Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.
By the 1910s, Blair County was a thriving and often sooty region marked by the forces of industrialization and the domineering Pennsylvania Railroad. Like other American communities, the growing war in Europe would unleash untold devastation upon the numerous towns of this region of the Keystone State.
Thousands of Blair County residents served in various capacities of the World War I. Known for its incredible, systematic carnage, the conflict was commonly referred to as “the war to end all wars.” Accordingly, the people of central Pennsylvania struggled to cope with the war’s grim consequences and meanings.
A new exhibit at the Baker Mansion History Museum in Altoona explores the global confrontation through the eyes of locals who experienced it firsthand. The new museum displays feature a recreation of a battlefield trench wall and historical treasures from the Blair County Historical Society’s vast collections.
A special component of the display is a replica of a WWI trench where visitors can feel the weight of helmets, peer through a trench periscope and view vintage battlefield photos in 3-D. A portion of the classic “All Quiet on the Western Front” plays in the background to allow for further visualize of chaotic WWI combat.
Among the artifacts are the uniform, equipment and personal belongings of Dr. Harold “Fred” Moffitt, a 1910 graduate of Altoona High School and a 1913 alumnus of Penn State. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1917 — shortly after America entered WWI.
Serving as a physician for an Army evacuation hospital in France beginning in September 1917, he witnessed the horrors of the battlefield on a deeply personal level — including at the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in 1918 — an expedition that claimed more than 26,000 American lives. During World War II, he served on the Blair County selective service draft board from 1940-47. Continuing his medical practice, he became a successful gynecologist and conducted cancer research. A member of the Blair County Historical Society and a neighbor of Baker Mansion, he donated his entire WWI collection to the site prior to his death in 1982.
Also featured in the display is the gas mask bag and helmet of Elwood Clouse from Roaring Spring. Clouse enlisted in the Army on Sept. 18, 1917, and joined Company C of the 305th Engineers of the 80th Division, placing the unit’s distinctive insignia on his helmet and gas mask bag. The emblem was adopted in 1918 and consists of three mountain peaks representing the Blue Ridge Mountains in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. His handiwork is typical of various forms of “trench art,” including decorated artillery shells that are also highlighted in the exhibit.
Clouse served in the three major campaigns of the war Americans participated in — the Somme, St. Mihiel and the Muese-Argonne offensives. He was honorably discharged June 11, 1919, and married local Martha Loose two years later. Until 1960, he worked as a postal examiner at the Altoona Post Office. He was very active in local organizations and served as curator for the Blair County Historical Society for twelve years. He passed away Aug. 20, 1990, at the age of 95.
After the conflict, Pennsylvanians sought to cope with the carnage of war but also commemorate the loss that communities experienced. On May 30, 1921, the Tyrone Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad dedicated a memorial stone at the railroad depot on South Pennsylvania Avenue to honor its Tyrone servicemen who had served in WWI. Charles H. Cassidy, of Tyrone, posed for the statue, known to many as the “doughboy.” The statue was eventually placed on a new pedestal but was damaged by vandals in 2007. Fortunately, locals rallied and repaired the monument within months. This statue is a prime example of how towns large and small commemorated the “Great War.”
These and many other war relics belonging to local servicemen, including a gas mask, folding barber chair, postcards detailing war experiences, and artifacts once belonging to German soldiers will be on display until the end of the WWI centennial in 2018. Visit www.blairhistory.org to learn more.
Jared Frederick is an instructor of history at Penn State Altoona.