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World War I exhibit opens: Display honors 24 Nobles County war dead

WORTHINGTON -- With the 100th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in World War I just weeks away, the Nobles County Historical Society has announced a new exhibit on the war.

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The focal point of the World War I exhibit at the Nobles County Historical Society showcases the 24 men from Nobles County who died in the war. (Julie Buntjer / Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON - With the 100th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in World War I just weeks away, the Nobles County Historical Society has announced a new exhibit on the war.

The display, located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building in downtown Worthington, honors the 24 Nobles County men who died in the war. NCHS staff members Roger Zarn and Mary Von Holtum created the display with assistance from Nobles County Art Center Director Tricia Mikle.

The focal point of the exhibit is the 24 men who didn’t return home. Zarn said most of them were either killed in battle or died as a result of influenza.

“The flu was a big deal - they didn’t really know how to deal with it,” he added. “They died during the conflict nonetheless.”

The museum has photos of all but three of the war dead, along with information about each man. The exhibit is rounded out with numerous items from the war.

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“We have quite a few artifacts that were donated by individuals in the county,” Zarn shared, noting that many items in the collection are from Frank Peterburs, a Lismore native who served as a lieutenant in the infantry. Peterburs donated his Army-issued uniform to the museum, as well as numerous smaller items, including Keebler crackers still in their cardboard box.

A gas mask donated by Private Perry Vorhees of Brewster is also in the exhibit. Vorhees served in the 51st Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Division, 5th Regiment of the U.S. Marine Corps, from April 11, 1918 to the signing of the Armistice on Nov. 11 of that year. Vorhees saw action in the battles of Meuse, Argonne Forest, St. Mihiel and Champagne.

“World War I was the first instance of using chemical weapons - weapons of mass destruction,” noted Zarn. “They figured out how to put tear gas in a hand grenade.”

Phosgene gas, a chemical irritant, was added to shells, and mustard gas was used as well. The mustard gas exposure caused blisters on skin; it created blisters inside the lungs if it was inhaled.

Other items in the exhibit include a shaving kit, mess kit and first aid kit, as well as a German grenade issued to light mortar units.

In all, 690 Nobles County men served in the Army during World War I, with another 61 men in the U.S. Navy. While some of the troops served stateside, a majority were sent into battles in France.

World War I had been underway for more than two and a half years between allied forces and the Central Powers of Germany before a Worthington citizen’s caucus met on April 2, 1917, signing a unanimous resolution to support U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in the defense of American rights.

Little more than a week later, an Army recruiting office opened in Worthington, ready to enlist men for battle. More than 1,600 Nobles County men registered for the draft on June 5, 1917.

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Henry Riss was the first Nobles County volunteer to leave for training. He was sent to Jefferson Barracks a full three months before the new recruits comprising Company F of the Second Minnesota Infantry were called into service and camped at the Chautauqua grounds along the shore of Lake Okabena during the summer of 1917.

On Sept. 27, large crowds gathered in Worthington for a farewell to the troops in Company F of the 136th Infantry. They were headed to Camp Cody, N.M., for training before being sent on to France.

Nobles County’s involvement in World War I stretched from April 6, 1917 to Nov. 11, 1918, the day the Armistice was signed and the war ended.

“There were some significant battles in France that our guys served in,” Zarn said. “They not only served in one battle, but maybe two or three battles.”

The World War I exhibit may be viewed between noon and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Nobles County Historical Society, 407 12th St., Worthington. The exhibit will remain in place, possibly through the end of the year.

Anyone with World War I artifacts they are willing to donate to the historical society is welcome to stop in. Zarn said the organization has plenty of uniforms and helmets, but is interested in other items related to the war.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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