“Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills its pupils.”
Those are the words of Hector Berlioz, recognized as the 19th century French Romantic composer of “Symphonie Fantastique” and other memorable music. Yet, it is Berlioz’s 11-word summary of the passage of time that I remember best about his legacy.
Dead pupils are why we forget the lessons learned from previous generations.
Histories too often re-record the best and misinterpret or forget the worst. That seems to be a foible (or some might call it an adept survival tool) of human nature that rarely changes, not even in this age of information overload.
As we turn over a New Year leaf, many of us look back at the year just passed. But I also like to skip backward a century, there being something alluring in that 100-year mark. What was it like back then?
If you’ve made it through my ramblings to this point, I invite you again to step with me into a time machine for a brief and by-no-means-complete peek at 1918.
Reflections of time
Our main information source is the newspaper, particularly this one then called The Daily Herald.
Why are old newspapers so important for this time machine? In 1918, television, AM-FM radio and the internet were nonexistent, and the people of the Mississippi Coast depended on this newspaper for news.
Was the world of 1918 really so different?
War raged overseas and uniformed Americans were among the dying and maimed. In such a heated atmosphere, the U.S. government decided that immigrants from a certain country must register as “enemy aliens.”
Food was scarce in parts of the world and people starved to death. At home, Americans tightened their belts, rationed and ratcheted up profit-making war industries.
Embolden U.S. women demanded the same respect and rights, especially to vote, and blacks in big cities rioted for equal rights. Across the world, peace was in turmoil. Tolerance for different governance, religion, culture, nationality and ethnicity grew thinner by the day.
Into this mix swept a viral pandemic, taking its deadly toll country by country, starting in spring 1918 and ironically spreading rapidly because of war. The influenza deaths would more than double the 17 million civilians and military deaths in World War I, a fight that lasted August 1914 to November 1918.
If you haven’t guessed, the crux of 1918 is The Great War, the so-called War to End All Wars. You cannot step into this time machine and avoid World War I.
A slow but swift war entry
America officially entered the European fray in April 1917 but it took time to get soldiers trained and the war machines — ships, armament, rations, trucks — ready for battle. As we all learn in school, our Allies were predominately Great Britain, France, Russia and Italy.
The enemy or “Central Powers” were Germany, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.
America’s “enemy aliens” were anyone with former ties to the Central Powers. Among them were European immigrants on our Coast who provided much-needed labor for the seafood, lumber, farming and canning industries. Then, as now, suspicion of their loyalties claimed an ugly toehold.
The vagaries of war came to our home-front and not just because of a new military presence, with Camp Shelby (now a Joint Forces Training Center) in the pineywoods and the U.S. Naval Training Center (now Centennial Plaza) on the Gulfport beachfront. By President Woodrow Wilson’s first draft in June 1917, many Coast men already had volunteered.
Coast towns proudly put to work a large force of Red Cross volunteers for important home-front duties. Banks and civic leaders urged residents to buy war bonds, and they did so patriotically. Men found construction work on the new naval center and ship building, but there was the usual “Coast” existence to consider.
It’s not all about war
Local businesses, schools, industries continued, although the virgin yellow pine forests were mostly felled for lumber. Cut-over lands were becoming farms.
The Coast had harvested one million barrels of oysters by mid-January. The usual seasonal workers for canning and shucking didn’t arrive because Northern armament factories paid more, so the Coast wooed Louisiana Cajuns to work here. Many would stay.
The year 1918 also saw the passing of two familiar names: Art potter George E. Ohr, who now has a Biloxi museum dedicated to him, and John F. Popp, who has a bridge still carrying his name.
On the transportation front, a longer beach road was underway; the seawall not yet started. On the booze front, Mississippi became the first prohibition state.
Year 1918 started on the chilly, dry side, in fact so cold that on Jan. 14 the Herald ran a story about 200 to 300 turkey buzzards frozen stiff to the trees in Naval Reserve Park. Summer, however, was inevitable and Harrison County supervisors earmarked $6,000 to control disease-carrying mosquitoes.
A quick peek at prices reveals 1,000 Ocean Springs satsumas cost $12; a new cottage, $800; A Gulfport beachfront house rental, $20 a month.
Theaters showed movies for 5 to 15 cents, with an added penny for “war tax.” A pound of American cheese was 40 cents at Tremmel’s Grocery, and a pair of high-top ladies shoes was a whopping $6 at Lopez’s because leather was needed for soldiers. Both a loaf of bread and pound of sugar, 9 cents.
Life a hundred years ago was obviously a mixed bag of The Usual and The War. Unfortunately, none of Berlioz’s teachers of 1918 are around to help keep their lessons in perspective.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.