WORTHINGTON, Minn. — A century-old letter written by a Nobles County, Minn., World War I veteran is in the hands of his granddaughter, thanks to a casual conversation among distant cousins at a family gathering.
Henry Slater penned a letter home to his Wilmont, Minn., family on June 15, 1918, from somewhere in France.
“Dear Bro & Sis & all — It is some time since I wrote and spose you think I’ve forgotten, but we’ve been pretty busy & things are not near so handy as we use to have them,” Slater began. “Have moved several times since we’re here & whenever we move we just put everything we have in a pack and start off. ... We are stationed in small towns and sleep in billets. Haven’t even any blankets, they were to be hauled here from the other town when we left, but haven’t come. Don’t think we’ll get any. When we want to sleep, just put on our overcoats and throw raincoats over us and flop in the straw.”
The 25-year-old son of farmers was drafted by the National Army on Feb. 26, 1918, and assigned to serve as a cook in Company C of the 131st Infantry. He spoke of meals eaten while sitting in the street — and “not any too big meals either,” he shared. “Things are not so plentiful as in the U.S. Everything is given out in rations here, even to the people living here. The scarcest thing here is good water.”
Slater said little cans of salmon could be purchased for 80 cents; small bananas for 10 cents.
“Candy or cookies can’t hardly be gotten for any price,” he wrote on paper with the letterhead, Knights of Columbus War Activities, that was provided to soldiers.
The letter was written on Day Four of a march that had soldiers carrying everything they owned to their next destination.
“We had to give away lots of little things we’d like to keep or send home, but nothing doing,” Slater penned.
He spoke of daily drills led by Scottish instructors experienced on the front lines, and seeing a lot of English soldiers in the area where he was located.
That the letter is now in the hands of Slater’s son, Jim, and granddaughter, Barb (Slater) Froiland, is a story in itself.
In the family
Henry Slater wrote the letter to his brother, Ben. Ben had saved it, taking it with him when he left Wilmont and settled in North Dakota. There, Ben and his wife raised a family of 12 children, with their son, Paul, and his wife, Sally, eventually moving onto the home place.
It wasn’t until after Paul and Sally each died that the letter was discovered in their belongings. The letter then became the possession of their daughter, Laurie (Slater) Trautwein.
In May 2019, Froiland and Trautwein met at a family celebration in Wilmont. When Froiland was told of the discovery of the letter — and that it was written by her grandfather — she asked if she could have a copy of it.
“She was kind enough to actually send me the original letter,” Froiland said.
To add to the story, Froiland turned to the Slater family’s genealogist — her cousin, Randy Slater — for more details about Grandpa Henry’s military service.
Jim Slater said his dad spoke very little of his time in World War I.
“In fact, I learned more out of the letter,” he said, adding that it was great to have another piece of his father’s history. “We didn’t know the letter existed.”
“The servicemen had a hard time getting a hold of paper,” shared Jim. “Back then, they just didn’t have paper like they have now. And if you’re carrying it all on your back, you’re not going to have any more than you need.”
Jim proudly displays his dad’s military portrait, American flag and panoramic photo of Camp Dodge, Iowa, on the wall of his apartment at Ecumen Meadows in Worthington, Minn.
The family also has a Nov. 11, 1953, copy of the Worthington Daily Globe in which Henry Slater is interviewed in a story on the 35th anniversary of the first Armistice Day. The story, which focuses on Slater and another Wilmont native, John Juenemann, notes 904 Nobles County men served in World War I.
Both Juenemann and Slater were in France on Armistice Day, 1918, and both had been “in the thick of it from the first battle at St. Mihiel to the battle at Argonne Forest,” the article states. “Slater’s outfit was entrenched just 40 or 50 feet away from the German lines. The Armistice became effective at 11 a.m., and a few minutes after 11, the Germans jumped out of their trenches, entered the American trenches and begged for food.
“There was some shouting, but that soon died down and the Germans were ordered to return to their trenches. This was the first Armistice Day as Slater remembered it.”
Jim said when his dad did talk about the war, it was about the Armistice and how it was planned to take place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
“He felt bad for all of the young boys that were killed in action that morning before the war ended,” Jim shared.
While the war was officially over at 11 a.m. Nov. 11th, 1918, it wasn’t until May 14, 1919, that Henry Slater boarded a ship for his return to the United States and his family’s farm near Wilmont.
“Dad bought the farm from my grandpa, and I bought the farm from Dad,” said Jim.
Henry married Lena Balster, who grew up neighbors to the Slater family, and the couple had five children before Lena’s death in 1933. Jim was just 4 years old at the time. His dad later married Genevieve Arends, and two children were born to that union.
Jim said that Henry Slater became a leader of his community, serving on township, church and elevator boards during his lifetime.