To write an epic novel, typical themes included are adventure, self-sacrifice, heroism and even a bit of romance. This tale includes them all and even has enough home cooking to keep foodies happy. The best part of all? The story is true.
The adventures happened on accident. Just after the U.S. involvement began in World War II, word came that “their boys” would be traveling through. Right before Christmas 1941, several women met the train with presents for their loved ones. When strangers were on board, they could not send them away empty handed. Profusely thanked, one woman began wondering what would happen if volunteers would begin meeting the troop trains with dinner and a smile. Thus the completely volunteer North Platte Canteen program began.
This 51 month/24 hour a day central Nebraska area adventure is well documented at the Lincoln County Historical Museum. As I have always appreciated the story, I really wanted to see their displays in person. Arriving RIGHT before closing time, I was not sure I was going to be able to sneak in a visit. On our return trip from Nebraska’s Panhandle, I had actually left my husband and kids at a nearby location, so that I could quickly document the stay. My path through this exhibit was rushed, but I am grateful to the staff at the Lincoln County Historical Museum staff for letting me go through this section of their museum.
Seeing the pictures and memorabilia helped me to realize just what a huge undertaking being available with meals for an undetermined amount of soldiers really was. Due to war rationing, the local women had to be creative in what they served. Due to sugar shortages, families would do without their own birthday cakes, so that every “birthday boy” passing through could leave with a cake in tow. Over the course of the four+ years, volunteers numbering 55,000 from 125 vicinity towns helped to make the Canteen possible.
This chart take from the Lincoln County Online Canteen Exhibit illustrates the distribution numbers when they attempted to tally what was passed out over the course of one month’s time.
- 40,161 cookies
30,679 hard boiled eggs
6,939 cup, loaf, and birthday cakes
2,845 pounds of sandwich meat
12 dozen different items in similar proportions
So far we have the adventure, heroism and self-sacrifice. As for the romance? Think “popcorn ball.” Kind of an unusual start to a lifelong love story, isn’t it?
You can read all of the details of this unexpected connection in the narrative, Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen written by Bob Greene. This short collection of stories gives you a glimpse behind the scenes of what helped to make this innovative, patriotic plan of serving soldiers happen without any government assistance. This touching tale is one that I highly recommend. (Note: while you could share experts with your children, the audience is really adults). Want to learn more about the Canteen right away? Please visit the Lincoln County Musuem “North Platte Canteen” online exhibit. In addition to my personal visit to the museum, these are the sources that I used in writing this article.