Welcome to ‘Dreamsville, USA’
The exploits of The Salvation Army’s World War I donut girls are well-known, but you may have missed the story about some lesser-known Salvationists who fed the troops in Ohio during World War II.
The outbreak of that war necessitated the largest rail transport of troops in U.S. history. Most troop trains carried 600-800 soldiers, leaving no room for a food car.
Many of the troops were young, poor, away from their Depression-era homes for the first time, and anxious about the future. The accommodations were also far from ideal—no air-conditioning, cramped, and with no food or water.
The train, traveling along the Pennsylvania Railroad, would stop in rural Dennison, Ohio, and a canteen operated by Salvation Army volunteers was there to greet the soldiers.
Sallys to the rescue
“When a train made a 5-minute water stop, volunteers from The Salvation Army would immediately go into action and pass out free food,” said Wendy Zucal, executive director of the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum. “They also did things like pass out magazines, pass out letters, and cheer up the soldiers. It became a really big thing. Other railroads across Ohio and the country copied this.”
In fact, Ohio had the largest number of canteen sites in the country with 12, but all of them have disappeared with the passage of time. The Dennison Railroad Depot Museum, a National Historic Landmark since 2011, features photos of the canteen workers and several displays and artifacts from The Salvation Army’s work.
“Dennison initially thought they could handle everything, but it got so big with so many soldiers stopping, they went to The Salvation Army and asked them to manage it,” Zucal said. “The Salvation Army came in and was the managing partner of the canteen.”
Since no train schedule was printed, the Salvationists had to be ready at all times.
“They manned the canteen 24/7,” Zucal said. “They were ready to meet any train that stopped. We can tell you how many candy bars, how many lollipops, how many cups of coffee they gave out. We can’t tell you a single soldier’s name because they didn’t have time to collect them.”
Answering the call
The Salvation Army Servicemen’s Canteen, as it was called at the time, served 1.3 million soldiers or 13 percent of all military personnel in World War II, Zucal said.
The entire effort was started by Lucille Nussdorfer, according to a 2011 documentary called Saving a National Landmark: The Dennison Railroad Depot.
On New Year’s Eve 1941, Nussdorfer stood on the railroad platform in Dennison and saw the lonely soldiers coming through her small town. She was inspired to do something to help. She began an effort to feed the soldiers out of a nearby abandoned gas station.
“We handled it all until the war broke,” she says in the documentary. “I knew from the number of soldiers we were serving, that when the war broke … we had to have somebody who could get it in line like The Salvation Army.”
Nussdorfer was eventually able to get room inside the depot for preparations. Troop trains began arriving in Dennison every 6 minutes throughout 1942 and 1943. About 200 troop trains a day operated throughout the United States.
“The canteens became a very important part of the homefront effort to boost morale and to get the community engaged in the war and to feed the soldiers,” Zucal said.
They remember the hands
Barb Maurer, one of the canteen volunteers, told the documentary audience that the trains were non-stop.
“I got to witness one train right after another,” she said. “This organization was very well-organized.”
Volunteer Anna Rufenact said the soldiers getting off the trains would quickly get in line and receive a bagged sandwich—and sometimes a cookie or donut if they were lucky. Volunteers remember many of the soldiers came off the trains with outstretched hands, grateful for anything they could get.
One soldier carried his sandwich bag throughout his deployment overseas and actually brought it back to the depot, Zucal said. It’s among the artifacts on display at the museum.
The canteen operated from March 19, 1942 to April 8, 1946 under the direction of The Salvation Army and depended on 4,000 volunteers from an eight-county area.
Lucille Matchett Hanacrat, who helped organize volunteers, said there was never a scarcity of food products or money to buy more.
“Everybody went out of their way to do what they needed to do to get the job done,” she says in the documentary.
A community pitches in
Volunteer Edna Cottrell said the area’s poor farmers sometimes couldn’t give money to the effort, but they would donate bushels of apples instead and that was just as good.
“I don’t know that anybody ever refused anything that we ever asked for,” Rufenact said. “A little bit from a lot of people really made a big difference.”
Jeff Brown, a railroad historian and researcher, said Dennison was the third-largest canteen in the country and is the best surviving example. Only canteens in Omaha, Neb., and New York City were larger, but they’re both gone.
“It didn’t matter what time of the day or night the train came through, there were people here to give a little bit of relief to the troops, give them a little touch of home, make them a little more aware of how their efforts were appreciated and the sacrifices they were making,” Brown said.
Witness the history
Dennison, which is on a direct route from St. Louis to New York, was a major route for supplies and soldiers. For good reason, Dennison got the nickname “Dreamsville, USA” and troops shared stories about the tiny Ohio village in both Europe and the Pacific.
“It was like a dream-come-true for the soldiers that people would care about them,” Zucal said. “In the midst of being sick, homesick, and going to war, they would stop in a little town that reminded them of their hometown and people would pass out food.”
Today, the beautifully restored 1873 Pennsylvania Railroad Depot, which reopened in 1989, is definitely worth a day’s visit, Zucal said. There is even coffee and cookies in the lobby, a nod to the building’s hospitable past.
Visitors can see a museum, restaurant, theater, gift shop, research library, and a model train exhibit of Dennison back in the day.
“When people come here, they walk in the footsteps of American heroes, the soldiers who served on the battlefield, and the canteen volunteers from The Salvation Army on the home front,” Zucal said.
“This was a war where the home front really kicked in. It’s a great story. It’s the American story. It’s Americana. It’s the Greatest Generation. We’re kind of like a little time warp.”
by Robert Mitchell
Watch the 27-minute documentary Saving a National Landmark: The Dennison Railroad Depot.
The Dennison Railroad Depot Museum is located at 400 Center St. in Dennison, Ohio.