On Saturday, March 29, at the Ellis County Museum at 6 p.m., the museum will open its new World War I exhibit, which includes extensive contributions from some keen North Texas memorabilia collectors, including Dallas resident Brandon Morley, who has amassed an amazing collection that started with donations from his grandfather, Samuel Kemp Clifford, who was a bomber pilot in World War II.
“Growing up, I had a real interest in history, and he had a lot of his flight gear and uniforms after he got out of service. Growing up, I used to play with that, and finally he just gave me a number of pieces,” Morley said. “I figure, rather than keep it in storage for my own enjoyment, why not break it out for others to enjoy as well?”
His collection includes promotion and discharge documents for his great-grandmother, Gretchen Sandusky, who applied for enlistment in the Marine Corps in World War I. In an effort to free up men to fight, the U.S. decided to admit women for the first time; Sandusky was the first lady Marine on the West Coast.
History was just another class in school until he started looking through artifacts, Morley said.
“It was like ‘This really did happen – I’m holding evidence,’” he recalled. “This has made history come alive, and we want to preserve that history. In school they just quickly touch on the various wars we’ve fought. I want to go beyond briefly touching on it.”
His buddy, Jason Weigler, is a fellow collector and he will be contributing to the display, along with Bob Coalter and 90th Div. historian Tyler Alberts. “We’re just like-minded collectors who get together and coordinate events like this,” he said.
“The main reason we wanted to bring Tyler in was because two of the original founders of the Ellis County Museum, Thompson and Cox, were both in the 90th Div. in WWI,” he said.
Morley and Weigler may be familiar to museum buffs as they did a World War II display at the museum in November.
At the opening, I will present a program, “More Guts Than A Slaughterhouse: My Grandfather’s Four Years in World War I,” based on the letters and journals of Black Jack Vowel.
As a rough-hewn trench-bound World War I soldier, my grandfather George Anderson “Black Jack” Vowel’s career was marked by bravery and foolishness. At times, it was hard to tell which would get the upper hand. He was only following in the footsteps of distant kin who’d gone before, including a great-great-uncle who had died for Texas at the Battle of Goliad, and uncles and second cousins who had fought in the Civil War.
Black Jack was horse ranching with only the most modest success when World War I broke out. He signed up in August of 1914; he was 23, ready for adventure. He would get it and then some.
He made an acquaintance via letter with a young Irish woman living in London, Louisa Watson, “Miss Bebe,” he addressed her, careful to season his notes with humor in the face of grim war. “It listens better if you grin when you read it,” he said.
She kept all his letters, using some excerpts in two pages devoted to Black Jack in her book, Mrs. Private Peat. They included this April 1915, description of the thick of the Second Battle of Ypres. The front was “just the place for the person that likes thrills,” he wrote. “The noise made by high explosive makes the hair stand and then along comes the flying steel and fragments slithering through the air making the most horrible sounds imaginable which makes a cold chill run up and down the spine and puts a sinking sensation in the pit of the stomach and the brain starts urging the feet to beat it and the feet refuse to act and the knees get wobbly … his nerve breaks and he goes bugs. I have seen several cases of it and it isn’t a pleasant sight to see.”
His journal accounts are a blur of details, some horrifying, some poignant. “Sandy Clarke was killed today. Shot through head by sniper. The Germans sent over ten thousand shells in an hour and a half. So damn homesick I can hardly do any work. Just waiting for next leave.
“The bullets were ripping the dirt up all around me for a bit, but none of them was marked Black Jack,” he wrote from Flanders Fields, New Years Day, 1916. Desperate to keep letters from Bebe coming in, he scribbled under fire.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Ellis County Museum is located at 201 S College St., Waxahachie, TX 75165. For additional information about the Ellis County Museum, contact director Shannon Simpson at (972) 937-0681.
J. Louise Larson is the managing editor of the Ennis Journal and a member of the Ellis County Museum Board of Directors. E-mail J. Louise at firstname.lastname@example.org.