Student revels in Red Cross canteen's WWII history with research
OGDEN, Utah — One little brown hut.
It's hard to believe such an unimposing structure — long ago lost to time — could play such a significant role in local history. But the Red Cross canteen, located outside the Union Station train depot in Ogden during World War II, would prove to be an important epicenter in the war effort here at home.
Over the course of nearly four years, this canteen would, in the words of Weber State University student Lorrie Rands, serve "food, comfort and a bit of home" to more than 1.6 million members of the armed forces passing through Junction City on their way to and from the war. Seven days a week — between March 25, 1942, and Jan. 3, 1946 — a group of what would eventually be about 200 female volunteers offered free coffee, donuts, rolls, sandwiches and more to traveling soldiers.
As nice as the free food and beverages were, Rands believes it was the interactions between volunteers and servicemen that was the real key to success.
"That's what these boys were looking for," Rands said of soldiers who were usually far from home. "A lot of these women were a little older, so this was like talking to their moms. And that's what these boys needed."
A history major at the school, Rands has spent much of the last year researching the Ogden canteen. Her undergraduate research project, "Food, Comfort, and a Bit of Home: Maude Porter and the Ogden Canteen, 1942-1946," has been accepted for presentation at the 2014 National Conference for Undergraduate Research, to be held at the University of Kentucky in early April.
Kathryn MacKay, a professor of history at WSU, says she's proud of her student's "solid work" on the project.
"It's exciting for me personally, because it's been such a joy working with her," she said of Rands. "And it's exciting for the department to have one of our students accepted to present at the conference."
Then there's Maude
The driving force behind the Ogden canteen was Annie Maude Dee Porter, a member of the prominent local Dee family. Rands says it was her tenacity that organized and built the canteen.
"The cool thing is, you have a leader like Maude Porter, oldest daughter of the Dee family, and she was able to get the who's who of Ogden to volunteer," Rands said.
Plenty of Eccles, Brownings and other well-known names of the day did their part for the cause, all recruited by Maude Porter.
"She was able, because of her strength, to bring that many prominent women together to volunteer," Rands said. "This is just my personal opinion, but I don't think the canteen would have been as successful without her leadership."
Rands says the great part about her research project is that such meticulous records were kept. The Red Cross canteen volunteers wrote in a daily logbook, which included statistics on food served as well as the general impressions of the day. For example, this entry from Aug. 14:
"5:05 p.m. Flash! Flash! The whistles are blowing!!! V.J. day must be here! Jean Fernelius is jumping up and down saying 'Isn't this wonderful! Now my husband can come home!' We all feel that way — an unforgettable experience."
Because of these detailed logbooks — and Porter's diaries — we know, for example, that these volunteers struggled making coffee the first time. And not just because many of them were Mormons.
"Most were LDS, but a lot of them drank coffee," Rands said. "But they'd just never made it on that scale before."
What sort of scale are we talking about here? The Ogden canteen, which was built just outside the station at the time and was probably located where the art gallery is now, was one of the busiest in the nation. From 7:30 a.m. to midnight or later, every day, volunteers would serve up hundreds upon hundreds of cups of coffee, rolls, sandwiches, cookies and the like. In her final report on the Red Cross canteen, Maude Porter reported serving 1,644,798 members of the armed forces in its four years of existence. Supplies purchased included 15,960 pounds of coffee, 527,545 half-pints of milk, 32,334 loaves of bread and 12,680 pounds of meat.
And we're not talking about modern conveniences here, either, according to Rands.
"It's not paper cups they're serving the coffee in," she said. "They have to wash the cups. These are glass cups they have to clean."
Back to school
This World War II-era project is particularly interesting to Rands because her husband serves in the military and has been deployed overseas three times. The couple live in Layton with their two children.
Kathryn MacKay first told Rands about the Ogden canteen, and encouraged her to take on the project.
"I did steer her in that direction, because it seemed to combine her interest and background in military history, women's history and local history," MacKay said.
The 39-year-old Rands graduated from East High School in Salt Lake City, then married and began raising a family. Today, her children are 15 and 12 years old.
"I always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but now that they've gotten older, I've gone back to school," she said.
Rands, who is also pursuing a minor in public history, almost didn't return to education. She has always loved history, but wasn't sure she wanted to major in it.
"I wanted to go into history, but everybody said you have to teach, and I didn't want to teach," she said.
It was a chance meeting over breakfast that brought Rands back to school. One Sunday morning back in 2010, she and her husband were at a very busy Sill's Cafe in Layton, waiting to be seated. They decided to share a table with the couple waiting behind them, and one was a professor in women's studies at Weber State.
"We got to talking about it, how I loved history but didn't want to teach," Rands recalls. "She told me, 'You don't have to teach.' "
It's the stories
What does Rands want to be when she "grows up"?
"I want to be what I'm doing now — be an oral historian," Rands said. "Collecting oral histories for projects is just so much fun."
Rands will graduate from Weber in April; she celebrates her birthday that same month.
"My graduation is my 40th birthday present to myself," she says.
Rands says it's the stories that really hooked her. So many are associated with the Ogden canteen that she admits, "I had a hard time deciding which stories to use."
One of Rands' favorite stories is about a young soldier from Ogden who was traveling by train. The shades had been pulled down on his car as it came into the station, so it wasn't until he stepped off that the soldier realized they were in his home town. His mother just happened to be volunteering in the canteen at the time.
"They hadn't seen each other in eight months," Rands says, "so they had a nice reunion there."
Rands also loves to hear the stories about the Ogden mothers with sons serving in the war who would bake cakes and bring them to the canteen on their sons' birthdays.
"They'd say, 'I made a birthday cake. My son can't enjoy it, but these G.I.s can,' " Rands said. "That happened maybe half a dozen times."
Sarah Langsdon, curator of Special Collections at WSU, says projects like Rands' become more important as certain pieces of our history are slowly being lost.
"My generation — and the generation down from me — if we don't have these stories told, people will forget," she said.
Erin Bryner, office manager for the Office of Undergraduate Research at WSU, says 24 projects were accepted for the 2014 National Conference for Undergraduate Research, ranging from biology and neuroscience to political science and film studies. Some are oral presentations like Rands', others will be poster presentations at the three-day conference.
"It's quite prestigious to be nationally recognized," Bryner said. "At this conference there are no awards, no grades, but it is kind of a celebration of research — in that research isn't complete until it's shared."
Rands says she's invested more than 100 hours in the Ogden canteen project (including a research trip to Washington, D.C.).
"But it didn't feel like 100 hours," she said. "And it took a good month to write, but it was easy to write because it's something I'm in love with. I keep thinking I want to write a book on Maude Porter."
Ah, Maude Porter. Rands says she fell in love with her story. The woman had no children, but was "totally devoted to her husband." She loved to shop, but didn't flaunt it. And she was involved in a number of projects and clubs.
"The Standard-Examiner interviewed Maude, and basically she said 'My community service is my way of paying my rent in the world,' " Rands said. "She felt it was important to give back."
Although the Ogden canteen volunteers were excited about the end of the war, most of them didn't want their service to end, according to Rands.
"They had their own place in the war effort," she said. "And it's not like today — the war affected every member of the community back then. Ten percent of the population was in the military then. Today, it's 1 percent. All wanted to contribute, and in some way, the canteen gave them that ability."
And, Rands says she particularly loves the way canteen workers worded their final entry in the logbook:
"In closing, Our Final will and testament: To the O.U.R and D. Co, one little brown hut — dark and deserted now. Time was that its walls radiated cheer and hospitality and helpfulness and attracted hundreds of jostling, hungry young Americans with its beckoning Red Cross sign, the stimulating aroma of hot coffee and the spicy fragrance of baking cinnamon rolls. To Mrs. R.B. Porter: the love and good will of two hundred canteen workers."