From Lexington to Louisville to the greater commonwealth, Kentuckians united to answer the call of their local and federal governments to support the war effort. The war was a boon to the state economy. Further, throughout the war’s later years, particularly after the United States joined the war in April 1917, Kentuckians made significant contributions.
During World War 1 and for many years after, Kentucky remained largely an agrarian state. Thus, food production became a central focus and state-wide organization was quickly developed to assist with farm labor needs, seed distribution, and crop advisement. As volunteers joined the military and more men were drafted into service, there was much need for farm labor especially during the harvests.
College and university students were encouraged to work on farms during their summers. Teachers, businessmen, sales clerks, police, firemen, ministers, barbers, and more all answered the call. The US Department of Labor created the Boys Working Reserve which placed male volunteers, 16-20 years old, in a variety of industrial jobs but mostly put them to work on farms. Nicholls, the state farm labor specialist, took advantagement of the opportunity for more volunteer farm labor from the Boys Working Reserve. Additionally, Nicholls and Cooper urged local authorities throughout the state to enforce new vagrancy laws to force “slackers” to work on farms. This was in support of the “work or fight” mentality. In other words, if a man was not fighting in the war, then he’s expected to be engaged in what was deemed “essential work.”
UK Professor W.D. Nicholls, Farm Management Department, worked with extension agents and local and state authorities, to set forth a plan that called for men and boys throughout the state to volunteer their time working on farms. College and university students were encouraged to work on farms during their summers. Teachers, businessmen, sales clerks, police, firemen, ministers, barbers, and more all answered the call. The US Department of Labor created the Boys Working Reserve which placed male volunteers, 16-20 years old, in a variety of industrial jobs but mostly put them to work on farms. Nicholls, the state farm labor specialist, took advantagement of the opportunity for more volunteer farm labor from the Boys Working Reserve. Additionally, Nicholls urged local authorities throughout the state to enforce new vagrancy laws to force “slackers” to work on farms. This was in support of the “work or fight” mentality. In other words, if a man was not fighting in the war, then he’s expected to be engaged in what was deemed “essential work.”
All industries in Kentucky benefited from the war and experienced remarkable growth and quickly rising value before the bubble burst in the post-war era and the stock market crash of 1929. Kentucky’s coal, tobacco, hemp, railroad, oil, lumber, and horse industries were booming. For instance, even before the war, roughly 30,000 horses (and even a higher number of mules) from Kentucky were sent to Europe. After the US entered the war, however, the federal government asked for a quarter million more horses from the states anticipating that more than 2 million total would be needed for the war effort. Horses were needed on the homefront as well. With such a high demand that taxed the breeding industry, the government began increasing car and truck production.
Due to the combined legislation of the 18th amendment prohibiting the sale and distribution of alcohol and Lever Food and Fuel Act that banned the use of food products from being used to produce alcohol, most Kentucky distillers shut down. Alcohol was the one industry in the state that did not benefit from the war. However, eight distilleries remained in operation pivoting to producing industrial alcohol for military purposes.
Contributing to the war effort was not the sole purview of men. Women, too, were an integral and essential part of those contributions. Even before the US officially entered the war, women joined in war-related activities and work. Headquartered in New York in 1917, the National League for Women’s Service (NLWS) provided training for women in wartime skills to fill gaps left by men who served in the military. The NLWS created divisions such as health, agriculture, industrial, motor driving, and signaling. The Kentucky NLWS established chapters in many communities including Lexington and Louisville. In Lexington, for instance, an NLWS group of UK students and women in town, engaged in military drills and first-aid activities under Commander Royden(?) and attended classes in gardening, canning, motor driving, wireless telegraphy, and relief support taught by UK faculty. Women throughout the state participated in seed distribution for gardening, sewing clothing and dressings for first-aid, food conservation, and campaigning for the Liberty Loan (war bonds). The nation was also experiencing a nursing shortage. At the national level the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense (WCCND) worked to form the US Student Nurse Reserve calling for 25,000 women to join. Kentucky was asked to contribute 750 recruits to the effort. Women worked in countless ways to support the war from filling jobs that previously were done by men to food conservation and nursing. Women from every demographic and location in the state answered the nation’s call. There were few reports of “slackers” among the Kentucky women.
Despite the fact that Blacks in Kentucky and throughout the South continued to be denied their basic civil rights, segregated, targets of racial violence, and lynched more than fifty years after the Civil War, thousands expressed their loyalty and patriotism by rallying to the cause when the US entered the war. Influential leaders in the Black community such as Louisville’s Roscoe Conkling Simmons, journalist, orator, and Republican, was among some of the early supporters. Simmons encouraged Black men to serve their country believing that in time their loyalty would pave the way to social justice. Simmons called for legislation that would create troops of Black volunteers. Eventually Black men did get an opportunity to serve in the military, but more often than not in very limited ways. In the spring of 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act which required all men from ages 21 to 30 to register for military service. Black draftees were assigned to all-black regiments. Most of these men served in labor battalions (e.g., cleaning army camps, railroad construction) and represented a disporportionate number of draftees. By the summer of 1918, more than 3,000 Black Kentuckians were drafted and transported to Camp Taylor just outside of Louisville. A separate training camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa was created for Black officers.
For Camp Taylor, the War Department created new units for the Black trainees, the 801st, 814th (“Black Devils”), and 64th Pioneer Infantry Regiments. These units included 3,000 men and 100 officers. Eventually some Black soldiers from these units did get a chance to fight, even earning the French Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire. There were a number of men who also got a chance to serve in the famous 369th Regiment known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” which was one of the Black regiments to serve under French command. Andrew Carman, a Black soldier from western Kentucky who served with the 369th Regiment remarked at how well the French treated him and the lack of prejudice and segregation. It would take another fifty years for Black Americans to gain full citizenship and greater equality in a nation that they served and fought to protect.