Rally ’round the Flag


Woodrow Wilson signed the Selective Service Act on May 18, 1917. It called for all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register before one of 4,648 local draft boards across the country on June 5th. The bill was vigorously debated in Congress and elsewhere. There had not been a draft in the United States since the Civil War. Wilson initially hoped that American men would volunteer for the armed forces once war was declared. However in the first ten days of the war, only 4,355 of them nationwide had stepped forward.

Local WWI draft registration poster for Granville County, NC, used in May and June 1917 (from Box 6, Folder, 4, North Carolina Draft Records, WWI 3, WWI Papers, Military Collection, State Archives of North Carolina).
Local WWI draft registration poster for Granville County, NC, used in May and June 1917,

Supporters of the draft

There was plenty of debate about the draft in northwest Texas and the Panhandle. While the region was unabashedly patriotic, making all military-age men liable to service exposed the differences where parades and speeches recently showed unity. Supporters of the draft believed it was fairer, as it applied to all eligible men. Place of residence or economic class or connections were leveled in the draft system, in argument at least.

WWI Draft Cartoon

The draft was also more reasonable, supporters maintained. The call to service to draftees would be orderly and staggered over time so as not to disrupt the social fabric of any one community more than another. Thus the draft would be free from undue emphasis on emotion and hyper-patriotism. Young men would be called to serve in their time, and not all at once. There would be no “buyer’s remorse” of volunteers who were caught up in a wave of enthusiasm.

Critics of the draft

Opponents in Texas argued the draft was disruptive. Small farms depended on able bodied family members for their livelihood. A family farm could rarely afford to pay a farmhand. Family businesses were in the same situation. Opponents of the draft thus drew attention to the disproportionate effect the draft would have on rural communities in Texas. Farmers and factory workers were necessary for the war effort. Drafting them would unnecessarily lengthen the war.

Detractors also saw the draft as undemocratic, as men were brought into federal service against their free will. This was troubling to many Texans, who valued individual freedom. Some initially argued there would be no need for the draft as plenty of young men would volunteer in a state with a military heritage such as Texas. The idea of a democracy with a compulsory draft did not make sense to many.

Opponents were also wary of militarism, one of the evils President Wilson claimed to be warring against. Creating an army of conscripts put the nation on a perpetual war footing. This militarism, critics argued, went hand-in-glove with what was perceived in Texas as a pro-war arms cartel in the East. If Wilson gave in to militarism,  the draft could become permanent and future foreign wars more likely. Texas Congressman Jeff McLemore, a Democrat, argued on Capitol Hill that the “establishment and perpetuation of a military system in this country will soon see the end of our republican form of government.”

(More about the conscription debate here.)

Registration day approaches

Recruiters for the armed forces did not wait. The U.S. Navy opened recruiting stations in five northwest and Texas Panhandle counties. Recruiters for all the branches also traveled the roads and rails, looking for volunteers in small towns and ranches. The response in May 1917 was enthusiastic: 1,867 men volunteered across North Texas.

In addition to choosing among the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines, young men could also wait to be drafted. If drafted, they would likely serve as riflemen in the army. If one wanted another assignment, he would have to enlist. Another option was to apply for officer training camps the army was building nationwide.

Recruiters cajoled their audience not to wait, but most young men waited and weighed their options. Enlistments slowed down as June 5, the national day to register for the draft, came closer.

Then they learned that the Texas National Guard needed twelve thousand volunteers.

As the United States entered World War I, conscription was implemented under the Selective Service Act to fill the ranks of the armed forces. The first men were picked randomly from a bowl. The draft continued throughout the duration of the war and into subsequent wars.
Waiting to register on June 5, 1917.













Light Coming on the Plains


“It is absurd the way I love this country,” twenty-nine year old Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her friends back East. O’Keeffe headed the art department at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, a small town south of Amarillo. She began teaching there in the fall of 1916, having taught art in Amarillo schools from 1912 to 1914. O’Keeffe found her artistic vision during her time there, as seen in her watercolors of Palo Duro Canyon. “I belonged. That was my country” she would later write, “–terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness.” And the sky: O’Keeffe was transfixed by the big sky. (More about O’Keeffe’s Texas stay here)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Landscape (1916–17). Courtesy of the Panhandle–Plains Historical Museum.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Landscape (1916–17)

The region

North Texas and the Texas Panhandle were younger and fast growing parts of the Lone Star State in 1917. This region can be bounded by tracing Wichita Falls, Gainesville, Fort Worth, Cleburne, Abilene, Lubbock and Amarillo on the map. Fort Worth was the hub of this region with a population of about 95,000 in 1917.  The other cities were much smaller, but each had been growing at triple-digit rates every decade since about 1890.

Downtown Fort Worth, 1910
Downtown Fort Worth, 1910

Settlers in this area were other Texans and people from the “border” states of Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee. Immigrants from northwest and central Europe added to the influx. There were German, Swedish, Norwegian, Czech, Italian, Slovak and Polish enclaves in the area; farmers and tradesmen who moved to America with neighbors from the old country. The African-American population in northwest Texas was about seven percent.

The work

Ranching dominated the Panhandle, along with agriculture. Farming and dairy production were more common than ranching in northwest Texas. More and more land fell under the plow in the ‘teens; up to 25 million acres statewide. Northwest Texas produced little cotton; the Panhandle produced none. Major crops were corn and wheat.

A watering place on the SMS Ranch, formerly the Spur Ranch. SMS Ranch (Near Stamford, Texas.), 1910
A watering place on the SMS Ranch, 1910

Infrastructure was also a major growth industry of 1910’s Texas. Rails and roads could not keep up with the population and their fascination with machines. Railroads such as the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (The Katy) and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe reached deeper into Texas. Farms in the second decade of the Twentieth Century were becoming mechanized. Likewise, young men on the Plains were growing up with this new technology.

Oil was discovered in the Panhandle in 1910. More oil was discovered in northwest Texas in 1911. The development of oil fields all around Texas created a boom economy, eventually making fossil fuels the state’s largest industry.

War comes to Texas

When war came, the region erupted in parades, rallies and other demonstrations of patriotism. Young men filed out of high schools and colleges, marching in rows to the cheers of onlookers. Bands played and local politicians held forth. Older veterans put on their gray uniforms, though some bravely wore blue. The feeling was of widespread support for the nation and for the war.

Parade organized to encourage donations and recruit volunteers for the Red Cross war-time services, Paint Rock. (097-0098. Courtesy of Concho County Courthouse)
Parade organized to encourage donations and recruit volunteers for the Red Cross, Paint Rock.

The enthusiasm also revealed lack of unanimity about the war. Not everyone was excited about joining a conflict that had roiled all Europe with no end in sight. Particular among these were the Europeans, German and other immigrants who may have had a better idea of what the war was like.

There was also suspicion of enemy activity in northwest Texas. The Amarillo Daily News reported of German spies in the city. Shots were fired at suspected saboteurs on a railroad bridge near Abilene. Arrests of enemy aliens were ordered in Wichita Falls by the U.S. Marshal there, but none were made. Most spectacular was the report of a dozen German agents being rounded up in El Paso, while others slipped through the dragnet and over the Rio Grande into Mexico.

Meanwhile, in Washington on May 10th, Major General John J. Pershing was appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Force.