The North Platte Canteen

The North Platte Canteen

Imagine that it’s between 1942 and 1945, and you have enlisted in one of the armed forces – Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Army Air Corps, Coast Guard. You are traveling cross country on a troop train, perhaps headed to boot camp – maybe never been away from home before. Since you boarded, you have been sleeping in your seat, had no showers, and had only K-rations to eat. As you approach North Platte (pop. 12,000) in west central Nebraska, you are told that at the next stop, you’re not only allowed to get off for 10-15 minutes, but encouraged to do so while the train takes on water and fuel. You see the sign CANTEEN above the depot entrance as the train approaches the station.

When you enter the Canteen,  you see ladies serving at tables crammed with food – (from among) sandwiches, apples, small bottles of cold milk, coffee, cakes & pies, cookies & donuts, hard boiled eggs, sometimes even fried chicken. Women of all ages are serving, and the youngest ones are carrying baskets of cigarettes and candies out on the railway platform. One inside table has complimentary magazines (“Free to Service Men”) – Life, Look, Liberty, Saturday Evening Post, Readers Digest, comics, movie magazines.

You eat as much as you can in the allotted ten minutes – you are allowed take your coffee or milk on the train, as the cups and bottles will be collected by the conductor and returned to the Canteen. Before you leave, though, one of the ladies gives you a hug, and wishes you well on wherever your journey may take you.

What was the motivation of the North Platte population? (Of the hundreds of small towns along the troop trains’ route, this was the only one we know of to perform this service.) Shortly after Pearl Harbor, as Uncle Sam was entering the war, folks in North Platte heard a rumor that Nebraska National Guard’s Company D would be coming through North Platte on a west-headed troop train. Friends and family of the men, to the tune of 500 citizens, had come to the station with gifts for “the boys.”

As it turned out, it was the Kansas National Guard’s Company D, not Nebraska’s. After an uncomfortable minute or so, one young woman, Rae Wilson, said essentially – “Well, I’m not taking my cookies home,” and offered them through the window to the Kansas boys. This same woman then wrote a moving letter to the editor of the The Daily Bulletin, which included these lines:

“We who met this troop train… were expecting Nebraska boys. Naturally we had candy, cigarettes, etc., but we very willingly gave those things to the Kansas boys…  Smiles, tears and laughter followed. Appreciation showed on over 300 faces. An officer told me it was the first time anyone had met their train and that North Platte had helped the boys keep up their spirits.

I say get back of our sons and other mothers’ sons 100 per cent. Let’s do something and do it in a hurry! We can help this way when we can’t help any other way. “

Rae Wilson                           (who became the Founder of the Canteen)

Bob Greene writes in his book Once Upon a Town, “Most of the older women who worked in the Canteen had sons in the war. It was like a healing thing for them to work there.” (This book is also the source of Rae Wilson’s letter above.)

So it started as a small endeavor:  fruit and sandwiches, cookies and cakes. Ultimately, 125 surrounding communities participated, and a total of 55,000 (mostly) women. They met every train for more than four years, sometimes as many as 32 trains a day. On, i.e., a hospital train where the men could not disembark, the women boarded the train with baskets of sandwiches, apples, milk. The Canteen was staffed by volunteers who gave their own rations for the baking ingredients. It probably helped that these were rural farming communities, where things like eggs, flour, even pheasant (in season, mostly) for sandwiches were sometimes readily available.

For more details, see this link for a fascinating six-minute recap .  In the end, it is estimated that six million service men and women came through that Canteen.

When have you been the recipient of unexpected hospitality?

26 thoughts on “The North Platte Canteen”

  1. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    BiR, I love this post and this topic. It is such a classically Midwestern story. I could easily imagine my grandmothers contributing to such an effort.

    In Iowa, at a Highway 35 Rest Stop just North of Ames, there are sometimes local people giving away cookies and coffee to travellers. That is a lovely way to experience a rest stop.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. PS, we often stay in North Platte, Nebraska on our first stop to Arizona. There is a steak house there, Whiskey Junction, which I believe is a Nebraska chain restaurant. It makes a great stop on the way. I think the Sand Hill Cranes often stop there in the spring as well.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I was delighted at the gracious welcome we had last year in Germany when we stopped to see my relatves there. We had never met before and had only corresponded a couple of months before the trip. Petra and Wilhelm met us in Bremen for dinner, and their daughter drove us all around the countryside near Neddenaverbergen, the village where my grandfather was born and raised and where Petra and Wilhelm live.

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  3. Almost 20 years ago I was in search of an Irish Setter. I contacted a woman in southern California – I got her name from a woman I knew in St. Paul (I got my first red dog from her). With just that recommendation (and a few phone conversations) she invited me to California. She picked me up at the airport, fed me, let me sleep in her guest room and then in the morning, with a puppy in the crate and some horrible Santa Ana winds blowing, she got me to the airport on time to fly home.

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  4. OT: I finally heard from Steve yesterday and he requested that I tell all of you that he’s alive and in Michigan. He mentioned that, on TB, he tries to be upbeat, but from my end, I heard no upbeat news, so I’m not sure what to say. This has been grueling on him and there’s a long way to go before his life there gets established. Right now, he’s got one chair and a small bed because his stuff hasn’t arrived. The apartment is much smaller and older than the one in Portland. Molly loaned him a laptop, but he can’t figure out how to use it, and there’s no table for him to set it on. Molly, Liam, and her mom are touring through places along the way to Michigan until the end of June, so he’s pretty much just sitting there without his daily routines; cable TV and computer. Ever the optimist and non-complainer, I imagine that he’ll adjust and make the best of it. He’s always been so adjustable to whatever circumstances he’s in.

    When we drove to Portland three years ago, he called Comcast to hook up his internet and TV. I sat there in utter amazement as he was passed from one rep to another to another. Each time, he had to repeat all of the information he’d given the previous rep. Problems more accumulated the longer he was on the phone. Three hours later, he was still at it. Never once did he complain, voice frustration, or break from his calm, courteous demeanor. That was a rather defining moment for me in realizing how opposite we are! I’d have been increasing angry, short with the reps and been worked into a frenzy after just one rep. Not Steve. With all of his health problems, he still just moves through his days grateful to be alive and enjoy whatever relationships he has.

    He’ll be back on TB in the next few days and, in his typical fashion, write about anything positive he that he can about the move.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. Did you get an answer to your email, BiR? I wasn’t sure if it was worth emailing him. If he wasn’t here on the blog, I didn’t know if he would be able to check his email.

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  5. Next time you talk with him, tell him we all say Hello and we’re all waiting to hear from him.

    I for one am also impressed with his positive demeanor and perseverance…

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    1. I’m thinking my uncle probably did, too. There were books that many of them signed as they came through – was a story about one family who went to the museum which now houses them and found their dad’s name in one.

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  6. While working on a flooring job in Hendrum, Minnesota, we were “required” to stop for break at 9:30 AM for coffee and cookies. Supper “required” roast beef, potatoes, green beans and home made bread. Mid afternoon break required. Tea, biscuits and more cookies. Dinner “required” ham, scalloped potatoes, corn and more home made bread.
    I have yet to figure out Norwegian farmers got anything done.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’ve been invited to the homes of many baboons over the years. Weekends at Steve’s and Donna’s cabins, PJ’s garden party, an overnight at Krista;s during Rock Bend, and tours of the farms of Cynthia in Mahtowa and Barb in Blackhoof. Sherrilee’s Pi parties and solstice gatherings. Picnics at the home of BiR and Husband. And of course all the book club meetings and game nights, hosted by tim, Bill and Robin, OC, Jim and Kathy, Jacque and Lou….Baboons definitely have that North Platte spirit.

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  8. Twice a distant cousin has welcomed me and a member of my family into their home, as we traveled through their vicinity – one was even an overnight. And a first cousin invited Husband and me for an overnight (south suburban Seattle) and then drove us up to Port Townsend the next day.

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