World War I Reaches into Guthrie County

When the US declared war on Germany in April 1917, America began to change, even clothing. To save cloth, which was declared a war material, designers narrowed lapels and eliminated or shrank pockets.  States outlawed the teaching of German. The German word “sauerkraut” was renamed Liberty cabbage.

Even now, driving the back roads of Guthrie County, Iowa, it surprises me that World War I reached across the nation and into remote rural Iowa.

The Goff family had bought a farm near Wichita, with proceeds from successfully growing popcorn in Audubon County. There were ten children, the eleventh having died as a child. Leora, at 27, was the only one married, to Clabe Wilson. The rest were Merl (25), Wayne (24), Georgia (23), Jennings (21), Rolla (19), Ruby (17), Willis (15), Perry (13), and Clarence (11).

Selective Service for men ages 21-39 began for what was called the Great War, or even the War to End All Wars, in May 1917. Clabe Wilson’s name was drawn for for the draft, as well as his wife’s brothers–Merl, Wayne, and Jennings.

Clabe, who was working at the Glendon quarry, was called for his physical in August. The whole family took the Liza Jane train to Menlo where physicals were set up for the area. He was declared exempt because of his dependent wife and two small children. They witnessed a troop train going west on the mainline from Menlo. Leora said it sure seemed sad to watch that train disappear. “Some of those young men never returned.”

So Wilsons bought an acreage near Glendon, and a cow and some chickens, and settled down


In early 1918, the president outlined a Fourteen-Point Program for world peace. And the government decreed that each bushel of wheat make 15 percent more flour, by adding “shorts” and bran, producing flour that was a darker and grayish-colored. “We will get used to it.”

That March, the optimistic Goff boys bought “the Powell ranch on Beaver Creek” and began planting a crop, mostly popcorn, using horses. But they only got to live there two months before their draft notices ordered them to report at Camp Dodge. 

Camp Dodge

The 88th Division had been organized at Camp Dodge, north of Des Moines, in September 1917. Men were sent there to train from Minnesota, the Dakotas, Illinois, and Iowa–including the three oldest of Leora’s brothers. In April 1918, fifteen recruits died at Camp Dodge from a virulent pneumonia.

Jennings had bought a Kissel car the year before. A sister wrote Leora that he’d “put it to good use” the day before leaving home. They sold it for him that week for $1100.

Kissel (2)
Jennings Goff’s Kissel (note the pennant): Jennings, Clabe Wilson with Donald, Leora, Delbert with Perry Goff. Taken May 20, 1917, Wichita, Iowa

But their Baker Township farm was sprouting popcorn plants. Clabe and Leora sold their acreage and moved to the Goff brothers’ place to take care of their crops and livestock. Delbert and Donald were small then, and another baby was due later in the summer.

Temperatures in Iowa reached 100 degrees. Training at Camp Dodge took about eight weeks–drilling, getting vaccinations, having KP duty, studying musketry, heavy machine gun, grenade warfare, bayonet combat, automatic arms, gas defense trench mortar, etc. And writing younger brother Rolla caution him never to get it in his head to join the army. 

The 88th Division of American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) was activated for combat by the War Department July 22. Merl and Jennings shipped out on the train with their units on the 31st. Their sisters, Georgia and Ruby, had ridden to the camp with friends the day before to see them off. Sherd Goff arrived the next morning but Sherd missed seeing Merl. His unit had left on the train at 8:00 that morning–taking the Interurban electric train to the Des Moines depot. Jennings didn’t leave until 2:30 that afternoon so his father wished him well, and also got to watch Wayne, who didn’t ship out until August 7, on a drill field at gun practice.

Their mother, Laura Goff, refused to see them at Camp Dodge. She began reading the Oxford Self-Pronouncing American Edition of the Holy Bible she had bought when they lived at Key West, Minnesota (1903-1905).


On July 30, 1918, Leora (Goff) Wilson wrote her first letter to someone in military service, her brother Jennings Goff. She would write dozens and dozens of them during two world wars, to brothers and sons in the service.

Merl Goff – AEF 88th Division, 349th Infantry, Co A

Wayne Goff – 88th Division, 351st Infantry, Co. M.

Jennings Goff – 88th Division, 349th Infantry, Co. K


Merl and Jennings spent about a week in August at Camp Upton on Long Island. Jennings wrote Leora that their mother wouldn’t come to see them before they left Camp Dodge. “If there was anything I could do to keep her from worrying so, I would do it. There is no use to worry. What is to be will be.” He asked how their crops were, and said that the Red Cross had given them candy and packaged cigarettes called “Tailor Mades” (already rolled) at a couple of stops.  


Jennings didn’t suppose they’d get to see Wayne until they were in France, or until “we get back from the big Circus.” Temperatures in August reached over 100 degrees across the country. Jennings said it had been so hot that seven people died in New York from the heat, and they’d set a record on Long Island.

“They give us wool overcoats, wrapped leggings and a little dink hat without a bill, the steel helmet fits over it.” Jennings said they were hitting the Germans hard over there, but thought it would be a good while before it would be over. “I expect to be in it.”

Their units boarded the White Star liner Olympic, a sister ship to the other White Star liners Titanic and Britannic. Merl admitted being seasick on the way over, but added that it hadn’t hurt him any. Wayne was shipped to Camp Mills, also on Long Island, and was shipped over on the Olympic’s next trip across–which took twice as long to get to France. 

White Star liner “Olympic”

Sources: Goff family letters, 88th Division in the World War of 1914-1918.

Story from Leora’s Early Years: Guthrie County Roots




  1. This is great information about Grandma Wilson’s family. Did your Mom have all this information?
    I am sure enjoying all the stories. Thank you

    • Some of it is from Grandma’s memoirs, but I also have the Goff brother’s letters! Wish I could find Phyllis so she or her kids could have Merl’s letters. She was born the same year that we were. Jennings still has descendants in the Omaha area, but none so far has wanted the letters.

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