Arlene Waters contemplated giving her father’s World War I medal to her children, but then she had a second thought.
“What do boys do with medals that were their grandfather’s?” she asked herself, wondering what to do with it.
Before she made a decision, she decided to find out about the medal, since she knew little about it.
The medal referenced the Harrisburg Chamber of Commerce, so she picked up the phone and gave that organization a call. It also was a mystery to them.
“We were questioning whether it was actually from our organization,” said Kara Luzik Canale, vice president of Chamber operations.
The words imprinted on the back, though, left no doubt.
“Presented to Martin Luther Kauffman by the Harrisburg Chamber of Commerce in grateful recognition of service in the World War. 1917-1919.”
Walters, of Lewisberry, had kept the medal since her father’s death in 1958. From a handmade, dovetailed, vine-decorated box, she showed off some of her father’s other treasures: an Indian Head nickel with a dough boy (a name given to American infantrymen in World War I) carved into it, dog tags and a New Testament that had traveled to France.
“He didn’t speak about it [the war] often,” she said, describing her father as a patriotic man who cried whenever “Taps” was played.
But she recounted that he did describe one of his battle experiences.
“He laid in the furrows of a plowed field and could hear the bullets fired in the field,” she said.
Eventually, Walters reached a decision. She felt it was best to return the medal to the Chamber.
“She said it was obviously very important to her father,” Luzik Canale said. “She was very clear that she didn’t want this to disappear. She wanted it to be in a place where it was honored.”
While the Chamber wasn’t familiar with the medal, CEO and President Dave Black wasn’t surprised that it existed.
“[The Chamber] was intricately involved with all things community,” he said. “When someone went off to war, everyone was aware of it.”
Interestingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was formed in 1914, just at the beginning of World War I. In fact, the Harrisburg Board of Trade, founded in 1884, was instrumental in the U.S. Chamber’s creation, joining the new group and then becoming the Harrisburg Chamber of Commerce, Black said.
“It made about a 100-year journey out of our office and back into it,” Luzik Canale said.
But questions remained. How did these medals come about, how did they get awarded, and what building graced their front?
A call to Robert Hill, military and industrial history curator at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, shed light on these uncertainties.
Hill, too, was unfamiliar with these medals until just a few months prior, when a fellow curator gave him one. Then he discovered that they were awarded to honor and commemorate those who had served in the war.
“At the end of a conflict, there is a celebratory mood,” Hill said. “People wanted to celebrate the soldiers.”
Along with the medal came a registration card. The reverse of that document instructed former soldiers to return it.
“By filling in the other side of this card, you will be aiding materially in the task of compiling the history of Harrisburg’s part in the World War,” the card said.
According to the document, the names would be “placed in the pylons of the State Street Memorial Bridge,” something that Hill said never actually happened.
This particular card was for Ross Anderson Hickok, a field artillery private. He was one of the 3,000 Harrisburg residents who served in World War I.
As for the building on the face of the bronze medal, according to Hill, it’s the old state Capitol building, which burned in 1897.
With the mystery mostly solved, the medal now resides at the Harrisburg Regional Chamber. Black said that he warmly welcomes back all historical items associated with the Chamber.
“Help recreate our history,” he said.
The Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC is located at 3211 N. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information on the Chamber, visit www.harrisburgregionalchamber.org.
To learn more about Pennsylvanians who served during World War I, visit the State Museum, 300 North St., Harrisburg, which features the exhibit, “Dressed for Service: Pennsylvanians in the Great War,” through May 5. For more information, visit www.statemuseumpa.org.