Laying the Groundwork – How WWI helped sculpt the Richmond we know today.

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By Matt Larson • Items from the Richmond Museum Collection

Commemorating the centennial of the U.S. entering World War I in April of 1917, the Richmond Museum of History presented their exhibit: “How World War I Changed Richmond.” By the time you read this, however, the exhibit will be over, so in case you missed it we wanted to help paint the picture as best we could.

WWII often gets the most attention in regards to Richmond’s wartime history. Henry J. Kaiser was recruited by FDR to come here and create the system that led to Richmond building 747 ships during the war (the rest of the Bay produced a combined total of 92). Also, about 100,000 people flocked to Richmond from all over the country. “During WWII we had over 40 war-related industries in Richmond,” said the museum’s Executive Director Melinda McCrary. That included the shipyards, Ford Motor Company building tanks and jeeps, Chevron/Standard Oil producing fuel, and much more. Richmond was such a productive force during WWII that when the allied troops stormed Hitler’s bunker, they found a list of cities he was going to destroy when he invaded the United States—and Richmond was one of them.

A much lesser known fact, however, is that much Richmond’s incredible war effort during WWII can be attributed to what they started in WWI. “The groundwork for the home front was laid during WWI,” said McCrary. “Richmond would have never been so successful during WWII if it wasn’t for all the work that was done during WWI.”

Citizens of Richmond were very enthusiastic about supporting the WWI effort, and often went above and beyond what was expected of them. By the end of the war in 1918 there were 800 members of the Richmond Red Cross chapter, which, for a town of 10,000 at the time, was a fair amount of people. Individuals were taking over vacant lots to plant food in them to aid with the hunger crisis, which would later be referred to as victory gardens. Even when the U.S. government needed money to fight the wars, Richmond raised more than they were asked to raise all 4 times. One of the museum’s original newspaper articles from the time reads: “Richmond goes over the top for the war effort.”

Even one of the greatest aviation heroes from WWI, Pat O’Brien, spent some time in Richmond. He moved here from Illinois to fight fires on the railroad and left to join the Royal Air Force. He was shot down in an airplane, escaped a German prison camp, was on the run for a month and a half in enemy territory, and later became a huge celebrity. “He was right here!” said McCrary. “He had a connection to Richmond. And on his speaking tour after the war when he was speaking about his book, he came back to Richmond.” His book, Outwitting the Hun; My Escape from a German Prison Camp is available online and is free to listen to at librivox.org.

It’s safe to say that Richmond’s efforts during WWI indirectly led to all of their accomplishments of WWII as they had laid the foundation for what was to come, and local development during these wars changed the course of history forever. When Kaiser came to town he implemented a prepaid health system at his shipyard in Richmond that he had started when constructing the Hoover Dam. Later, the first Kaiser hospital that ever existed ended up being in Richmond, CA. “Modern healthcare can tie it’s history right into Richmond!” said McCrary. Which can thus be traced back to the initial efforts of WWI.

Some businesses that were around during WWI are actually still thriving in Richmond today. Mechanics Bank (since 1905), Overaa Construction (since 1907), Chevron (since 1902), and several others. That’s actually the subject of Richmond’s fall exhibit: Legacy Businesses. “We’re seeking help from the community to gather artifacts, stories, and pictures related to Richmond’s legacy businesses,” McCrary says. Categories include business that have been in Richmond for more than 50, 75, and 100 years. So if you’ve got anything they can use—or would like more information about the museum in general—please visit richmondmuseum.org or stop on by at 400 Nevin Ave., Richmond.

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