The US President called on all Americans to "speak, act and serve together." And indeed every man, woman and child in Dutchess County would be affected by the World War, 1917 to 1919. Two promised histories that would have told those stories never materialized: one by the New York State Historian, and the other by Poughkeepsie-based New York State American Legion Historian.
The inclusive “all” in the concluding words of President Wilson’s April 16, 1917 National Address and Declaration of War was not a rhetorical flourish. Success required the unprecedented engagement of every capable man, woman and child in the country, and therefore Dutchess County. But what do we know of this colossal struggle of a century ago?
New York State Historian James Sullivan failed to publish the book “New York’s Part in the World War” as directed by the 1919 State Legislature. He formally abandoned the project in 1924 due to the unevenness of localities’ response. The state had simultaneously passed a law in 1919 requiring the state-wide appointment of local city, town and village historians, a law that remains in effect today. Their first task was to gather and provide information for this publication. Sullivan's 1923 letter to the Milan Town Supervisor reflects the challenge he faced four years into the project. While the book was never published, all of Sullivan’s early correspondence survives and
WWI veteran, professional photographer and historian Reuben Van Vlack had, by 1926, been lauded by no less than General Pershing for his plan to publish biographies and photographs of all of Poughkeepsie’s war dead. Although its actual publication seems not to have materialized, Van Vlack served as American Legion historian at a local and state level. He helped found the Poughkeepsie American Legion Post, the “Lafayette Post.”
Another Poughkeepsie veteran and instrumental founder of that Post was C. Fred Close. Close had left for France early in America's involvement in the war, later receiving the Purple Heart for his injuries. Among many roles in public service, Fred Close was Dutchess County Sheriff for 25 years. He frequently used Van Vlack as a crime scene photographer. Close was active in giving voice to veterans’ issues publicly, and offering assistance and counsel in times of need privately. The word “humanitarian” was frequently used to describe him.
Van Vlack died in 1940, entrusting over 300 of his photographs from 1917 to 1919 (in the form of glass plate negatives) to Close. Close died in 1981 and left the glass plates in the care of the Dutchess County Historical Society. The photographs, digitally restored on the 100th anniversary of the end of fighting, and in support of the program "2018: The Year of the Veteran,” form the backbone of the stories told here, supplemented by DCHS Collections, and those of local historians and historical organizations, and Close family members.
Photos by reuben Van Vlack