Uncle Leo

I grew up with the knowledge that my great uncle died in World War 1.  My dad was born in 1924,  so he’d never met him.

But Dad did, over the years, add some details about Leo Ross Porter’s life to our written family history.   Never married, Uncle Leo was a political cartoonist for the Lansing State Journal before joining up.  He had attended art school and traveled some in the west, away from his small Indiana hometown.  He trained as a soldier in Camp Graying, Michigan.

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We had a copy of a letter he wrote to his brother, my grandfather, from France.  It gave a snapshot of a 29 year-old American observing a little air fighting while drawing maps for his commanders, near a stream in the green countryside.  He inquired about the folks on the farm.  He surmised it was about time for cherries to be ripe back home.

The next page in the family history is his obituary from the Steuben Republican.  He’d been gassed on August 12, 1918 and died two days later.  Leo’s body was sent back to Angola for burial in Circle Hill Cemetery.  Also returned were his footlocker and a violin from the trench he was in, which still remain in the family.

The newspaper said that as a boy he spent hours observing nature, and  “always liked birds and animals…they seemed to know him as a friend.  Soon after he enlisted in the army, he made his last visit home.  While here he told his mother that he knew she would want him to do his duty and he did not want it to be said of him that he was a coward.”

One of Leo’s cartoons in the Lansing State Journal, 1917

According to a letter written by Colonel Chester B. McCormick on board the ship returning to America, Uncle Leo’s unit  spent five months in continuous combat.  The 199th Artillery joined another division in the Second Battle of the Marne in July, helping capture the city of Fismes (ironically, just west of Metz, the name of the Indiana village where Leo was born).

When I recently transcribed some of my mother’s family letters, I found one written by an aunt in September 1918.  “Leo Porter, John Porter’s boy, was wounded in action August 12 and died August 14.  The word came here the other day.  Mr. and Mrs. Porter are sure doing their bit.  They have another son in the army and another that will soon go.”

I was interested to know that my mother’s and father’s side of the family were acquainted before the two of them were ever born.  And it gave me another perspective on Leo’s death, which was an exception to the rule:  influenza, not combat, was responsible for most deaths of troops from our county.

Last time I posted about the hundredth anniversary of the death of Quentin Roosevelt, the president’s son.  I write now of another soldier who died close by a month later,  a farmer’s son.  They were different but the same.  They both did what they thought was right.  We honor their ultimate sacrifice a century later.





War Chest

I’m not going to touch on the obvious cost of going to war: human lives.  As we were reminded last weekend, the sacrifice of those who die or are physically disabled in service to their country is immeasurable.  But it is interesting to look at the ways we have drummed up money to pay for our battles  – something I discovered when reading my grandparents’ letters about common folks selling bonds in 1918.


My great-uncle Guy had firsthand experience with those bonds.  “Scott Township has to raise $8,000 in the next few days,” he reported to his brother Jesse in June 1918.  “We have a few slackers whom we haven’t been able to collect from…I got $2 cash from —— and I pumped him for more till he pledged $3.  The next day I heard he said, ‘That Guy Covell is a damned hog …'”

It was the third of four separate World War 1 bond drives.  The strategy of William McAdoo, who was in charge, was to raise support by having patriotic rallies across the country.  My grandmother, at the time teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in a different county, wrote that someone there was planning a ride like Paul Revere’s to attract attention, but it didn’t happen.  She sold bonds to country neighbors, taking homemade cookies along to sweeten the deal.

Bank employees did not sell certificates for the Liberty Loan, so there were no commissions.  People thought it was their duty to raise the money.  And that they did — seventeen billion dollars worth, over half for $50.  Even those were monumental to the average worker who made 35 cents an hour.  But they could buy stamps for 25 cents each, paste them on a special card, and when they had enough cards filled could trade them for the lowest denomination.


The mass media of that time included posters to urge the Liberty Loan, foodconservation and soldier enlistment.  Today we marvel at their Art Nouveau style and vivid colors, at the same time realizing the sobering scope of the work of George Creel and his propaganda committee.

Over 125 years before, the American Revolution was funded with  loans from France and the Netherlands, and private loans from a few individuals.  Each colony was ultimately asked to equip its own soldiers.  The Continental Congress printed a lot of paper money, backed up by nothing, which Mercy Otis Warren called “immense heaps of paper trash.”   Consequently inflation rose to 30 per cent in 1783.

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The new Constitution gave the federal government power to regulate trade and commerce, print common currency, and have Congress tax citizens.  Until the peace treaty was signed, however, soldiers were given IOUs for back pay.  That was a pretty unpopular decision.  Alexander Hamilton got his way with the idea for the federal banking system, later losing his life in a duel surely connected to his spin on financial policy.

When the Civil War inevitably came, both sides doubted it would last long and didn’t plan to raise many taxes for their expense.  Instead, the Union printed “greenbacks,” doubling the North’s paper money supply.  A man named Jay Cooke engineered the “New National Banking System” in 1863, which favored large banks over small ones (It wasn’t a permanent benefit for him, though, as he went bankrupt in 1873) .

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In 1861 this note was worth $90; in 1865, $17.  http://www.usdollarbill.info

The Confederates printed their own paper money, too — to the tune of twenty times their supply.  You can see where this was going.  A dollar bill worth 90 cents at the beginning of the war shrank to 17 cents at the end.  They also tried selling “cotton bonds” to the British.  And then there are legends about gold from England hidden in the western United States, which was intended to help the South win the war.

During World War 2, the withholding tax was introduced and $186 billion in bonds sold.  The GI Bill compensated soldiers by providing education and job training (My dad took advantage of this program and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.  He was the first one from whom I heard that war could be good for the economy, and that times of recession could be good for education because unemployed people go back to school).

Costs of the Korean War took 15 per cent of the GDP (gross domestic product); Viet Nam 10 per cent and Iraq 1 per cent.  Pork barrel spending for the military keeps making increases to the national debt.  There is also the matter of veterans’ pensions.   The current generation continues to pay the debt for wars begun and fought before they were born; George Washington put it this way: “throwing on posterity the costs we ought to bear.”

And then  I remembered one more thing: what the colonists were so mad about in the first place.  England put the Stamp Tax on them to help pay for the French and Indian War.

Sources: cbsnews.com, businessinsider.com, allthingsliberty.com, federalreservehistory.org, Wikipedia, marginalrevolution.inc., letters of Jesse O. Covell and Margaret E. Beck.  Contact me if you’d like to hear more about their story, Folks on the Home Front.


The Folks

Folks on the Home Front: Letters from the First World War by [Griffin, Margaret Porter]

I wish I could have known the grandparents on my mother’s side of the family like I did on my father’s side.  Having older relatives to mentor and dote on you as a child is something that can never be replaced.  But I came close to getting acquainted with their lives, at least a part of them, when I transcribed and typed around 400 letters they wrote to each other when they were courting.  I thought, “This is a wonderful story.”  So I’ve edited and published their correspondence in a new book.

Its working title was “Miss Maggie and the Captain.”  The era was World War I, and he (Jesse) was in a Mississippi training camp while she (Margaret – yes, I’m named after her) taught school back in northeastern Indiana.  But I thought it should be called something to do with the times, so I settled on Folks on the Home Front: Letters from the First World War.  The term “home front” was actually first used in 1917.

As I say in the synopsis on the back cover, things took more time then: corresponding, cooking, cleaning house, and traveling.  But we do much of what they did, one hundred years later.  We work at home and school.  We look at the new cars coming out (although these were really the new cars, the first that families bought).  We like to watch baseball games as they did.  And we get together with our friends, eat, tell stories, tell jokes.

There was a frightening World War in progress, and the United States was gearing up for the effort.  Everyone was concerned, pro or con; and many like my grandfather involved directly as soldiers.

To make more sense and to connect my grandparents’ story to what was going on around them, I researched World War I events for quite a while.  In the library there are many books on the Civil War and on World War II, but not so for World War I.  I hope that this book will help fill in a bit of the gap.  And that readers will enjoy their expressions, their experiences, and their devotion to each other.

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The young family at home on the farm in the late 1920s.  My mother, who is the baby in this picture, would save all of their letters; Jesse and Margaret had ten children in all.

Folks on the Home Front (175 pages; Dogear Publishing, Indianapolis, 2017) is available by ordering on Amazon or contacting me personally.

I am available for presentations on the book in general and have compiled activities for classrooms on locating primary source material.  I’d love to tell you more about my Folks on the Home Front.

Room for Learning, Part 2


Here are some glimpses from inside the Collins Schoolhouse on SR 120 in northeastern Indiana.  After being used from 1877 to 1943, it stood vacant for 20 years.  Then June Collins began its restoration.


More desks fill the room now than when it was operating, to accomodate the number of students who come on tours.  Miss Collins’s nieces and nephews say there used to be an open space between the two sides, where activities and games took place.


“It’s not the books that are on the shelves, but what the teachers are, themselves,” according to an old poem.  Visitors here see an array of vintage books.


The original Google: a large dictionary sat on a stand for students to reference.


Hornbooks, which preceded textbooks, displayed the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer.  They were covered with a thin layer of cow horn to protect the surface.


The school’s weathervane now overlooks its interior.


The daily schedule was all about reading!



You could get a drink of water from the stoneware cooler, or lunch from your tin pail.  For the other kind of break, the privy was out back and remains there, still fully functional.


Photo of students in first through eighth grades in the school’s heyday.


A complete record of teachers of the school is posted on a wall.


Miss Collins hit the nail on the head.  Thank a teacher for where you are today!


The Collins School is open to the public on Sundays 2 to 5 p.m. during the summer beginning June 5.  A traditional ice cream social will take place there on July 31.

Room for Learning, Part 1


In the last half of the Nineteenth Century and beginning of the Twentieth, many pupils were educated in a one-room building where eight grades all learned together.  For some it was the place their school days began and ended.


While some of the iconic structures have been torn down and others repurposed as homes or businesses, a few have been made into living history museums.  The Collins School in Steuben County is one.  It rests in a green grove of trees, across from a cornfield on State Road 120.


The brick schoolhouse was built in 1877.  It succeeded a log structure which remained on the property for many years.


To whom do we owe gratitude for its restoration?  Well, it was someone I think would be proud I used the object pronoun in that last sentence.  Her name was June Collins.  Miss Collins’s family owns the property on which the school sits.

She was a pupil here and a teacher here, at the beginning of her long career in 1939.  She moved on to work in town schools with multiple rooms (including my sister’s second grade class).  When the old building was auctioned, Miss Collins bought it, and with the help of family, colleagues, and former charges, fixed it up.  She lovingly filled it with artifacts from days gone by.


June Collins herself was its first tour guide.  Today her great-nieces and nephews carry on, during June, July, and August on Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m.  Next week I’ll show you what this room for learning offers visitors who continue to climb its worn steps.