became a troubling issue in the United States in May 1915, Carpenter surely was in a unique position in Hayden as a personal acquaintance of President Woodrow Wilson. The future president of the United States was the president of Princeton University when Carpenter matriculated there in 1905, and Carpenter became well acquainted with Wilson during the course of his studies.
Flash forward to 1915, and Carpenter, with President Wilson’s reticence about becoming involved on the European continent in mind, was assembling a committee to press the federal government to absolve agricultural workers from conscription into military service. He did so sincerely, keeping in mind everything he had read about food shortages in the midst of the ongoing war.
Carpenter went as far as traveling to Washington, where Wilson agreed to a brief meeting and greeted him by his first name. President Wilson gave Carpenter a handwritten note asking several members of his Cabinet to consider his proposals; however, they never got any traction.
Upon returning home, he sensed that the prevailing patriotic spirit in the nation and in Northwest Colorado favored going “over there” and kicking the kaiser in his keister. Carpenter was not about to be perceived as one who was avoiding military service.
“Caught in the fever, I spent six weeks in a citizens military training camp at Fort Douglas near Salt Lake City,” he wrote.
There, he was prepared to become an officer, if the need to raise a large army arose. Carpenter went to the local draft office and asked to be selected first if the call went out to raise an army.
Carpenter recalled the day when he and fellow troops left for a training camp in Camp Funston, Kan.
“The call came on Oct. 2, 1917, and I went to Steamboat Springs to join 28 first draftees in a parade heading for the morning train to Denver. At the Steamboat station, a band was playing ‘Over There,’ and one old man I knew had tears running down his cheeks. He was Colonel James H. Crawford, a Civil War veteran who had founded Steamboat Springs.”
Carpenter spent all of his time in the service training other men to become soldiers and officers. One of the most pressing situations was the influenza pandemic that ultimately would claim hundreds of thousands of lives, mostly in Europe. Carpenter’s own recruits became ill and were quarantined, with two of them dying from the disease.
Carpenter’s role in World War I was an important one. And the word picture he created of draftees parading to the railroad depot in Steamboat, while a special Civil War veteran shed a tear, will remain in my mind for a good long while.