One of the best kept secrets In M&M history is that Marinette nearly became the home for an immense Army base. The city was so confident that it had convinced the War Department to locate the base here that it was making plans to celebrate the news.
The recent political rumpus over proposed military base closings in the United States in an effort to cut spending left me visioning what life would be like had Marinette been selected In 1917 when the Army was on the march to establish more bases. World War I was in progress, the military draft summoned young men for active duty and the Army needed bases for processing and training.
The notion that Marinette become home for a large military installation came from John Moore, secretary of the Marinette Civic & Industrial Association. He made his pitch through congressman David G. Classon, R-Oconto, who represented Wisconsin’s old 9th district and Adjutant Gen. Holway of the Wisconsin National Guard, Frank E. Noyes, publisher of the Marinette Eagle-Star, also was a key figure in the drive.
Two sites are submitted in the original proposal although more sites are inspected once the army became involved. The number one site was a massive stretch of property from Pine Beach to Peshtigo Harbor. The spread included prime bay shore property. Another top-quality site was located in the town of Porterfield, about four miles from the city limits.
The army needed about 2,000 acres of land to accommodate 28,000 men and 12,000 animals. Remember, Army troops weren’t driving Humvees in 1917. Teams of horses were often used to perform burdensome work. Barracks for men, mess halls, medical facilities, stables for horses and an assortment of other buildings would have to be erected. Other sites that drew the Army’s interest were between Wausaukee and Athelstane; the Miscauno island area in northern Marinette County, and Stiles in Oconto County. Janesville was one of the eight other Wisconsin cities pushing for the military station. The army needed 6 million feet of lumber to build those structures to house the troops because the prices of canvas was too high to put them in tents. The army planned 2,000 buildings for each of the 32 cantonments it was planning to establish nationwide for the war buildup.
Moore, Mayor Jacob Wittig, Frank Jay Lauerman, Fire Chief Joshua Hodgkins, Dr. T. J. Redelings and Dr. E. E. Axtel represented Marinette in the negotiations with Army brass. Menominee city officials, realizing the economic impact of a military station in the neighborhood, threw their political support behind the Marinette crusade. Menominee offered to contribute between $15,000 and $20,000, a healthy donation of tax money 88 years ago, to help with site development.
Hotel Marinette was the hub for meetings when army brass came to town. Lt. Col. F.N. Jones, using Western Union telegrams as his main source of communication, advised Marinette officials that the army was seeking a one-year lease with a renewable clause of five years. Other army criteria: adequate water supply, sandy loam soil and good drainage, healthful surroundings, natural bathing facilities, the nearest city with attractive recreation, large space for artillery practice, retail markets and local “control of social evil and liquor traffic.”
Lt. Col. Jones and his staff of four others arrived in Marinette by train at 5:15 in the morning. They were met by Marinette and Menominee dignitaries, treated to a big breakfast at Hotel Marinette, and then departed on their inspection tours of potential sites. The first site was along Green Bay, from Pine Beach and Oakwood areas south along the shoreline. They added a second site after their arrival. It included a stretch along the Menominee River from the old Park Papermill (Kimberly Clark) and extend along Highway 180. Like any gracious host, seeking to impress their guests, M&M officials wined and dined the military visitors.
Jones let it be known that his inspection team was organized for a purpose of “recommending to the War Department as a suitable cantonment of about 30,000 Wisconsin and Michigan troops. They can’t say which we recommend in either state is likely to be selected by the war department, although our authority is only to recommend and not to actually select a site.”
Wisconsin and Michigan railroad owners of Miscauno Island made a strong appeal for its property to be chosen for the military base, a maneuver that angered Marinette authorities. Marinette, however, remained confident until the end that it would become the mailing address on an army base.
The surprise finally ended in early June when the War Department announced that Battle Creek, Mich., had become selected. The base became known as “Fort Custer,” a military station that has served millions in Wisconsin and Michigan soldiers from World War I until now. The base was named in honor of General George Armstrong Custer, a native of Michigan who is a famous civil war cavalry officer. Fort Custer National Cemetery is now a part of the sprawling complex.
Marinette was bitterly disappointed with the War Department’s decision, pointing fingers at the Wisconsin and Michigan Railroad and Stiles, Wis., officials for shattering its chances. Local residents, especially those with attractive homes along the bay and expanding westward; Little River Golf Club (founded in 1928), Bay Area Medical Center and UW-Marinette, can only imagine what might’ve been had the area been selected for an army base in 1917.
We may not have artillery shells bursting around us, and thousands of soldiers coming and going, but the fall of having a mighty army base spun out across prime properties intriguing. It’s a local history lesson that should provide enough rounds of ammunition for healthy discussion at area coffee emporium’s for months.