Home > Idaho's Merci Train History Part 2

Idaho's Merci Train History Part 2

Idaho's Merci Train History Part 2

Other States

According to the 40 et 8 Society, in 1987, 43 of the 49 original boxcars sent in 1949 are still in existence. Nebraska sold its as junk, three are listed as “mysteriously disappeared” and two were destroyed by fire.[1] In Christine’s Merci Train analysis, only six of the states have a partial collection of the French gifts; Arizona has a full collection of over 3,000 items.[2] However, Christine’s research states that Idaho’s contents are unknown. Christine's and Dolack's list of the Merci Train boxcar and artifact locations are over 30 years old. Recent research by Earl R. Bennett, Sr  on mercitrain.org found several states have small collections of the artifacts. Only 12 states out of the original 49— California, Illinois, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia—do not have a collection of at least some gifts from their Merci Train boxcar.[3] Dolack's research is central to the many websites about and restorations of the Merci Train boxcars. Several websites are devoted to keeping track of the boxcars and their gifts, and many railroad museums keep a roster of the Merci Train boxcars. The research and interest in the Merci Train boxcars in the last 30 years has encouraged donation and investigation by curators and archivists in their collections. Many states found a small collection of artifacts after in-depth investigation. Like Idaho, these artifact collections remain in storage due to their fragile state.

Bennett has an extensive list and photos of artifacts from the different states. This website helps to fill in the gaps on Idaho's missing artifacts. There are several similarities between Idaho's collection of artifacts and other states such as dolls, toy cars, thank you notes, art, books, and ceramics. Several states had pageants where brides-to-be could win the wedding dress received in the boxcar.  Today, many states have located the wedding dresses owned by a local museum or in a private collection. Idaho, unfortunately, does not know the whereabouts of the wedding dress it received in the boxcar.

Hawaii's story is common in Merci Train research where the story was taken at face value with limited evaluation of sources. Christine recounted a story of Hawaii’s apparent misfortune: “The forty-ninth boxcar was initially received in Washington D.C. where all the gifts were removed and the empty boxcar was sent on to Hawaii.”[4] A look into newspaper articles in March 1949, however, reveal that Hawaii’s gifts were shipped ahead of the boxcar, thus disproving Christine’s theory. The boxcar split between District of Columbia and Hawaii was opened in D.C., and Washington D.C. kept some of the gifts—their whereabouts are currently unknown—and the rest of the gifts shipped to Hawaii, ahead of the boxcar. When the boxcar arrived it was full of packed hay, but the gifts had already arrived. The Honolulu Star Bulletin reported, “On the whole, said Capt. David Silva of the national guard, the collection is in good shape.”[5] The article also covered the topical predicament of gift distribution, “Since no organization wants the whole thing, said Mrs. Walter J. Wix Jr., a member of the committee, it will probably be parceled out to libraries, schools, museums, and other agencies.”[6] Unfortunately, the gifts Hawaii did receive have since been lost.

Hawaii is an example of why research should continue on the Merci Train. Dolack’s research was the most extensive in the 1970s and 1980s. Christine's research gives insight into what one boxcar can hold. Dolack's and Christine's research were limited by the communication of their time. These authors sent letters to each state at the last known address of the boxcar or gifts, yet artifacts and the boxcars often moved without a forwarding address. Sending photographs required using a full roll of film and developing the photo, making it a time consuming and costly project. In contrast, the quick lines of communication open today via email and digital photography reopen avenues for research. According to Christine a majority of the states no longer had any gifts from France. Today however, most of the states have at least a small collection or know the location of a few artifacts privately owned. Technology has opened research up to a larger community to fill in the gaps not only in Idaho's collection, but other states as well. The research on the Merci Train has only scratched the surface of its potential. Idaho's new website, Idahosmercitrain.omeka.net, seeks to further the research on the Merci Train while providing a home for the information we currently have.

Conclusion and Preservation

 

            The fate of the gifts and boxcars differed among the states; some disbursed the gifts to the people, governing officials, legions, or historical societies after displaying the gifts in the statehouse. Others immediately turned the gifts and boxcar to the care of their local historical society or, as in Colorado, the boxcar sold as scrap. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Merci Train, the 40 and 8 Legion pushed for restoration of the boxcars. Some including Idaho, were already restoring the boxcars to their original state.  Several states with a collection have started work to properly preserve the history of the Merci Train. This set in motion the need for the preservation of not only the boxcars but the gifts and stories associated with them.

            Preservation of the gifts and boxcars are important for two reasons; the United States has the material culture to remember this event and with these gifts teach the lesson that comes with it. The provisions provided in the Friendship Train were meant to be consumed by those in need in France. However our gifts were meant to thank United States for its generosity and celebrate the friendship between the two countries. In this exchange, the United States was responsible for preserving the story because the war had damaged the means for preservation significantly in Europe.  Thus museums, historical societies, and even private owners should take this responsibility seriously. The story teaches us a lesson about how war was fought then in comparison to now. Companionship between countries during war and after was essential to winning the war and post-war reconstruction. Today wars and generosity are handled differently. The United States  government still gives generously in several foreign countries, but it is a political gesture that lacks the genuine citizen involvement portrayed in the Friendship-Merci Train exchange. This is why the exchange is important and why we must preserve this history. A majority of the Idaho's Merci Train collection is in storage. The exhibit space for this particular piece of history has physical limitations of space and climate. Idaho's boxcar is at Idaho's Old Penitentiary inside the Transportation Unit. The enclosed space is ideal for the boxcar's preservation; it is the only Merci Train boxcar housed inside. However the building limits the space available for an exhibit. The structure that houses the boxcar and other various large items is not climate controlled, limiting the exhibition to artifacts stable enough for display in a small space prone to extreme temperatures in summer and winter.

The loss of Merci Train gifts in the United States makes preservation of the remaining gifts a priority. It also creates a predicament. How do we properly preserve these rare items and provide the public with education on this historic exchange? Technology emerges as the best possible answer. Pictures and descriptions available on a website allow the public to engage with the exhibit past the physical limitations of the museum. A full story on the Merci Train and photos of the artifacts that are safely tucked away in acid-free tissue paper and boxes are available for public view yet kept safe from uncontrolled elements.

            The rich history of the Merci Train exchange illuminates a story of friendship between two countries—a friendship that at the end of World War II stretched back more than 170 years.

This relationship between American and Frenchman was said best in Wheeler’s article on the celebration of the boxcar in Boise: “Memories of Flanders’ fields, the trenches of Alsace-Lorraine, and of rattling to frontlines in peanut-sized box cars of French railroads were mirrored for Idaho war veterans Tuesday as France said ‘Merci’ for generations-old American Friendship.”[7] It is important to preserve this history to allow scholars, politicians, and public to look back and see a companionship between citizens of different countries. The gifts and boxcar highlight goodwill exchanges and bring light to some of the darker times in history. The Merci Train history is just one segment of a diverse and uneasy history in the post-World War II years. It should be remembered as a part of a solution to heal the war torn countries sought in the late 1940s, not forgotten or lost like so many of the gifts brought by the Merci Train.


[1] Dolack, “French 'Merci' Train Story.” Papers.

[2] Christine, “The Merci Train,” 92-100.

[3] Earl R. Bennett, Sr. Merci Train, Mercitrain.org.

[4] Christine, “The Merci Train,” 25-26

[5] William Metz, “French Merci Gifts Show More Than Just Warm Hearted Gratitude,”  Honolulu Star Bulletin, March 17 1949, page 5,

[6] Metz, “French Merci Gifts,” 5.

[7] Wheeler, “French ‘Merci’ Car,” A3.