A century ago - in the spring of 1916 - the war in Europe seemed of little consequence to most East Texans. Smith County's 46,000 residents were mostly focused on farming, the region's biggest industry, and on railroads, the second largest. Most lived like their own grandfathers; they relied on horses and mules for farming and for transportation and few homes were electrified.
Yet within two years, as many as 2,000 Smith County men would be serving in the U.S. military, with many in the trenches and on the battlefields of France and Germany. Some, like Dr. Joseph Favre Baldwin, would fall in battle, thousands of miles from home.
The Smith County Historical Society is launching a project to gather information, images and artifacts from the Great War in time for the centennial of America's entry into World War I in April 2017. The goal is to document all Smith County residents who fought in that war, what their roles were and where they are buried. The Society is looking for photos, letters, diaries and any memorabilia associated with the war.
"As a presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson won Smith County by a large margin," says Randy Gilbert, who is leading the project for the Historical Society. "He ran on the platform of keeping us out of the war. People around here wondered why we would even get involved in a European war."
Garden Valley was, at the time, something of a hotbed of socialism - the Eugene Debs variety, Gilbert explains. Most of the farmers in the region were staunchly against entering the war.
But with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915 with the death of 128 Americans and unrestricted U-boat warfare in the Atlantic, opinions began to change. The Wilson Administration began a preparedness movement, which called on young men to join the Armed Forces.
By the time the U.S. declared war on April 6, 1917, many Americans were ready to fight. About half of the 2,000 or so Smith County residents who entered military service in the next two years enlisted voluntarily.
JOSEPH FAVRE BALDWIN
Dr. A.P. Baldwin was an early civic leader in Tyler, and his son was eager to follow in his footsteps. Joseph Favre Baldwin was born Aug. 3, 1892, in Tyler, and grew up attending Tyler public schools. The family home was on the corner of West Ferguson and North Bonner in Tyler, across from where Tyler City Hall sits today.
Upon graduation, he attended the Virginia Military Academy and then Tulane Medical School, winning an internship in New Orleans. He graduated in 1915, and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
"He was sent over early," Gilbert explains. "Dr. Baldwin was loaned to the British as a field surgeon to help in their war effort."
On Aug. 7, 1918, four days after his 26th birthday, Baldwin was killed by an artillery shell near the front lines, as he attended to the wounded.
His father wrote to the Tyler Paper soon after his son's death was announced.
"He was a young man of splendid character and lovable disposition," the letter read. "We as parents have made a great sacrifice. We have given up one of our beloved sons. Only the Great General on High knows why."
It's letters like Dr. A.P. Baldwin's that the Smith County Historical Society hopes to collect in the coming months.
"We're still in living memory of World War I veterans," Gilbert said. "You have some of their children still alive, some of their grandchildren. I'm 65, and I knew some of them. My father's oldest sister married a World War I veteran, and they lived on the farm where my father grew up."
Many of those veterans would come back changed, and they would go on to change Smith County.
"These are people who lived like their ancestors always had," Gilbert said. "But now they had been in Europe and seen European civilization up close. I'm sure they went through Paris. And to come back to Tyler, Texas, or Canton or any small country town, that had a big impact on their outlook on life."
In 1917, Smith County was pre-industrial, rural, and agrarian - just as America was as a whole.
"But the transition that came about in order to fight that war was incredible," Gilbert said. "In 1916, we were a country cousin to Great Britain. By 1919, we had emerged as a world power. America's presence won that war."
The men who returned became leaders of industry and commerce and in the community.
"A.S. Genecov was a World War I veteran," Gilbert said, referring to an early real estate developer whose name is still prominent in Tyler. "He was granted his citizenship as a reward for his service, I believe."
Many other prominent names are on the rolls of World War I veterans, including oil and gas entrepreneurs and political figures.
"Many of the early movers and shakers in this community were World War I veterans," Gilbert said. "They had a big hand in the industrialization of this region."
The Historical Society wants to learn as much as it can about each veteran - including those who came to Tyler only after the war.
The information and items will be preserved and recorded, and many items will go into a special exhibit at the Smith County Historical Society Museum.
There's one more event Gilbert would like to see take place.
John Franklin "Doc" Witt, a musician who founded the Tyler Municipal Band, the Tyler High School band and the Tyler Junior College band in his time, lived on West Bow Street, in a house that's still standing.
"At 4 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, he went out on his porch with his trumpet," Gilbert said. "That was 11 a.m., European time. And to mark the start of the Armistice, he stood out there and played the ‘Star Spangled Banner' and other patriotic tunes, until the whole neighborhood was awakened."
Gilbert won't commit to having the solo performance re-enacted quite so early in the morning.
"Maybe we'll wait until 11 a.m. our time," he said. "But we'll do it."
TO HELP, CONTACT
Smith County Historical Society
125 South College Ave.