The Park Ridge Historical Society frequently acquires new material to add to its collections, but its members were pleasantly surprised to discover in a recent cache two personal letters related to Ruth Colman, the Library’s first librarian.
Both letters, one written by Ruth herself and the other by her mother Annie, are addressed to Ruth’s younger brother George, a soldier stationed on the Western Front during WWI. Dated November 13, 1918 (two days after the signing of the Armistice), the letters reflect the relief and elation of two women who are eager to welcome George home.
“13th letter,” Ruth notes at the top of the page. “Have you all the others before this?” Although few details are known of George’s service, it was not unusual in the brutal final year of the war for contact between American soldiers and their families to be sporadic, at best. Ruth’s note suggests that at least one of George’s letters came through, and describes receiving a helmet he mailed from overseas:
My dear brother George!-
Well at last the biggest fight in the history of Old Mother Earth has come to a close! And it makes our hearts rejoice. We have been trying to imagine how you boys over there feel about it. But find it almost impossible.
Park Ridge was hilarious in its usual way not rowdiest or maudlin like Chicago and the big towns. They surely did let loose alright about every tenth person was drunk because of celebrating I have heard.
We got the helmet to-day. It came in the mail just as I had mailed Mother’s letter dated to-day to you, she said that as yet we haven’t rec’d it but now you can know it’s O.K. And we are ever so proud of it. Sammy Rattle is in the P.O. now and you can guess how he said these words to me. “I hate to give you the package I’d like to keep it” but when I insisted that he do so he said “Well that will be fine for George to look at when he is old.” Can’t you visualize yourself about 65 years hence resting in an arm chair feasting your eyes upon the helmet, trench mud and all? I can! We are all very well and happy to think you don’t have to dodge gas and shrapnel, etc.
Helen Holbrook expects to leave in a few days for Canteen work in a Y.M.C.A “over there.” The choir are having a little party for her at the church tonight. Hope you see her sometime.
Albert was here working to-day & he was so tickled when Mother let him cut the strings of the bag that fastened the helmet. He told everyone that went by about it. I took some snaps of him to-day. If they’re good I’ll send them over to you.
Lots of love and kisses from us all.
Lovingly, your sister
The moving letter from Mrs. Colman to her son, apparently written in a rush, describes how Park Ridge responded to the news of the Armistice, and provides a vivid glimpse into a moment of town history:
Park Ridge. Nov. 13. 1918
My Dear Son George:
Well I hardly know how to begin this letter. I’m so happy.
I can’t believe that this terrible war is over. Last Thursday we had a false alarm every one crazy the bell rang & whistles blew and it was like every thing had let loose all at one time. I had hysterics of course and cried instead of laughing, but I always do that I can’t help it. This has been such a strain for so long and then all of a sudden to hear that it is all over it is more than one can stand. Well the first report was denied when the evening papers came out and I was so disappointed so when the whistle blew and the bells rang at 2:30 Monday morning I just laid in bed and listened and prayed and thanked god that it was over and asked that he would be near to our boys and keep them well and strong and good so that when they come back to us they will be even better than when they left home and I do hope that will be soon. If it’s right for you to come. I prayed and was so thankful. Well papa could not sleep and he got up and dressed and turned on all the lights both lights out doors front and back then got out our big flag we always have a small one floating in the breeze but he had to do something. Then he and Marie went up town with a flag over their shoulders and met a big crowd and then all marched all over town singing and cheering and the drum and bugle corps marched ahead of them. They marched until 5 o’clock and then came home. Ruth and Rick & I were just ready to go up town when they came back but stayed home and we had breakfast at 5:15 I made waffles and coffee I was so excited I had to do something so I put on the boiler and washed part of the washing and I had invited Mr. Earle and Esther over for supper. Mrs. Earle is still in St. Louis she is coming home some day this week and brings the baby. Be sure and don’t say any thing about Mazie for Mr. Earle don’t want Walter to know it. He wrote to Walter and told him she was a very sick girl but he don’t want him to feel badly away from home it won’t do him any good. Well George I hope now you can write a little more in your letters than you did before and at least you can tell where you are and how you are living? And what you are doing? Don’t get careless now and get sick over there. You have been so well all the time. Mr. Earle said Walter had been sick What was the matter with him? When do you think you boys will be back home? Tell me if you know. I think I will go in an airplain (sic) to New York to meet you. I never have wanted to go up in one before but I sure would do it if I could get to New York sooner to meet you. I can hardly wait until you get home. If you are needed over there tho’ I will not say a word for I know they need so much done the French people have suffered so much and the Belgian’s too. I will try and be patient until the time comes for you to come home. I always want you to do your duty. You boys have done so well up to now you can do just a little more if Uncle Sam asks you. I am out on this United Charity’s workers drive this week and hope to get a nice sum for all the charities. This money you know is to help you boys while you are over there.
All of us back home are doing what we can to help in every way we can to make life as pleasant for you boys over there as we can. I haven’t seen Betty yet but will write to her and have her come down again soon. I received your letter of Oct. 13 with the Xmas coupon I will pack it tomorrow and send it off I hope you will have a good thanksgiving dinner I know you will have turkey and I hope you get your Xmas box. I wish I could send more. The G.E. are sending you a 5.00 box of candy and cigarettes from Mandel’s I hope you get it ok – have you sent the Helmet yet?
So was George actually able to sit in his armchair and reflect on the helmet 65 years later? Not quite, but he still had a full life. Only about 21 when the war ended, he came home and later married a girl named Emma Levander, the daughter of Swedish immigrants. They would go on to have at least two children. In 1942, George would register once again for the draft, although he apparently did not serve. He died in 1962.
George Colman, about age 30.
Our heartfelt thanks go to Paul Adlaf and the Park Ridge Historical Society for permission to include these letters on our blog. For more information about the Society and its holdings, please visit http://www.pennyville.org.