Jun 1, 2018
It was called The Great War, the War to End All Wars. But surpassed in horror and destruction by World War Two, and with all veterans and most first-hand witnesses now gone, the conflict receded into history.
As we took a closer look at World War I for our exhibit to commemorate the 100th anniversary of America’s involvement, which began in April 1917, however, we found many important ways that the war affected our local community, and many reasons to stop and take the time to understand the impact – both positive and negative – that it had on the nation and on Maplewood.
More than 100 men from Maplewood enlisted in 1917-18 (from a population of about 5,000); eight of them would never come home. Chapters of the American Red Cross opened all over the country, and local women and girls met weekly to knit scarves and socks and prepare “comfort kits” that soldiers and sailors treasured. In 1918, more than 600 Maplewood residents suffered from the influenza pandemic that was spread, in large part, by troop movements. It would end up killing some 50 million people across the globe, including hundreds in Newark and at Camp Dix, and about 15, mostly young adults, in our town.
The Maplewood Home News published stories each week put out by the huge propaganda machine created by the US Government, and intermissions at the theaters in the area were filled with speeches by the Four-Minute Men, a speakers’ bureau organized by the federal government to boost local support and cooperation. In another bid to promote the war effort, 200 soldiers and sailors were dispatched to an exultant Maplewood Fourth of July celebration in 1918, attended by 4,000 people. Throughout 1917-18, Maplewood residents rationed their food, gasoline and other commodities, collected scrap metal for recycling, and planted Victory Gardens.
The very structure of Maplewood changed as a result of the war, as veterans returned and a growing building boom transformed what was once farmland into newly developed suburban neighborhoods. The Township leaders decided to dedicate a new 25-acre park, planned just east of the train station, to those who had served and died in World War I, and it became Memorial Park. It ultimately included an elliptical row of eight American Elms at the top of the amphitheater to honor each of the eight fallen, and a bronze plaque with their names. A large stone at the edge of the part at Baker and Valley streets also bore a dedicatory plaque.
By the time the park was completed, in the early 1930s, the world was deep into the Great Depression. The people of Maplewood would soon be called upon again to fight for freedom and democracy, this time in a war which would lead to the loss of 100 local residents, and again bring changes to our community.Susan A. Newberry