Today, April 6th, is the 100th anniversary of the United States of America’s entrance in World War I. This war introduced new technologies that forever changed how warfare and military tactics were conducted. The country joined together to help with the war effort, and it was no different on the campus of Michigan Agricultural College (M.A.C.), which would later become Michigan State University. As a land-grant institution, M.A.C. was already set up to help with the war effort because people were already being taught how to increase their crop production. Extension workers went out into the counties in Michigan to demonstrate food preservation and to teach the kids in boys’ and girls’ clubs how to participate in food programs.
Along with students and faculty members, men in uniform flooded the college in 1918. At the beginning of the year, some men took courses in radio technology. On May 15, 500 draftees arrived from Wisconsin to participate in an eight week course in auto mechanics. Local companies Reo, Oldsmobile, and Duplex loaned ten army trucks for the men to practice on.
One man that was part of the Wisconsin unit was Arno J. Erdman, whose scrapbooks and photographs are housed at the MSU Archives. Erdman was born on April 13, 1894 and lived in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. His collection is a snapshot of campus life, military training, and scenes from the capitol during that time period. Sergeant Erdman was an U.S. Army instructor teaching auto mechanics in the Student Army Training Corps at M.A.C.
The majority of Erdman’s photographs are images he captured while on campus as an instructor. His photos include field testing of vehicles, tanks, and a caterpillar at the REO plant. There are many group photos of men in uniform and individual shots of Erdman. There are also photos of the buildings on campus, including images of College Hall when it collapsed, the infamous artillery shed, and views from the top of the water tower on campus.
Even though Erdman arrived originally to teach the eight week course, it appears that he ended up staying on campus for the rest of the year. The reason might be because the War Department established a Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) unit on campus. Eight temporary barracks and two mess halls were built east of the Horticultural Laboratory. The men were broken up into two different classes. 500 men were part of “Class A” and they qualified as regular college students and studied disciplines that would be useful for war. “Class A” lived in the men’s dormitories and on the top floors of Agricultural Hall and Olds Hall of Engineering. Another 500 men that were part of “Class B” were enrolled in the auto mechanics course and housed in the barracks. In some of Erdman’s photographs, he identified the different classes. A small class of navy men also joined the other ranks on campus. The S.A.T.C. was officially created on October 3, 1918.
Unfortunately, all the best preparations fell to the wayside. Two weeks after the camp opened on campus, an outbreak of Spanish influenza grounded the men. Eighteen people died – seventeen male students and one male faculty member. The women were segregated from the men for six weeks. The barracks were quarantined and classes suspended until the flu passed. By the time the men recovered, the war was over. As reported in the M.A.C. Record, November 29, 1918, the S.A.T.C. unit was disbanded and the men were mustered out throughout the month of December. Most of the men headed home without seeing any war action or finishing their degrees.
Not much is known about Arno Erdman after he left campus, which might have been after the beginning of 1919 because he has a postcard photograph of Williams Hall when it burned down on January 1, 1919. We do know he returned home to Wisconsin and married Esther Peters on May 20, 1920 (her photos can be seen in the background of Arno’s bedroom.) Together, they had a daughter and a son, and Arno worked as a laborer with cement contractors. He died on July 7, 1971.
The Arno J. Erdman collection captures a very brief and unique period on campus. Many of the buildings that are observed in the photographs are no longer standing. Like the rest of the nation, M.A.C. took up the call to prepare soldiers.
Written by Jennie Russell, Assistant Records Archivist
View the inventory for the Arno J. Erdman collection: http://archives.msu.edu/findaid/ua17-231.html.