Red Cross Poster

The Formation of The Miami County Chapter of the American Red Cross


“The American Red Cross is the development of the idea in the mind of a noblewoman that loving one’s neighbor means helping him in time of trouble and relieving or decreasing his suffering and pain in sickness, accident or misfortune.”

~  Peru Journal 4/24/1917


     It is mid-July of 1917 and a large crowd swarms the lawn on the West side of the Miami County, Indiana Courthouse.   Broadway is jammed with traffic and impassable.   It is evening.  Girls walk among the crowd dressed in Red Cross uniforms.  They are gathering free will offerings from the assembled crowd.  The entertainment for this first fundraiser of the local Red Cross is the daredevil Billie Mars who is also known as “The Human Fly”.  He is going to scale up the side of the Court House.  Large searchlights are shining on the side of the building where he will perform the stunt.   Excitement ripples through the crowd as they wait for the 8 pm climb to begin.  Some saw him earlier in the day when he scaled up the side of the First Baptist Church but this evening’s crowd is much larger and hundreds of people are present.   The event will raise one hundred much-needed dollars for the war work of the local Red Cross.  What follows is an explanation of that work during the First World War at the national and local level including short biographies of the people who were responsible for the formation of the Miami County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

      No discussion of the American Red Cross is complete without mentioning Clara Barton.  Clara was born in 1830 in Massachusetts but later moved to New York.  She was educated to be a teacher in her early life but during the civil war she dedicated herself to caring for wounded soldiers.  After the war Clara lectured on her experiences.  During the Franco-Prussian War she traveled overseas to help care for the soldiers, and during that time became acquainted with the Red Cross in Europe.  Upon returning home to America, in 1881 Clara began the Red Cross here in America.   She remained its president until 1904.  Clara Barton hated war and wanted to bring peace and comfort to those affected by it.   In her vision, the American Red Cross was also to address the needs of the people during other disasters such as plagues, fires, floods, cyclones, hurricanes, earthquakes, shipwrecks, famine, mine disasters, and epidemics. Clara was able to obtain a congressional charter for the organization in 1900.  This secured the Red Cross as the official relief organization for the United States and resulted in the Red Cross being accountable to Congress.

      Chapters of the American Red Cross were formed in major American cities in the early 1900s.  When a need arises within a chapter’s jurisdiction its mission was then, and remains to this day, to respond immediately.  Initially, the Red Cross began first aid, water safety, and public health nursing programs but during the first months of World War I in Europe the Red Cross began concentrating on military relief.  It sent hospital units to Austria-Hungary, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Russia, and Serbia. Between August of 1914 and September of 1916, The American Red Cross collected $2,114,968.17 for European War Relief.   Since the organization was made up of volunteers, no deductions from this amount were taken for administrative costs.  When typhus swept through Northern Greece a $180,000 Red Cross sanitation program was successful.  Food was also provided to this area in Northern Greece until Romania entered the war and the route was closed.  Refugees in Egypt from Armenia were assisted and thousands of interned civilians and prisoners of war in Siberia received help.  Gathered at a large shipping yard in New York and shipped free by English, French, Russian and Italian steamship companies and then moved for no charge on French Railroads, large amounts of relief supplies and equipment were distributed at no cost.

   On Wednesday, August 30, 1916, an American Red Cross field agent named Carl F. Breles met with eight people in Peru, Indiana to form the first Red Cross Chapter in that county.  Calling themselves the Peru Chapter of the Red Cross, they did not reconvene until January of 1917 at which time the first meeting of the chapter took place.   At this January meeting, a board of directors and officers were elected and the name was changed to The Miami County Red Cross.  The chapter’s first actual work took place in March 1917 when there was a bad storm in Newcastle, Indiana to which The Miami County Chapter responded.  No further work took place until the declaration of war in April 1917.

      On the national level during the War, there were “Home Service” committees of the Red Cross to assist families of servicemen when they had needs.  Ten thousand committees were formed across the nation with fifty thousand workers.  Three hundred thousand families received aid.  It was believed to help the morale of the soldiers if they didn’t have to worry quite so much about their families back home, and the purpose was also to help the families themselves.  In mid-May 1917, a new National Red Cross Building in Washington DC was dedicated and President Wilson announced that there was to be a National Red Cross Week observed in June.   After the war started President Wilson’s War Council of business took charge of the Red Cross.  The Women’s Section of the Council of Defense worked alongside the Red Cross organizing the war relief efforts.   There is much overlap between the Women’s Section of the Council of Defense and The American Red Cross.  On the local level, many of the same women were involved serving similar roles in both organizations.  In addition to the local committee work for disaster relief, WWI committee work, and helping with influenza victims, another area the Miami County Red Cross was involved with was caring for those stricken with tuberculosis.

      When June 1917 arrived the newspaper in Peru, Indiana announced that a large meeting was to be held at the Wallace Theater.  It would be a brainstorming session to come up with Red Cross fundraising ideas.  Appeals began appearing in the local paper for fundraising events.  Late in June a market, social, and parcel post-sale was given as a benefit for the Red Cross in Chili and fifty dollars was raised. Mid-July the Red Cross hosted the aforementioned “Exhibition of The Human Fly” and used the money raised from that event along with donations to get their hospital garments and surgical dressings committees started.  The women of the local Red Cross chapter worked with the Peru Journal and published one edition to raise funds for the Red Cross which netted $250.  County Commissioners appropriated $12,000 in $1000 monthly installments.  John Miller donated a cow to be auctioned off to raise funds for the Red Cross and the Red Cross women made a dinner at the auction event.  A cash donation was made to the Miami County Red Cross from employees of “John Robinson Ten Great Shows”.  The money was collected by the boss harness maker.  The Miami County Red Cross put on a play about the Red Cross’s work in France. Another play was put on titled “Somewhere in France” to raise money for the Red Cross at the Miami Methodist Episcopal Church by the youth group.  Mrs. J.H. Shirk hosted a tea to raise money for the Red Cross.   Throughout 1917 the local papers continue to offer public support of the Red Cross work.  Appeals were placed in Peru papers to not spread false rumors that Red Cross donations were being misused, for not only was the Miami County Red Cross hardworking about raising funds for their war work, but they were diligent with monitoring the use of the money. In addition, all the people involved were unpaid volunteers.   The newspapers also printed letters soldiers had written home about how much help the Red Cross was overseas to the troops. By the end of 1917, the Miami County Red Cross announced its membership totaled 6,704.

      With the arrival of 1918, the American Red Cross had grown to fourteen regional divisions, with 3684 Chapters, 12,700 staff, and over twenty-million members. Their wartime fundraising drives netted over 400 million dollars.  Eight million female volunteers created 371 million relief articles: surgical dressings; hospital garments and supplies; sweaters, hats, and other knitted items for soldiers and sailors; and clothing for refugees.  Other women volunteered by assisting families of servicemen with problems, working at refreshment canteens for mobilized servicemen, or working for the women's motor corps transporting servicemen and doctors.  The American Red Cross recruited 20,000 registered nurses to serve in the military.  Later more nurses came forward to battle the influenza epidemic of 1918.

   At the local level, the summer of 1918 brought two golf fundraising events.  The first was a local match where gold medals were awarded and photo cards were made and sold.  The second larger event consisted of an exhibition golf match of nationally renowned players.  It was a large and popular event that took place at Mississinewa Golf Club.   The players donated their time and the match was open to the public.  Tags were sold for attendees to wear indicating they had paid a donation while attending.   At one p.m. Red Cross autos departed from the Miami County courthouse and proceeded to the golf club.  Visitors were allowed to play golf till 1:30 pm at which time the Chicago professionals arrived. The gold pros began their match at 2:30 and played till 5:30. After the match, the balls and scorecards used by the professionals were auctioned off.  Before the match, the caddy privilege had been auctioned off.   Light refreshments were served throughout the day, and a dinner at 6:30 was provided for the professionals, along with the high scoring people of the day.  Music and dancing were offered at the clubhouse during the evening hours.  Between 600 and 700 people attended the event from which $700 was raised.

     The cooler weather of fall in central Indiana brought with it a Red Cross clothing drive for Belgium and French relief.  A local farmer donated a pig to be auctioned with proceeds to be donated to the Red Cross.  The pig raised $32.  During the auction, the women of the county chapter served a chicken dinner making another $80 for the Red Cross.  On another occasion that fall, a Red Cross supper fundraiser was served in the basement of the Baptist Church.   Following the armistice, on November 23, 1918, a program was presented at the Wallace Theater entitled “The Red Cross Story”.

      At the local Miami County, Indiana level, the Red Cross Story began with a saga that involved the leadership of sixteen original people.  They were; Charles Gillette Burton, Nona M. O’Brian Cathcart, Bessie Labonte Cole, Georgia Bearss Crume, Alice Shirk Edwards, Richard Arthur Edwards, , Dora Kraus Gunzburger, William A. Hammond,  Omer Holman, Sarah Baer Levy, Gertrude Thiebaud MacDuff, Dr. Harry Nyce, Helen Martha Royce Shirk, Joseph Henry Shirk, Dr. George Van Mater, Charlotte Strauszer Welch.  These are their stories.

These sixteen people were the movers and the shakers that were instrumental in many areas of progress in Miami County in the early twentieth century.   While many of them also served on the War Council and other short-term projects, their involvement with the Miami County American Red Cross continued for several of these people for the rest of their lives.   This organization continues to provide disaster relief and to serve local servicemen and their families today. 

Written and submitted by Mary Rohrer Dexter

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WWI Veterans | Women of WWII | American Red Cross | Influenza and the World War | Annals of Miami County

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