The Home Front
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The North Platte Canteen

Birthday Cake at the Canteen
Lyda Swenson of North Platte presents Army PFC Clifton Hill of San Luis Obispo, California, a cake in 1942, as Sutherland, Nebraska, women look on.
Courtesy Union Pacific Railroad Archives, ca02014



One day after the Kansas troop train incident, a young, 26-year-old woman, Rae Wilson, wrote to the North Platte Bulletin (now North Platte Telegraph) and proposed running a canteen for soldiers travelling through North Platte.


Newspaper headline: Canteen Here Is Suggested For Soldiers
Rae Wilson’s letter to the North Platte Bulletin, December 18, 1941
.
Courtesy North Platte Bulletin
"During World War I the army and navy mothers, or should I say the war mothers, had canteens at our own depot. Why can’t we? . . . I say get back of our sons and other mothers’ sons 100%. Let’s do something and do it in a hurry! We can help this way when we can’t help any other way."
    — Rae Wilson
Women with baskets at Canteen
Among young North Platte women who worked as platform girls after school and on weekends were (from left) Bonnie Paul, Dorothy Loncar, and Margaret McEvoy.
Courtesy Union Pacific Railroad Archives, ca02015

She contacted friends, businessmen and civic leaders regarding her idea. At a meeting on December 22, 1941, a canteen committee was organized with Wilson as chairman. The canteen oficially started December 25, 1941, as young women met soldiers traveling through North Platte that Christmas Day and presented them with snacks and small gifts.

The steam locomotive largely contributed to the existence of the North Platte Canteen. In the years before Union Pacific switched to using diesel-electric motive power, North Platte was a designated servicing point for the steamers hauling the company’s fleet of crack passenger trains. A North Platte service stop generally took about ten minutes as UP employees scurried to re-lubricate the locomotive’s large driving wheels and refill its water tender. It was this time consuming task that permitted those servicemen or women riding the trains to detrain and visit the canteen. (If personnel were not allowed to detrain, volunteers sent gift baskets aboard by having them passed through the windows and down the car aisles.)

1943 Canteen officers and ham sandwiches
Some of the 1943 North Platte Canteen officers display ham sandwiches prepared for those in uniform.
Courtesy Union Pacific Railroad Archives, npcanteen_up11

During the initial days of World War II, when troop movements were considered a military secret, word about the pending arrival of troop trains in North Platte was reportedly given by UP special agents only to head canteen officials. They in turn would alert other volunteers to come to the depot by calling and saying, "I have the coffee on."

By the time the war reached its peak, each day 3,000 to 5,000 service personnel were provided with food, magazines, and entertainment during their brief stops at the canteen. The canteen was operated entirely by volunteers from some 125 communities in and around the state. Funds were raised from every conceivable source: scrap drives, dances, concerts, movie benefits, and cash donations.

John Eugene Slattery would literally sell the shirt off his back at livestock and public auctions to raise money for the canteen.
From the 1991 NET Television program All Hell Can’t Stop Us

Even decades later, service men and women who had travelled through North Platte remembered and appreciated the efforts of this plains community.

excerpt from G.I. letter, remembering North Platte Canteen

Canteen workers originally had to prepare food items in the nearby Cody Hotel and store their treats in a maintenance shed near the depot. Wilson then personally approached Union Pacific President William M. Jeffers (who was a native of North Platte) for permission to use the vacant station lunchroom for a canteen center, which Jeffers promptly OK’d. The workers moved into the lunchroom shortly before January 1, 1942.

The North Platte Canteen finally closed in April 1946. With the demise of passenger train service, the Union Pacific station in North Platte was demolished in 1973. However, an historical marker built out of bricks from the old depot now marks the spot and tells the story of the canteen.


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