Rediscovering World War I in Laurel

For the Laurel Leader

A well-attended grand opening Sunday presented the Laurel Museum's new exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the United States' entry into World War I.

"Laurel's WWI: From Here to Over There" allows visitors to learn little-known history about how the war impacted Laurel's townspeople; life stories of the men and women from Laurel who served in the war; and how the establishment of Camp Laurel and Camp Meade impacted Laurel.

"All these little details aren't recorded in major history," said first-time museum visitor John Drago, a Laurel resident. "You have to dig into other sources such as the families; you can't just look up this stuff at the library."

Thousands of World War I soldiers on their way overseas passed through the long-forgotten Camp Laurel located on land owned then by the Maryland State Fair, now Laurel Park racetrack; and through Camp Meade, the precursor to Fort Meade.

Laurel's closed cotton mill was used as barracks for soldiers and a site for dances, and Maryland National Guardsmen were stationed at Camp Harrington near Talbott Avenue and Route 1 prior to being sent to the Mexican border.

Graphic designer Richard Friend, a member of the Laurel History Boys who grew up in Laurel and maintains the Lost Laurel blog, said he got a "sneak peek" at the exhibit as he was designing the exhibit display panels.

Friend said he was surprised by the wealth of information about the "different world" he discovered.

"I wouldn't have thought there was a connection to World War I in Laurel," he said. "And you don't connect the racetrack to Camp Laurel; all of a sudden we had soldiers en route to France literally camping there."

Laurel resident John Mewshaw said he didn't know there were encampments even close to the town.

"I knew Eisenhower was at Meade at one point, so I looked for it in a book and couldn't find a reference; that's when I realized that [Ft. Meade] used to be Camp Meade," Mewshaw said.

Laurel resident Tim O'Neil, who came to the exhibit opening with his wife, Jeannene, said he learned that Camp Meade had a signal school and a tank corps.

"This is really interesting; Tim read about it in the newspaper, so we decided to check it out," Jeannene O'Neil said.

According to exhibits team member Karen Lubieniecki, the government wanted to buy or lease property at the racetrack, but Maryland State Fair donated use of the land that became Camp Laurel and then reclaimed it when the war ended.

"Camp Laurel is part of our story," Lubieniecki said. "World War I is like the forgotten American War because World War II was so overwhelming, and the [World War I] veterans have all passed on."

The exhibit, she said, focuses on individual stories as well as some of the events that preluded the U.S. declaring war on Germany in 1917.

The stories of Arthur Phelps, Herman Winter, Van Williams, Jay Lyons and the Welsh family are introduced; as are Gertrude Ellis, who worked for Bernard Baruch of the War Industries Board; George Musgrave, who organized the Civil Defense Unit; and fundraiser George McCeney, who served two terms as Laurel's mayor between 1910 and 1920.

Time line

World War I began in Europe on July 28, 1914, when Austria declared war on Serbia after a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archbishop Franze Ferdinand in June.

On May 7 of the following year, German U-boats sank the Lusitania, a nonmilitary British Ocean liner, with 128 American men, women and children onboard.

In January 1917, British intelligence intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram, a proposal from German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman to ally with Mexico and attack the U.S. on its home soil. Three months later, on April 6, Congress declared war on Germany at the request of President Woodrow Wilson.

A World War I timeline spanning 1914 to 1918 hangs in the connecting hallway to the east side of the museum and leads deeper into the five-part exhibit.

Lubieniecki said the Laurel Historical Society decided several years ago to do a World War I exhibit in 2017.

"We think we've found some important new information about Laurel and its involvement, from the soldiers we sent and from those who came to Camp Laurel and Camp Meade," she said.

Marlene Frazier, another member of the exhibits team, said they began research and planning for the exhibit in 2015, compiling information found at the National Archives and Record Administration, the Fort Meade Museum, the National Archives at College Park, the Maryland Historical Society and the museum's own records.

Frazier said the exhibits team was surprised to discover through the ancestry.com data base that there were more than 200 soldiers from Laurel that served in the war; they thought there were maybe 75, including a few women.

"It was difficult to confirm how many women served because they were all listed as male," Frazier said.

An online newspaper search unearthed another surprise: A dance hall called O'Brien's was located on the second floor of what is now the Laurel Mill Playhouse on Main Street, and was referenced in a soldier's letter reprinted in a Laurel Leader news clipping.

Some of the research and information came from those close to the museum. Frazier said Laurel Museum cofounder Betty Compton provided the information for the "Losing the Farm: The Welsh Family" exhibit panel.

In the museum's east room, a corner display showcases artifacts that belonged to Jay Lyons, a railroad telegrapher assigned to the 66th regiment at Camp Laurel for engineer training.

Items on loan from his grandson, Kirk Lyons, of North Carolina, include a smoke grenade, aerial bomb, practice hand grenade, mess kit, ammo belt and canteen, overseas cap, a stamping kit used to mark metal objects and a uniform.

Lyons, who said he is his family's genealogist, reached out to the Laurel Historical Society several years ago when he began researching the return address of Camp Laurel on his grandfather's letters.

When the exhibits team contacted Lyons last year to request permission to reuse a photo he'd loaned for a prior exhibit, Frazier said Lyons offered to loan a collection of World War I artifacts that had belonged to his grandfather.

"We were very surprised that there was so much material that had been preserved for such a long time," Frazier said.

Laurel native Ruth Ann Besse teaches Latin and U.S. history to students who are in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program at Reservoir High School in Fulton.

She said she was impressed with the artifacts as well as the print information and feels that her students — who don't get much chance to study how World War I affected people locally — should benefit from seeing the exhibit.

"They'll get a lot out of being able to see the pictures and clothes, and I think they'll be happy they came," said Besse, who added she will offer extra credit to the students as an incentive.

Another room has a display about the Hello Girls —women who trained in Laurel and served in England and France as telephone operators — and Dwight D. Eisenhower's ties to Laurel during his stay at Camp Meade, when he and his wife, Mamie, also rented a room on Montgomery Street in Old Town.

Members of the exhibits team include Lindsey Baker, Frances Brooks, Wayne Dzwonchyk, Jim Frazier, Marlene Frazier, Richard Friend, Amy Graver, Charles Hessler, Karen Lubieniecki and Ken Skrivseth.

"They've uncovered so many interesting things that none of us would have ever thought about and done a lot of digging to find stuff that no one even in town would know," said Steve Hubbard, president of the Laurel Historical Society.

About 18 million people (7 million civilians) died in World War I; 116,000 were Americans, seven were from Laurel.

"Laurel's WWI: From Here to Over There" continues through December at the Laurel Museum, 817 Main St. The museum is open Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m.–2 p.m., and Sundays 1–4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, go to laurelhistoricalsociety.org

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