Local author's book explores life on the homefront

DANSVILLE — Looking back over seven decades, the world was at war, tensions were high, and everyone was doing what they could on the homefront to keep things moving.

The Dansville Area Historical Society journeyed back into that past with a book signing and open house on Sept. 21 for the Dansville World War II Exhibit and Dansville War Diary.

The “Dansville War Diary” was written by David Gilbert from the point of view of someone who had lived in that timeframe. In the book it chronicles everyday life in the local area, as well as the war.

The exhibit runs from Sept. 21 until Nov. 30. It showcases local war heroes, Foster Wheeler, The Blackout, Ration Books, The Honor Wall, and much more.

DAHS President Gerri Waight said there was a great turnout for the opening and book signing. Many copies of the book were sold, and some will be available for purchase at the Author Meet and Greet on Sept. 28 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Dansville Public Library. They can be purchased at the museum and Dogwood Trading Company too.

“We have a lot of interest in this exhibit. My generation never knew the ration books. In that time, they had stamps for the things they could buy, and now we can buy whatever we want,” she said. “David gathered up what he wanted to show in the exhibit, and Nancy (Helfrich) and I helped him put it together. A lot of this was in the attic or on various displays in the museum.”

Waight added that this kind of event is a rare thing to have in Dansville. She was glad to see people waiting in line at the door to get in before it started.

“We tried to bring the local connections to the war out in the exhibit. We wanted to show how the war affected Dansville. Foster Wheeler played a big part in the war by hiring a lot of women. We had a lot of young men go off to fight in the war,” she said. “I was really interested to see the registration cards. The men ages 17 to 30 years old all had to register. The cards would be shuffled up and whoever was on top would have their named called. That was how they did the draft.”

Waight said she grew up hearing her mother talk about World War II, and what she and her parents had to go through in that time period. Gilbert said he had never done anything like this before, and it was a great honor to do all the research for this book.

“I have received a lot of wonderful comments on the book so far,” he said. “I didn’t know all of this information in great detail until I started researching for my book. The farmers all hit hard times and had to employ high schoolers to work on the farms during harvest time. There was a lot you couldn’t buy for several years like fridges, stoves, and lawn mowers.”

Janet Gilbert, David’s mother, was a small child when the war happened, but she recalled a few things that stuck out in her mind.

“My dad worked at Foster Wheeler at the time – everyone’s dad did. When I was at school I was sent home with a bag to fill it up with milkweed pods. I went in and told my mommy that I had to have milkweed pods. Mommy took me to the backyard and we looked for milkweed to fill up the bag. (It was used for life jackets in the time). I remember hearing the whistle blow and we had to go under our desks,” she said. “Mom didn’t drive. Dad worked a lot at Foster Wheeler. We didn’t get to go to the movies often. One time we went to the movies and I saw a newsreel of the POWs. They all just stood there at the fences looking like skeletons. This was towards the end when they were all rescued.”

Gilbert said her mother never mentioned the POWs they saw on the newsreel that day.

“They always had shows on about boats and the war in the Pacific. We would see newsreels on that, but they never showed dead bodies or explosions. That is why I will never forget the POWs. I will never forget that image,” she said. “I remember mommy talking to the neighbors and friends about rationing sugar in coffee. We could only have one pair of shoes a year. I remember at the end of the war holding hands with a neighbor girl and dancing since all the adults around us were happy and dancing.”

Gilbert had a reoccurring dream as a child that a Japanese pilot would land on her driveway with a long sword. She never shared this nightmare with her mother. It was an ongoing fear children had of being invaded by the enemy.

David Gilbert shared how Foster Wheeler was worried about being a prime target, so many had to watch from the hills. They began making employee identification badges. Foster Wheeler at the time made boilers for the battle ships.

Janet Gilbert talked about growing up on Jefferson Street, and seeing a truck of men with the letters PW on their backs being taken down the road towards Groveland. These men were Italian POWs. Nearly 200 of them were at Stony Brook and Letchworth State Park to work on the farms and do labor. German POWs also stayed at Letchworth State Park.

David Gilbert explained there was a large shortage of laborers during harvest time, so they needed to bring workers from somewhere.

“They brought Italian POWs that were being kept in the old CCC camps at Letchworth State Park and at Stony Brook to work in 1943. In 1944 we had German POWs brought to the old CCC camps in Letchworth State Park,” he said. “They weren’t being used anymore for the unemployed people in the Great Depression. They were now being used to house the POWs. We were much better to ours, since they had nice shelters and three meals a day.”

Perhaps the saddest part of the exhibit goes to Lt.David Fedder. He was a 19-year-old Army Air Corps soldier who was shot down in a plane in 1943. He was the first casualty of the war in Dansville.

There are 842 names on the Honor Wall that was dismantled in 1948. It was once across the street from Star Theater. It has on it a female Marine named Elsie (Finch) Hartman. She is still alive today and plays in the Dansville Presbyterian Church Choir.

Dansville Area Historical Society is located at 14 Church Street. It can be reached at 585-335-8090. For more information go to https://dansvilleareahistoricalsociety.wordpress.com