World War I service medal

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Before the war

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An exhibit by the
Oregon State Archives

Oregon at War! American soldiers marching through gas shelled French town.
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On the Home Front
Protecting the homeland

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While the government encouraged women to help with home defense, Jefferson County was guarded by men. (Portion of poster at Oregon State Archives, original at National Archives)

While the government encouraged women to help with home defense, Jefferson County was guarded by men. (Portion of poster at Oregon State Archives, original at National Archives)

A gathering of men
About 60 men gathered at the Athletic Hall in Madras one late summer day in 1917. They had heard and read about German atrocities and about the enemies lurking in the shadows of American society. They had seen many of their friends and relatives enlist or be drafted in the military in the months since the United States had declared war on Germany and its allies. With so many young men leaving Madras and other Oregon communities, many citizens felt vulnerable to "sabotage" or other illegal activity.

Some of the remaining men intended to enlist in the weeks or months ahead and wanted to get a jump on training. Others were unable to serve in the military because of a range of obligations or limitations, but they nonetheless wanted to do their part for the cause.

The volunteer organization resolved to call itself the Jefferson County Home Guard and it went on to define its two primary purposes:

delta To train in military tactics in order to be prepared for later military service.

delta To provide an organized body of men under definite leadership to assist local or state officials in any emergency that could arise as an outgrowth of war.

All of the members signed an agreement to subject themselves to the call of the Oregon governor or the Jefferson County sheriff for service in any part of the state. They then elected a captain, first lieutenant, and second lieutenant to serve as the command structure for the organization.

The guard protected grain warehouses from "the danger of disloyal prowlers." (Image courtesy Johnstone Centre of Parks, Recreation, and Heritage)

The guard protected grain warehouses from "the danger of disloyal prowlers." (Image courtesy Johnstone Centre of Parks, Recreation, and Heritage)

 

 

 

Outfitting, drilling, and duty
With the call up of the Oregon National Guard to federal service, authorities saw insufficient troops to guard bridges, warehouses, grain elevators and other valuable community assets. According to the U.S. War Department secretary, "It is up to the states to furnish their own protection." Because of this, the state and county governments saw the value of the home guard and encouraged the organization. The state Adjutant General's Office furnished Model '84 Springfield type rifles in the fall of 1917. And the next summer the Jefferson County Court supplied the home guard with uniforms.

The captain organized weekly drills focused on honing basic military skills. Over time, its members gained proficiency in such duties as marching in formation, handling weapons, and elementary tactics. By June 1918 a platoon of the home guards was formed in Opal City and weekly drills began there. Some members of the organization were sworn in as deputy sheriffs. As home guard efforts elsewhere in Oregon developed, the Jefferson County Home Guard became part of the larger statewide Oregon Volunteer Guard in June 1918.

The Jefferson County sheriff asked the home guards for help in August 1918. At his request, the organization placed a night guard on four grain warehouses in Jefferson County. The sheriff apparently was concerned with "the danger of disloyal prowlers." The men rotated duty and guarded the warehouses until the signing of the Armistice ending hostilities with Germany in November.

 


Grass Valley does its bit

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The small community of Grass Valley, set in the rolling wheat fields of Sherman County, also organized a home guard. Men and boys from the age of seventeen to seventy drilled twice a week. According to a report, "their duty was to look out for German spies and I.W.W.s [labor union operatives] who were liable to set homes or wheat fields afire, or commit other atrocities." (Oregon State Defense Council Records, State Historian's Correspondence, Box 1, Folder 38)

The end of the home guards
With the Armistice signed and with the relentless march of the Spanish Flu in Oregon, the home guards active service ended. Because public gatherings risked spreading influenza, the weekly drills were discontinued.

The organization remained popular throughout its existence in Jefferson County. By the end of the war, its ranks had swelled to 161 men. This represented a significant portion of the adult men in the county. Moreover, numerous members resigned from the home guard over the months to enlist in the military where many saw service overseas. For example, its founding captain, Walter M. Eaton, enlisted in the Ordnance Department of the Army in May 1918. He died later in the year while still in the military. His legacy included the organization of the Jefferson County Home Guard, which played a role in keeping the homeland safe during World War I.

(Oregon State Defense Council Records, State Historian's Correspondence, Box 1, Folder 23; Publications and Ephemera, Box 9, Folder 3)

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