When you look at a sweater knit by a Red Cross volunteer at West Suburban Hospital, read about rats in the trenches, hear music that tied allies together, or see original posters urging means of support — from binocular donations to war bond purchases — the stories of 100 years ago come alive.
It is all part of a comprehensive offering, "World War I and America," launched by the Oak Park Public Library and the Oak Park River Forest Museum.
The exhibit, "From the Home Front to the Battle Front," at the new museum, which the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest officially opened last month, examines WWI through the stories of eight local residents. One, Wallace Allen Valentine, whose name is listed on the Scoville Park War Memorial, was an African American soldier from Oak Park.
Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society, said it's important for people to connect what is happening today with what was happening 100 years ago.
"People see the War Memorial in Scoville Park," he said. "When we researched, we found an Oak Leaves article about him and other 'colored men' going to war. So even then, the area was conscious about race in a positive way."
Something else discovered while researching a local businessman of the time is that the government started registering residents from a certain country.
"Forty-two German men from this area had to register at Grace Lutheran Church, formerly German Lutheran Church," Lipo said. "This idea of being vigilant, keeping your eyes wide open, and balancing individual rights, are issues we are still dealing with today."
When the 100th anniversary of WWI was approaching, Historical Society board member Peggy Tuck Sinko said they began thinking about curating an exhibit since it's an important topic and the Historical Society already had items in their collection. They also tried something never done before.
"We decided to invite community members to loan objects," Sinko said. "We had absolutely no idea what would come in, but things came we hadn't thought about, such as artifacts from the German Army. It just added to the stories we were telling."
Purely by coincidence, an item was donated to the museum that both Sinko and Lipo treasure. A family now living in Pennsylvania sent a complete scrapbook chronicling the life of Elmer Joy Bishop, Oak Park resident and member of the Cuyler Church Orchestra, who died in the line of duty by enemy fire while repairing telephone lines on the front in France. He left a young widow back home in Oak Park; they had wed only 13 months earlier, on June 12, 1917. A gold star adorns the cover of the book.
With so many stories to tell, the museum exhibit is only one way to explore the topics of this conflict that the U.S. entered into a century ago. The museum is also hosting two lectures, and the Oak Park Public Library also has a variety of offerings, including a film series with viewings and discussions led by Doug Deuchler, book discussions at all three branches, led by librarians, as well as author talks, performances and additional lectures by experts in their fields.
Debby Preiser, library community relations coordinator, received an $1,800 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to apply toward the effort. She put the programming together herself, attending events at other locations and doing research through the State of Illinois Centennial Commission.
"I met the author of Chicago Transformed when he presented his book at the Pritzker Museum and Library," she said. "And I saw Johnnies, Tommies and Sammies, a music offering with six people from U of I and Illinois State, held at the Orland Park Library. These are really good programs and we're bringing them here."
Also appearing are local authors Kathryn Atwood and William Hazelgrove. Veterans are part of the programming. Ed White reads and discusses essays from WWI, and on Veterans Day, a special commemoration will take place at Oak Park Arms at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11. The museum exhibit runs through the end of the year.
For a complete listing of events: oppl.org/ww1. For more on the Oak Park River Forest Museum: go to oprfhistory.org.
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