The era of World War I, as covered in the Napa Register, was a contrast of international war news and reports from Washington mixed with the daily news of a small but growing agriculture-based community.
“WAR RESOLUTION” reads the April 6, 1917, Napa Register headline announcing the conflict that had drawn the U.S. into the European battle.
Unlike today, when national news is readily available from many sources, in the early 20th century newspapers like the Register were often the only local source of such information. Thus, the front page was filled with national stories from United Press (UP) running shoulder-to-shoulder with items such as the new officers at an Elks Installation.
Runaways and exhortations
On the day the Register, then a weekly, announced America’s entry into the war, Napans would have also found an item about William Meuller’s missing wife. Meuller, of Seminary Street, reported to the local sheriff that his wife had run off with a young man “employed as a pianist for a local moving picture theatre” as well as another woman.
The chagrined Meuller apparently found a note stating “she had decided to leave.” Adding insult to injury, “he would find his auto at Benicia,” she wrote.
In other news of the day, F.K. Salsbury of Napa fell off a ladder while picking oranges that morning and broke his ankle. He “suffers considerable pain,” said the report.
And the manager of Fischer’s Empire theater of Napa was in San Francisco “scouting around for a competent pianist” — possibly the young man Mrs. Meuller had eloped with.
G.M. Francis and G.H. Francis, the Register’s editor and publisher, respectively, printed a message from mayor E.J. Drussel urging Napans to fly the flag in a show of patriotism.
“PROCLAMATION,” read the headline.
“Let them fly from business houses and homes,” urged Drussel. “Put them on your autos and let us by our every action demonstrate the sentiment burning within the hearts of all of us.”
The next week’s paper included UP reports about draft plans, war conferences and submarine sightings far from Napa. The newspaper began reporting on locals who were enlisting and not waiting to be drafted into service.
‘Napa Boys’ head off to war
“Two well known young men Ralph Payne and Joe Leoni passed through Napa Wednesday on their way to join the colors,” read an item. “The boys were working in the field when they were accosted by one of Uncle Sam’s recruiting officers,” the story read.
War fundraising efforts began in earnest. “Preparations are being made for a grand ball to be given in the East Napa Pavilion for the benefit of the Red Cross,” read one Register story. Admission was 50 cents per couple.
The men of Napa weren’t the only residents in demand for the war.
“The United States Government is calling urgently for expert stenographers and typists and has just notified Miss Marie A. Sohl of Napa that she has successfully passed the examination for same,” said a Register story in April. “She anticipates being called to the front immediately.”
A May 4 Register story appealed directly to “Napa Boys.”
“How are you helping to win the fight for democracy?” it asked. “The planting of vacant lot is a most honorable way of proving your patriotism. Boy Scouts Troop No. 1 of Napa have already planted field corn and pumpkins and will soon plant beans. What have you done for your country?”
Some news seemed almost hysterical, perhaps in an attempt to promote vigilance.
“ENEMY’S ACT,” reads one local story. “An alien enemy was evidently operating in Napa last Sunday night, for a handsome flag hanging from the front verandah of a residence on First Street was torn down and cut into bits,” exclaimed the story.
“All that was found in the morning was a tattered remnant, and it showed plainly the fact that a knife had been used in the desecration of our country’s flag.”
The paper urged homeowners to “watch their patriotic decorations carefully and to report promptly to the authorities anyone seen molesting them, in order that such miscreants be punished.”
As of June 22, the Register reported that some 1,300 or 1,400 young men of military age in Napa County had registered for military service.
The first Fourth of July of the Great War received lengthy coverage from Register reporters.
“Napa’s fourth of July celebrations proved to be the most successful one in every way, breathing a spirit of democracy and patriotism quite in keeping with these stirring war times,” read one story. Events included a large parade, speeches and a grand ball led by “Queen Ruth.”
But not everyone was doing his duty. On Aug. 9, 1918, “John Wildy, aged 29 years, was arrested by Sheriff Kelton on July 31st on suspicion of being a draft dodger,” a story read. “It is probable that Wildy will be turned over to the Local Board of Napa County and by them inducted into the army.”
Mrs. CJ Larsen of the Fly District notified the Register that her son Lester M. Carr of Camp Kearny had been promoted from corporal to sergeant.
“He is looking fine, as is shown in his latest photo, which goes to show that Uncle Sam is treating our boys well,” said the story.
The reports from training camps weren’t always good. On Sept. 6, 1918, the Register reported that Delphin Nicholson and Jos. I Scally, two of the Napa boys who left for Camp Lewis on Aug. 28 with a contingent of 32 men, “have been rejected because not up to the standard physically and have been returned to their homes in Napa.”
Felix Navoni, of Napa Soda Springs, was severely wounded in battle in France, a story read. “There are no details except that the solider was severely wounded on July 19th.”
By Nov. 8, 1918, the war was finally over, which the Register reported with a banner headline “GERMANY SIGNS THE ARMISTICE.”
‘In the land of mud and rain’
While the war was officially over, battle news continued to filter into Napa. A Nov. 8 story included an excerpt from a letter Carl Barnes wrote his parents a month earlier.
“Just a line to let you know that I am in the land of mud and rain, still hammering away at the dutch,” Barnes wrote. “Looks as though it could be over soon; I hope so for it is getting pretty cold. Ice formed last night. We took a few prisoners last night. They just passed our camp — 900 of them. Gee but it’s cold.”
Leslie D. Johnson wrote to his brother C.W. Johnson of Yountville: “On Oct. 1st I got into a wrestle with a high powered explosive shell sent over by Huns. It got a little of the best of me, so I am behind lines in a hospital,” Johnson wrote.
“I and two more boys had been lying in a shell hole for more than 12 hours when all of a sudden one of those large shells fell right into the hole. It blew both feet off of the other two boys and bruised them up badly, and I got scarred up pretty bad on the left arm, thigh and legs. How I escaped instant death I do not know,” said Johnson.
“Our division did great work, we had the Germans on the run from start to finish. Of course it was not all sugar for us either. They came back with that heavy artillery fire but they haven’t got a look in with Uncle Sam’s boys.”
A looming threat
As the country acclimated to the news of armistice, the Register also reported on a battle beginning to rage on the home front that would ultimately claim more than twice as many Americans as the Great War: the influenza pandemic that went worldwide.
“Influenza cases in California passed the 200,000 mark this morning,” read the story. “3,302 cases were reported today.”