"President Asks For War."
That was the headline readers of the Oneonta Daily Star saw on Tuesday, April 3, 1917, after President Woodrow Wilson urged Congress, assembled in joint session on Monday, to declare a state of war between the United States and Germany.
The American steamship Aztec had been sunk by a German submarine off the coast of France that day.
Congress passed a resolution and President Wilson signed it on Friday, April 6.
Plans were to assemble an army of a million men in a year, and 2 million within two years.
Oneonta Mayor Joseph S. Lunn had made a proclamation Monday, asking loyalty and "unfaltering support" for the president.
"Oneonta responded…with much vigor and enthusiasm," the Star reported on Tuesday, with "the Stars and Stripes being displayed in all sections of the city as never before even on a national holiday, the store or residence that did not have the national colors showing being quite conspicuous by the absence."
Church bells were rung at noon, and students at both Oneonta High School and Oneonta Normal School gathered in their auditoriums for programs with a patriotic theme.
Documents were printed by the Oneonta Chamber of Commerce and distributed to many sites in the city, so residents could sign one, declaring their loyalty to the government "in its measures to uphold American rights and protect the lives of American citizens."
The U.S. had been watching what was then called the Great War since its start in 1914 and had pursued a policy of non-intervention, avoiding conflict while attempting to broker a peace. Now that the U.S. was in the fight, many were likely wondering what this might mean on the home front.
The Star of April 10 reported, "That America has entered upon a war that will require all the energies and resources of the nation and that if this nation would save itself the loss and disaster that came to England before she appreciated fully the magnitude of the task before her seems to be appreciated by but few.
"In an effort to arouse the residents of the county of Otsego to a comprehension of the need of exhaustive preparation for the war should its duration be prolonged, mass meetings are to be held in the various villages about the county within the next few weeks, at which the true condition will be outlined and an earnest effort to arouse the public to a correct understanding of the importance of a vigorous policy of preparedness."
A representative of the National Guard had met the day before with the directors of the Oneonta Chamber of Commerce to discuss the needs of a campaign for preparedness and secure enlistments for service.
For Oneonta, such a mass meeting was set for Friday evening, April 20, at the State Armory on Academy Street.
The crowd was estimated at 2,000, as they listened to five rousing speeches.
"Whatever of doubt may have existed in any quarter relative to the patriotic fervor of Oneonta citizens, was dissipated beyond a possibility of a doubt last night when a monster parade of citizens was followed by a patriotic rally … the equal of which the city has never before witnessed," the Star reported.
In addition to the display of Stars and Stripes, a common sight in the Oneonta area during the spring months was people at their homes or in the parks, carrying shovels, rakes and hoes, and pushing wheelbarrows, as they were busy planting gardens.
The Chamber of Commerce garden committee encouraged citizens to plant vegetable gardens for their own use, so farmers could supply food needed in the war effort.
The committee worked closely with the city parks commission, for use of land in Neahwa and Wilber Parks, so citizens could plant gardens if there wasn't enough space on their own property.
By early May, 70 lots had been plotted in Neahwa Park, "south of the boulevard," which is today's war memorial walkway, extending to the river. In Wilber Park, 27 lots had been secured just west of Oneonta Creek, near today's tennis courts and pool.
Much more private land had also been offered, and even those who'd never gardened before got into the act that year.
The garden committee furnished informational bulletins to help many newcomers.
Many male students from our area's high schools became "farm cadets."
By serving from May 1 to Nov. 1 in assisting a farmer in planting, cultivating and harvesting crops, the student was eligible for Regents credit for the studies they pursued that year, without the regular examinations.
"Each boy who enlists will be given a badge by the governor," according to the Star, "indicating that he has enlisted in the army as a farm cadet, and in this highly efficient manner is to do his bit for his country."
On Monday: Tragedy on a New York Thruway bridge in 1987.
City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.
"President Asks For War."
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