Five Questions for Michael Polston, Arkansas Great War Letters Project
"Reading such letters makes the events of the past real."
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
Michael Polston has a remarkable story to tell. Curator of a history museum in Central Arkansas, part of Cabot Public Schools, he saw a raw opportunity to do something unique to mark the World War I Centennial period, something that would be immediate, accessible, relevant, and that would have value that would last long into the future. This project was a "Letters" project. He is better at explaining, and his journey to success with it is quite unique. Michael took some time to tell us about it.
Tell us about the Arkansas Great War Letter Project. What is it? What will people find at the site? How is it organized?
The Arkansas Historical Association called it “one of the most valuable of the efforts marking the centennial.”
The project is a website of posted letters written by Arkansas soldiers published in the state’s local newspapers during the war.
These letters are transcribed from those newspapers. At present there are over 2600 letters on the site. What a researcher will find are transcribed letters written by Arkansas soldiers. The letters are transcribed exactly as they are found in the newspaper. No corrections have been made by the transcriber. Many of the letters have brief biographical information in the notes at the bottom of the letter.
The site is fairly easy to navigate. You click on the Browse Letters at the top of the home page. That click will take you to a list of the 75 Arkansas counties. Click on any of those counties and it will take you to an alphabetized list of soldiers. It is important to note that there are also some letters from Arkansas nurses. Click on the name and a letter or letters written by that person will appear. The project is a work in progress and all counties don’t’ have letters. Some may never have letters due to the fact that many wartime newspapers no longer exist.
There are letters written by Benton County Arkansas Ace Field Kindley, US Treasury Secretary from Craighead County John Snyder and a letter written by I. D. Ashcraft mentioning Ray Cash, the father of the famous musician Johnny Cash in Cleveland County.
The most letters posted by any one soldier is that of Wyric Lewis in Benton County. About 60 of his letters are posted.
How did the project get started? Whose idea was it? How did the research process work? How did it grow? Who helped you to build it, and to expand it.
In a round about way this began back in the 1980s. I was doing research on the role of Arkansas in WWI and discovered that many of the local newspapers published soldier letters. I put the discovery away for about 30 years.
When the Centennial came around I revisited the letters. Now with the internet I thought what a great project it would be to put the letters online. They are pretty much a pain to access in their present form in the newspapers. Very time consuming to look up. I pitched the idea of a website to a couple of organizations, who thought it was a great idea but offered no help.
I am the director of an award winning museum operated by our local school system, The Museum of American History/Cabot Public Schools. It took me awhile but I realized that I am surrounded by young tech savy students who can do just about anything with computers. My grandmother always said if you want it done do it yourself.
The school had everything needed to make a website possible and no cost to the museum. I spoke with one of my computer teacher friends and they suggested a student to build a website. In less than two weeks the website was constructed and ready to start uploading letters.
NOW WE JUST NEEDED THE LETTERS
The process is pretty simple. A large number of the letters have been photo copied from the newspapers by myself. I copy the letter and then email it to a volunteer transcriber who then transcribes the letter and sends it back to me. I check over the letter and then it is put online. We have had some great volunteers. We have one school librarian who, for the last two years, transcribes about 5 letters a week. Two retired school teachers who transcribe about 10 a week. And still another volunteer, a retired nurse finds the letters herself and sends me the transcription. One student has been transcribing since we started the project in 2017. Each of these people have transcribed at least 100 letters. They are still transcribing.
Many students, both high school and college, have transcribed letters. A recent high school intern at the museum is about to enter college but plans on continuing transcribing.
Letter projects like this are fantastic -- but they are a lot of work. What challenges did you face in putting it together? What advice would you have for people putting together other, similar, projects?
First let me say that it is not hard or difficult work it is just time consuming. So you have to be willing to commit to a project. For me it is very rewarding.
You have to have many people to make such a project successful. I have not done this by myself. At least 40 volunteers have worked on the project or continue to work on the project. We still accept volunteers-just look on the Contact page for info.
Students who need volunteer time have helped. Retired people, even my wife and sister-in-law.
I suspect this could be done in other states. I am sure their local papers published letters. It will just require a dedicated person to head it up.
Do you have a personal connection to World War I? What have you taken from your experience with this project? What have you learned about these people who served 100 years ago?
I don’t know of any family member that served in WWI. However, I have had a personal connection with the war since I started doing research in the 80s. I was a classroom teacher then. I introduced my students to the war through the veterans. In the early 80s my students corresponded with approximately 100 veterans about their experiences in the war. The documents created by that correspondence project are now housed in the school museum collection. It consists of about 500 handwritten/typed pages compiled by the veterans. I always remember veteran Carl Snare who hand wrote about 40 front and back legal size pages. The veterans were very happy that the students were interested. Many of them commenting that they felt they had been forgotten.
Personally I corresponded with about 30 Arkansas veterans. I also visited with a few of them and recorded interviews with them. I will always remember visiting Luther Woodall (photo on website home page) a 95 year old combat veteran who lived alone. He still drove himself around town. Each day he would visit his wife in the local nursing home. His mind was as clear as could be about his war experiences only his body was infirm. You can also see a photo on the homepage of Ward Croft and Martin Graddy who I corresponded with. One of Mr. Graddy’s newspaper published letters can be found in Sharp County.
What have I learned? Well I learned that Arkansas people of the early 1900s were much more literate than they are many times given credit for. Read the letters written by these Arkansas soldiers and you won’t find a poorly written one in the bunch.
I have learned that these Arkansas soldiers went through some hard times in the war. They were very patriotic, proud of their state and country and fascinated by the cultures and geographic landscape of the countries they visited. Also they were very eager to come home.
I am proud that I was able to be a part of such a project. It has become kind of a mission to me. It will end someday, but who knows when. I think it is possible that at least 4000 letters will be posted before we are done. About 100 new letters are listed each month. Between 500 to 1000 people visit the site each week and view about 4000 pages.
WE HAVE DONE A GOOD THING.
What do you hope people take away from their experience browsing, or researching, on your site?
I hope they will begin to better understand what these soldiers did and experienced. Realize that they all did their “bit” and it is important that we remember their lives and what they did.
Many times when you read about events of 100 years ago you don’t have much connection to it. Hopefully by reading these letters people will be able to better connect with the past and those who made it. Reading such letters makes the events of the past real. The letters are a tangible connection to the past.