Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 13, 2015
One of the staples of science fiction is time travel. I'm not sure I'd really want to go back in time or live in the future. But my fondness for history probably arises from a desire to observe at a comfortable distance what things were like at different points in time. Said another way, I think the difference between having a general understanding of another era and time travel is in the details.
An example occurred recently when I entered an exhibit where I immediately encountered life-sized models of a World War I soldier and his horse. I had seen enough photos from that era that it seemed familiar - like reading a history book.
But that changed when I glanced at a large photo showing a trench lined by barbed wire and sharp crisscrossed wooden spikes. The image was not taken at some far-off battlefield, but at nearby Fort Riley, a principal training facility during the war. A system of trenches and a hospital bunker had been constructed to train soldiers for what it would be like when they reached the countries where the war was being fought in earnest.
Another example was provided by a dog tag that belonged to Vernon E. Bates. He served in Barricourt, France after being trained at Fort Riley. Although he was wounded in combat and falsely listed in a casualty report as having died of disease, he returned home to Manhattan, Kansas following the war. While interesting, his story was certainly within the realm of what anyone might imagine during a time of war. But his identification "dog tag" said he was a 1st Lieutenant in the 354th Infantry regiment of the USNA. What was the USNA?
I learned it stood for United States National Army. Our country was only about 50 years removed from the Civil War - a time when the army was really just a grouping of state militias. World War I was the time when we shifted from having a military dependent on such a coalition to a federal fighting unit - a national army.
This exhibit was at the Flint Hills Discovery Center and was titled "Flint Hills Forces II: The Shaping of Manhattan, Fort Riley and Kansas State University, 1917-1963." Allana Saenger, Riley County Historical Museum curator of design, and David Allen, head of special collections in K-State's Archives, led visitors through the Great War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, the 1950s and the Cold War.
Yet another example of the small or unexpected detail that creates a sense of my being there, of traveling through time, was a pillowcase from WW I. It provided a sense of how college students' had their thoughts split between immediate concerns and the war far away. The stitched letters K.S.A.C. (Kansas State Agricultural College) connected them with where they were, while "Rally round the flag boys!" - a popular war slogan - brought to mind where they might soon be.
History is easy to think of in terms of the events of long ago set on a current stage. But any time I see photos from different eras, it is the way people dressed or styled their hair styles or the automobiles that jump out at me. They take me back to a different time.
Up through the first part of the 20th century, women's attire covered almost every inch of skin that wasn't on their face or hands. Their hair was typically long. But once the Roaring Twenties hit Manhattan, women began bobbing their hair and wearing shorter dresses just as they were in other parts of the country.
Allana told about a controversy that developed at KSAC when Dean of Women Mary Van Zile insisted that girls wear bloomers with their stockings to avoid appearing "disgraceful." Students ignored her and checked their bloomers and coats at the door before entering dances. As a result, Van Zile placed monitors at the door to verify girls wore the required bloomers. The controversy gained so much attention that the Chicago Herald published an article, "Woman Dean Wins Battle over Dances."
A pair of bloomers on display belonged to KSAC graduate Elma Ibsen. She had received them as a wedding shower gag-gift.
But the stock market crash of 1929 brought hard times. Hundreds of thousands of farms were lost and a quarter of the population was unemployed. The Dust Bowl years that followed added more hardships. And so people worried less about fashion and more about just having clothes. Hand-me-downs became common, and many garments and curtains were fashioned from flour sacks or livestock feed bags.
The events that led to the U.S. entering World War II are well known as are the stories of rationing, scrap and paper drives and Victory Gardens. But something that took me back to those times was the description of a July 1942 event in Manhattan. The campus, city and Fort Riley participated in "American Heroes Day" to honor those in the military. About 2,000 troops from Fort Riley "blitzed" Manhattan in an "it-could-happen-here" demonstration. Soldiers captured government officials and radio communications, including campus radio station KSAC, to bring the war home to the civilian population.
Once I entered the displays from the 1950s, I was in familiar territory. It no longer seemed like time travel; it was just yesterday.
Allana said the teams from the museum, K-State and Fort Riley worked for nearly a year and a half researching, writing, editing, selecting objects and photographs, and constructing displays. But now it was time to make way for a new exhibit.
"It has been a little heartbreaking to uninstall," Allana said, "but I know we will have another big project underway soon."
I certainly hope so. I love these time travels. I'm looking forward to my next trip.
Left: Training trenches at Fort Riley during World War I; right-top: pillow case highlighting both the home scene - Kansas State Agricultural College - and the war in Europe - "Rally around the flag, boys;" center: a pair of bloomers from the 1920s; right-bottom: the rotary phone and aluminum drinking glass from the 1950s.