Home > Idaho's Merci Train History Part 1

Idaho's Merci Train History Part 1

Idaho's Merci Train History Part 1

Introduction

Devastated by World War II, France was grateful for the generous donation of food, medicine, and clothing sent by Americans in 1947. Just over a year later, the French sent the Merci Train full of personal treasures to the United States. Paintings, porcelain dolls, wedding dresses, photos, books, war medals, and much more made the transatlantic trip as a large thank you note to the American people.  The Merci Train, or Train De La Reconnaissance Françoise Au Peuple Americains, was a gift of forty-nine boxcars from the French to the United States. The French used the Merci Train to express their thanks for the 1947 Friendship Train sent by Americans full of provisions. In 1949 each state received a boxcar of gifts, including one boxcar split between the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii.

The Merci Train's history started in the United States as a goodwill effort for Europe. Drew Pearson, a well-known journalist for the Baltimore Sun, started the project of the Friendship Train. He came up with the idea and made the first donation to establish a committee for the project. Julie Christine, who studied the history of Arizona’s boxcar, noted Pearson’s generous opening donation of $10,000 in early November 1947.[1] Within months millions of supplies were ready for shipment to Europe, most notably to France. The French returned this act of kindness with the Merci Train. Andre Picard and the French War Veterans Association, headed the effort to return the favor. Fourteen months after the Friendship Train arrived in France, the Merci Train reached the United States. Flatbed railcars transferred the Merci Train boxcars to receptions held at state capitols by the American Legion. The boxcar and gift distribution differed in each state. Some gifts disappeared, some were placed in the care of historical societies, and some were discarded.

The preservation of these gifts have also differed among the states. Some states have small collections, most have no collection, and only one state, Arizona, has a full collection. The purpose of the exchange is a unique story that comes to life through these remaining artifacts. Pearson and the French hoped this exchange would create goodwill between people, not governments; this is the history of the gifts and boxcars that survive today. Only through proper preservation of these artifacts can we tell the whole story of the Merci Train.

Drew Pearson and his idea

            Pearson was a controversial journalist for most of his fifty years in the industry. He and Robert S. Allen anonymously co-authored Washington Merry-Go-Round in 1931, a book described as “a collection of gossip-ridden news items concerning key figures in public service.”[2] Jim Heintzwe states in his biography of Pearson, “Although the book was considered scandalous by some, Pearson and Allen issued a sequel, More Merry-Go-Round.[3] Pearson and Allen kept their anonymity in the second book, but were eventually exposed, which led to the Washington Post firing both Pearson and Allen. Shortly afterward, the Baltimore Sun hired Pearson and Allen, and there they wrote their infamous and scandalous column the Washington Merry-Go-Round. “By 1940, the syndication of the column included some 350 newspapers nationwide and by 1969 there were more than 600, with (readership) estimated at 60 million.”[4] In this column Person wrote about the idea of the Friendship Train.

            Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States persisted for decades after the WWII. In 1947, when the Soviet Union gave grain to a struggling France, Pearson was concerned about the influence this would give the Soviets over the European nation. In October 1947, the avid anti-communist used his popular column to urge Americans to show that their charity was stronger than communists’. In issuing this challenge he wrote, “How much more important, if the recipients of this food interpret it not as a cold and calculated move, but rather what it really is—a movement by the American people to stint their own dinner tables to help neighbors in distress who in turn are helped to make democracy live!”[5] This article put the Friendship Train into motion; in less than three months it arrived in Europe. In a 1968 interview with Life, Pearson said that the Friendship Train was one of his two best accomplishments.[6]

            Pearson intended for this charitable contribution to be from the American people. He prided himself on the minimal government involvement in this gift to France. Pearson said of the Friendship Train's arrival in France, “We were obligated to go to the people of the Friendship Train. If we had just arrived in France with a ship that was loaded by the American Government, we would have gotten nowhere…I didn’t leave anything to chance. The French people knew it was a bona fide gift from the American people.”[7] Seven hundred boxcars carrying $40 million in supplies solidified Pearson's wish, a gift from the American people exemplifying the larger idea of democracy. The idea spread throughout the United States, gaining momentum as the train started in California and headed east. The idea expanded from providing food supplies to sharing medicine and clothing. Writing in Idaho Landscapes, Tricia Canaday explains, “The train passed through 11 states, adding more boxcars at each stop. By the time it arrived in NYC, it was hundreds of boxcars strong and contained $40 million worth of food, clothing and medicine.”[8] The Merci Box Car Memorial Book of South Carolina recalled of the Friendship Train, “this project, which resulted in the distribution of over seven hundred carloads of food, fuel, and clothing, was not an official government program; it was a grass-roots effort that carried personal contributions from individuals in every part of America.”[9]

The collection of the supplies varied from state to state, as the committee for the Friendship Train allowed states and people to determine their donations, thus making the effort a pure grassroots project. Tom Brown described the collection: “The train was started and when it passed through a town that had a clothing factory or a pharmaceutical company, the various companies donated maybe one or two boxcars full of their products. Farmers donated carload after carload of grains and corn as well as other crops of food needed to feed the hungry.”[10] Christine noted that the majority of the donations were provided by private donors.[11] The Friendship Train arrived in France on December 18, 1947, just in time for Christmas. The speed with which the $40 million of aid was gathered and shipped is incredible; in just over three months from Pearson’s original article, he transformed his idea into a reality. Pearson was pleased to see American generosity could exceed the Soviet Union; he believed that this was a gift from America's heart.[12] Pearson's effort started a unique exchange of food, clothes, and gifts that came from the people, voluntarily given from a U.S. citizen to a French citizen, and French citizen to U.S. citizen. 

The French Return the Favor

            France reciprocated the kindness of the American people through the Merci Train. The idea of the Merci Train did not come from a journalist, like Pearson, but from French railroad worker and war veteran Andre Picard. His original idea was simple:

            to present the United States with a decorated Forty and Eight Boxcar loaded with gifts    representative of his country—wines from Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and     Loire Valley; White lace headdresses from Paris; Clay figures from Provence.[13]

However, his idea snowballed like the Friendship Train. Local veterans’ groups adopted the idea and formed committees until ultimately the French War Veterans Association took control and decided to fill forty-nine boxcars with gifts.[14]  The veterans planned to send one boxcar to each state, with one split between District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii.[15] The excitement and expansion of the project led to their decision to send forty-nine boxcars rather than just one.

             Used in WWI and WWII, these boxcars hauled troops and brought men together for a common purpose, making these boxcars significant to war veterans from France and the United States. When the boxcars arrived with soldiers’ names still etched into the wood, they brought with them the pride of the brotherhood created in war with French and American comrades. U.S. and French veterans of both wars joined the subsidiary of the American Legion, La Société des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux, more commonly referred to as the Forty and Eight, and named for the boxcars’ capacity for forty soldiers or eight horses.[16] These veterans’ relationship with the boxcars and with one another started in WWI; by the end of March 1918, 284,000 American soldiers had arrived to help the French.[17] By that summer, French and American troops had launched “their first successful counteroffensive. As these small boxcars had transported the soldiers to the front lines, the French veterans knew they held special resonance for both American and French soldiers; as they assembled the Merci Train, French veterans and trainmen “scoured the rail yards, sidings, and depots for Forty and Eights.”[18]  Built in the 1870s and 1880s, these 29- by 9-foot, four-wheeled carriages had to be transported in the U.S. on flatbed railcars because they were too narrow for American railroads.[19]  Andrew Dolack, Merci Train Boxcar Committee chairman in the 1980s, wrote several editions of the Merci Train Box Car Memorial Book. In this book he provided a vivid description of the gifts sent from France:

            Over 6,000,000 families gave up something of value to help fill the cars. The 52,000          carefully packaged and crated gifts included childish drawing on rough, yellowed paper;         puzzles mounted on cardboard frames; ashtrays made of broken mirror; worn-down             wooden shoes; hand crocheted doilies; battered toys, the original bust of Benjamin        Franklin by the great French sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon; a jeweled Legion             d’Plonneur  presented to Napoleon; the first motorcycle ever built; and a Louis XV           carriage. The Society of Parisian Couturiers contributed an exquisite set of Forty-nine     little mannequins dressed in fashions from 1706 to 1906…A disabled veteran offered       a wooden gavel he had carved from a tree in Belleau Wood. There were new bicycles and old bicycles and bicycle wheels. A church in LaCourtene surrendered its bell, the City of         Lyon provided dozens of silk wedding dresses; and an anonymous donor shipped in a set             of black lingerie intended “for a beautiful blonde.”[20]

This description is comparable to the inventory of artifacts for the Idaho Merci Train Boxcar. Although it is missing from the collection now the 1949 inventory lists a wedding dress.  Idaho did not receive a bust of Benjamin Franklin, but rather a replica of the statue Winged Victory of Samothrace, now on display at the capitol building in Boise.

            All of these gifts held a special significance for the French citizens sending them to the American recipients. It is worth noting that the small boxcars were unable to hold all the gifts sent by the thankful French.

            The train, carrying over two hundred and fifty tons of gratitude, was assembled at Paris    and pulled to the port of Le Harve for shipment to America. Even as the Forty and Eight      were being loaded aboard the Magellan, more presents poured in. Over nine thousand            gifts had to be left behind at the docks.[21]

The selfless giving of the Americans and French to one another illustrated an international tie on a personal level as opposed to a government agreement. Travel permits were the only instance in which the governments were involved.  This unique exchange has not been duplicated since, but it had plenty of precedent; the French aided the American colonies in the Revolutionary War, and France gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty in 1886. This gift demonstrates both countries shared revolutions and dedication to democracy. This close relationship continued through both world wars with the United State helping to liberate Paris in 1944. The French have not forgotten this sacrifice. [22]

Receiving the “Thank You Gift”

            When the Merci Train landed in New Jersey in February 1949, its arrival prompted special legislation from Congress to remove the duty from the incoming gifts from France; Aime Forand,[23] a congressman from Rhode Island who had fought in France during World War I, introduced House Joint Resolution 443, which allowed for “the Free entry of certain articles, imported to promote international good will.”[24] The Association of American Railroads carried the boxcars on flatbed cars to each state capitol free of charge.[25]  Each section of the train included a member of the French committee responsible for setting up the Merci Train. The train split into three sections, with eleven of the boxcars sent to the southern states, six to New England, and the rest to Chicago. In Chicago the train split again, with one section rolling to the Southwest states, one to the Northwest states, and the third to the Pacific Coast carrying Idaho’s boxcar.

            Drew Pearson directed the original reception of the delivery of the Merci Train to the United States.[26]  Pearson accompanied the boxcars to some of the states’ receptions hosted by the local 40 and 8, such as New York and West Virginia.  Pearson spoke at Denver’s reception “before 300 Legionnaires and guests at a luncheon… (he) called for further gestures of this sort to and from all people of all counties.”[27] In Minnesota the American Legionaries raised funds to insure the maintenance of the boxcar stationed at the fairgrounds.[28] In Wyoming the boxcar received a parade and an official reception by the governor, Speaker of the House, and President of the Senate. According to the Wyoming State Historical Society, “The Ceremony was broadcast by local radio and was also recorded for broadcast in France at a later date.”[29] Many of these states put the gifts on display for the public and then donated them to an organization such as the American Legion. The organization could then distribute the gifts, store them, or display them; the French only requested that these items not be sold at auction.[30] At Arizona’s Merci Train boxcar arrival the Governor, Mayor of Phoenix, and Executive chief of the Arizona National Guard formally received it with a parade, breakfast, and reception.[31] Arizona did not distribute any of its gifts, so it has a complete collection—the largest collection of the Merci Train gifts. Arizona took advantage of this expansive collection and created several exhibitions. In 1980s Christine created three exhibits and planned a fourth, which was not completed.  She installed her exhibits in the late 1980s in the Arizona Department of Library, Archives, and Public Records; the First Interstate Bank History Room; and a traveling exhibit adjacent to the restored boxcar. Her proposed fourth exhibit was for the Arizona State Capitol Museum.[32]

Reception in Idaho

            Idaho's Merci Train boxcar arrived in Boise on Saturday, February 19, 1949.  A parade with a reception to follow were planned for Tuesday, February, 22nd in honor of George Washington's birthday. An article announced 40 and 8 committee chair George Foulke’s plans for a parade and display of the gifts at the Capitol. The article explained that “shipment of each county's portion of French gratitude gifts will be made.”[33]  This indicates one of several ideas presented for distribution of the gifts.  However, no records of the distribution exist, and a majority of the gifts are lost.

Tuesday morning's newspaper announced the parade and reception taking place that afternoon. It also described a deep admiration of the French for their gratitude. It concluded:

            In all, the people of France have matched and in fact topped, a shipment of American       friendliness to a comrade people in need with a return shipment of treasures closest to the    givers’ hearts. In so doing the French enrich America, and in this instance, Idaho, with      their prized gifts. The while, they once again justify their own reputation as one of the          most gracious of peoples on the earth.[34]

Bill Wheeler wrote an article on the parade and reception of the Merci Train in Idaho. It appeared on the front page of the Idaho Statesman on the Wednesday following the reception. Wheeler described the order of the event for the Merci Train: “Idaho, a state with much French Heritage ascribed to its geography, welcomes the carload of gifts with a two mile parade including several bands, pioneer floats, veterans of both world wars and a thundering aerial salute by the 190th Fighter squadron.”[35] He also gave a detailed description of who was present for the ceremony, called “On the Platform”:

            On the Speakers’ platform were Mlle. Helen Nhus, French instructor at the College of       Idaho and Mme. Pivornik, of the Boise Junior College language faculty, who gave    response in the French language. Mayor Potter P. Howard welcomed the guests to Boise          and described the gifts. Others on the platform were members of the Idaho Grand Voiture 40 and 8, reception sponsors, and Graham Alexander who sang the “Marsellaise,”             accompanied by Boise’s band.[36]

No further articles appeared in the Idaho Statesman. The Capitol displayed the gifts in the building until Thursday and the boxcar was sent to Gowen field to be stored temporarily.[37]  Wheeler included in his conclusion the importance of this boxcar to the veterans. He wrote:

            But most significant to Idaho war veterans was the box car in which they came. On it       were coats of arms bearing inscriptions “Navarre, Saintonge, Artois, Cascogne,             Auvergne, Touraine, Vendee, Bourgogne, Lyonnais, Alsace, Champagne, Maine,           Lorraine, Corse, Berry, Guyenne, Normandie, Anjou and Flanders.” Thus named the           provinces of French nation. But the names in many cases were reminiscent of             battlegrounds of both world wars in which the French and American soldiers fought side by side.[38]

This section of the article exemplifies what the French War Veterans Association aimed to do. They sent these particular boxcars to show the gratitude they had for the Americans not only in post-war relief but also in the wars they fought together.

             Gardner B. Parsons of Voiture 311 in Boise, Idaho, wrote to the Forty and Eighter magazine,

            The event started with a parade led by the locomotive of 311 followed by the French box-            car on a trailer, then the governor, mayor and other dignitaries, each of the veterans             organizations and their auxiliaries, Fraternal organizations, old time horse drawn            vehicles, riding clubs, four bands, equipment of the National guard and overhead ten of      the Guard planes. The parade wound up at the entrance to State Capitol where the             assistant French Consul from San Francisco presented the car and gifts to the Idaho          Governor.”[39]

Parsons’ description of the reception matches the newspapers. He lists some of the people at the event after the parade, “the banquet called to order by Chef de Gare Joe Beeson. C.A. Botolfsen, former Idaho governor was toastmaster. Present were Arnold Williams, another former governor, Grand Chef de Gare Ennis Thomas, and other ‘brass hats.’[40]

            In another memoir, Max Hansen, a former Idaho legislator from Camas County and legion official, described the day  the boxcar arrived. In attendance that day he said:

             Governor Robins asked Voiture 311, Boise under the direction of Ed Bryan and George Foulke to be tour guides in the capitol rotunda to explain some of the French gifts to             visitors in the capitol building on that day. Many of the gifts were French war souvenirs,   dolls and toys for children except for a statue the Winged Victory of Samothrace for the            Capitol.[41]

This description gives another view of what happened after the parade, reception, and the interpretation of the gifts to Idahoans. In an article written a month after Hansen’s memoir, Larry Evans described Hansen as a “prime mover in events affecting the forty and eight car” who has “carried the ball for the state care of the gift.”[42] Hansen's memoir was written, in part, as a report to the state legislator to care for the boxcar.

Idaho's Boxcar Deteriorates

            Hansen was under the impression that the boxcar was at a fire station on the corner of Kootenai and Federal Way in Boise. However, Hansen noted in an undocumented move, the boxcar was in the care of the National Guard from 1949 to 1951. In 1951, the American Legion was in charge of the care and maintenance of the boxcar, although it did not leave the National Guard’s grounds until 1953. Hansen wrote, “It wasn’t until 1953 that I discovered it in the horse corrals near the National Guard Amory on Reserve Street in Boise. Horses were eating hay from the open doors and inspection revealed that it had become a storage shed for paint cans, rolls of tar-paper and alfalfa hay.”[43] Extremely disappointed in the maintenance of the boxcar, he advocated for its move to more respectful care.  It is probable that the National Guard did not understand or were not properly briefed on the historical significance of the boxcar—thus its misuse and deterioration.

            The boxcar found a new home on “College Boulevard” on the corner of Lincoln and University in Boise in 1953.[44]  Hansen oversaw the move to the university, had it painted red, and ordered a new coat of arms from the French Consulate in San Francisco in the renovation for the move. He hoped the new location would better preserve the boxcar and its history.  However, the location did not protect the boxcar from vandalism. Vandals stole the coats of arms and again Hansen ordered a new set from San Francisco. The second set disappeared as quickly as the first set. Between 1967 and 1971 Boise State University expanded and planned to build a new student union building on the lot used to display the boxcar.     

            It appeared that like the National Guard, the university was not informed by the American Legion of the boxcar’s significance. Hansen expressed his concern for the preservation of the boxcar:

            It is generally understood by most residents of Idaho that when Boise State University     expands again, the property where it is “now placed” may be condemned and have to be         moved or junked by a contractor. The close relationship between this country and France   has been a long amicable one. This gift of a close allied republic should be appropriately           cared for in a public place.[45]

The Idaho State Historical Society granted the boxcar a final resting place with public access.       Boise’s John Regan of the American Legion donated the boxcar to the Idaho State Historical Society. Veteran Legionnaires showed up on April 1, 1977 to watch the transportation of the boxcar from downtown Boise to the Old Idaho Penitentiary.[46] In an article printed about the transition from American Legion to ISHS it stated:

            Hansen thinks a good place for the car now would be found in the Carriage house in the   old Idaho Penitentiary, now part of the Idaho Historical Museum. He says that Arthur           Hart, Director of the Idaho Historical Society, is interested in the acquisition of the little           lonesome souvenir from the citizens of France.[47]

Too large to fit through the prison gate, it sat outside the Old Idaho Penitentiary until October 1980. Budget constraints kept the Idaho State Historical Society from purchasing a crane to lift the boxcar into the penitentiary walls. In October 1980 a crane company donated a crane and labor to move the boxcar. A press release from the Idaho State Historical Society announced the move would take place on October 29th at 9:30 in the morning.[48] It stated:

Mr. John Huddleston and Delbert Mercum of CRANE WEST have donated their time and equipment to lift the “40 et 8” boxcar…over the walls of the penitentiary since the boxcar is too large to fit through the gates at the penitentiary. General Gordon Shore of the Idaho Army National Guard has assigned Col. Tom Gilbertz and the 158th Engineering Detachment to enlarge the opening in the Vehicle Museum…When funds become available the boxcar will be restored and become a permanent exhibit in the state Vehicle Museum.

The National Guard also volunteered their support. They created the opening large enough for the boxcar and built a railroad track for the boxcar to stand on. The restoration of the boxcar took place in the following years thanks to the volunteer work of Tom Brown, a military veteran with a passion for history.

Tom Brown and the restoration

            Tom Brown, World War II enthusiast,  volunteered to do the restoration on the Merci Train boxcar. He began his work on February 24, 1984. He prepped the boxcar for new paint and began to research the correct color for restoration. Brown wrote to Otis H. Hodnett, chairman on the board of trustees for the War Memorial Museum of Virginia, the home of the Virginia Merci Train boxcar.  In Hodnett’s response he recommend The Merci Box Car Memorial Book by Andrew Dolack and advised Brown to contact Dolack. Dolack wrote a letter to Tom Brown congratulating him on taking the time to restore the car. The three men corresponded for the next four years about the restoration of the boxcar. Hodnett provided Brown with several museum brochures from different states that had restored their boxcars and sent photos of the Merci Train boxcars to Brown. The main objective in Brown’s research once the boxcar was painted was to accurately make and place the coat of arms from each French province. Brown’s original idea was to create wood cutouts in the shape of the coats of arms and paint them according to their province. Hodnett recommended looking into an art school for help with this. In December 1986, Brown decided the painted coats of arms would not provide a satisfactory end result. Brown advised in a letter to Hodnett on December 1st 1986, that he had written to France in hopes of finding the original coats of arms manufacturer to print out the coats of arms for the boxcar. In his letter he optimistically believed that if they were willing to print these shields, many states would be interested in ordering a set for their boxcar. However, Brown did not receive any reply from France. His search would not end there, Hodnett would help connect Brown to Christine in Arizona. Christine and others working on the Merci Train in Arizona would find new shields for both boxcars.

            Hodnett was an excellent resource for Brown and others.  In the 1980s a community of Merci Train restorers developed. Hodnett connected Brown with Dolack and Julie Christine of Arizona. On September 2, 1986 Hodnett responded to Christine’s inquiry on the Merci Train Boxcar in Virginia. He directed Christine to Dolack and Brown as valuable resources. This led to an opportunity for Brown to help other boxcar restorations.  Brown and Christine corresponded only a few times, but in 1989 Arizona contacted Brown again. They invited him down to a committee meeting to discuss the restoration of the Arizona boxcar. Brown flew to Arizona and advised the committee on the restoration he had completed on the Idaho Merci Train boxcar. They took his advice and later invited him to the re-dedication of their restored boxcar. In a letter to Hodnett, Brown expressed his excitement in finally finding all the coats of arms for the boxcar from Arizona. They had the negatives of photographs for each coat of arms and would send them to Brown in Idaho. Brown had these photographs expanded to fit the shield size and laminated the photo to the wooden shields.[49]

            The letters between Dolack and Brown provide a timeline and description of Brown’s work over the four-year period.  The correspondence presents information that would otherwise be unknown, such as the order of the coat of arms on the boxcar, “There were no two Merci Box Cars that had the same Coat of Arms when they arrived in New York, reason for this is that each car was loaded at different location(s) therefore the Coat of Arms were placed on the car from the area.”[50] The shields were, therefore, installed in no particular order on Idaho's boxcar. In this same letter Dolack provided Brown with the measurements for the Coat of Arms shield, brass plaque, and painted eagle on the boxcar.  Dolack was in the process of writing the second edition of The Merci Box Car Memorial Book and requested pictures of Brown’s work. The two men passed photos back and forth of different boxcars and restorations. They kept a constant stream of communication up to December 1986. At this time Brown's enthusiasm fizzled out and their communication stopped. In 1987 Brown attended the Idaho 40 et 8 Boxcar club banquet as a guest speaker, and he wrote of his experience in a letter to Dolack. After his speech an officer of the club declared that he would offer his efforts in raising funds for the restoration of the coats of arms.[51] Brown stated, “It looks like a fresh state is under way and I’m excited all over again. It’s great.”[52] Dolack and Brown wrote twice in July 1987  but as quickly as his excitement started, it stopped they did not write again until January 1989. In these final letters to one another they discussed Brown’s trip to Arizona for the restoration meeting and the re-dedication of the Arizona boxcar. They exchanged pictures again, and Dolack wanted to begin work on a third edition of The Merci Box Car Memorial Book. Dolack informed Brown that in his recent research they had discovered the actual color of the Merci Train boxcar and sent him the accurate color number. Brown then repainted the boxcar the newfound color, Ponderosa Blue 51. Brown's restoration efforts were complete on the boxcar a new paint color and the shields finally complete and installed.  Brown's efforts have left the boxcar in the condition we have it in now, but his work ended with the boxcar. He and ISHS did little for the conservation of the artifacts.

Artifacts

            The current Idaho State Historical Society collection of Merci Train artifacts came from two generous donations. The American Legion donated the artifacts in its possession in 1977, the same year as the boxcar donation to the historical society. The acquisition form lists 27 items, including boxes of gifts. In 1983, the Historical Society received a donation from Idaho State University. Alton B. Jones, State Superintendent of Public Instruction,  originally donated the gifts on March 13, 1949 to Idaho State College (now Idaho State University). Jones as State Superintendent would have been present at the 1949 state legislative session. It is feasible that at this time Jones acquired the gifts he later donated to Idaho State College's museum. The current collection owned by the Idaho State Historical Society is just under 300 artifacts. Arizona, which claims to have the largest intact collection, has more than 3,000 artifacts—a collection that remains whole in large part because the Arizona Historical Society took control of the artifacts after their initial display in 1949.

            In the Idaho Statesman article on February 23, 1949, Bill Wheeler discussed the gifts’ future with Ennis Thomas, Grand Chief of the Idaho station. Ennis stated, “Gov. Robins had delegated the Grand Voiture 40 et 8 to decide on disposition of the gifts, many ideas were presented…there was some opinion that the entire display should [be] maintain[ed] intact, although tentative plans had called for distribution of the gifts among the 44 counties.”[53] It is unfortunate for historians and Idahoans that the collection did not stay intact as was suggested.  A memo from Kate Reed to Steve Guerber in February 1999 provided a list of the gifts that they know are missing from the original listed artifacts. Such items on the list are wedding dresses, perfume bottles, compasses, statuettes, jewelry, and a pair of skis.[54] The Idaho State Historical Museum has a ten-page inventory of the gifts received in February 1949. The inventory lists 38 cases and their contents. The descriptions contain only one or two words and names the French province that sent the gift. Due to the limited description, it is impossible to know how many artifacts are missing. In some cases we are fortunate enough to connect the province to the artifact through other information provided by the object such as a makers stamp or thank you note. However, due to the limited information on the original inventory it is difficult to join an artifact to its original province.  Although the description of each individual gift is limited, the complete inventory illustrates each gift as an expression of gratitude. Such items listed are baskets, vases, lace, books, dishware, an ash tray, and a salt box.[55]

Merci Train Exhibit Plans

            From these gifts of gratitude an exhibit is planned inside the boxcar. The gifts for a planned display at the Old Idaho Penitentiary each have a small story to tell. The “Friendship Cord” was in every boxcar, and Idaho received two. The cord is made of red, white, and blue threads. According to the document included with the artifact, the threads are from the French and American flags that flew from the top of the Eiffel Tower on December 24, 1944, Liberation Day.  A Renault toy car manufactured in France was also in each boxcar; some states received several. Other items include a shell casing reshaped into a vase, a helmet from World War I, and a porcelain bowl from a company founded in the 1890s and still making ceramics today. A unique gift to Idaho from the Merci Train is a replica of Winged Victory of Samothrace; the statue is on display at Idaho’s statehouse. Other gifts unique to Idaho are framed prints of a municipal building in Nancy, France, with a thank you note from three children written on the back, and a stool made by a blind man who wrote a thank you note on the bottom. Also unique to Idaho is the wounded soldier medal depicting an American and French soldier seeking aid. The medal represents a French painting illustrating the importance of French and American companionship in WWI. In the painting a French Soldier supports the badly wounded American soldier as they march. Several gifts came with a Train De La Reconnaissance Francaise-Au Peuple Americains label on the back with a note from its donor.

            The Idaho State Historical Society selected  these artifacts for display because they are stable. Their stability is determined during the accessioning process, which analyzes the condition of the artifact. It is important that the stability of the artifact be determined before exhibition to ensure the preservation of the artifact.  Many more artifacts in the Merci Train collection are not stable enough for physical display, including numerous textiles and French dolls. These artifacts are currently in a poor state due to improper preservation, and to protect them from further wear and tear they need to be properly stored. This creates a quandary between protecting them from deterioration and allowing the public to view and understand the history associated with these artifacts. One solution is to make photographs of these unstable artifacts available to the public through a website. This allows education on the subject of the Merci Train without forfeiting the preservation of the gifts.  Displaying the collection online also allows for a more extensive display.


[1]Julie Christine, “The Merci Train and Museum Interpretation,” ( Thesis, Arizona State University, 1992), 19.

[2] Jim Heintzwe, “Biography of Drew Pearson, Drew Pearson's Washington Merry-Go-Round, http://www.aladin0.wrlc.org/gsdl/collect/pearson/pearson.shtml.

[3] Heintzwe, “Biography of Drew Pearson,Drew Pearson.

[4] Heintzwe, “Biography of Drew Pearson,Drew Pearson.

[5] Drew Pearson, “Washington Merry-Go-Round October 11, 1947” Drew Pearson's Washington Merry-Go-Round, http://www.aladin0.wrlc.org/gsdl/collect/pearson/pearson.shtml.

[6] Heintzwe, “Biography of Drew Pearson,Drew Pearson.

[7]Christine, “The Merci Train,” 19.

[8] Tricia Canaday, “Idaho Landscapes” Papers, Idaho State Historical Society, Boise, Id.

 

[9] Andrew Dolack, “French 'Merci' Boxcar Story,” Papers, Idaho State Historical Society Archives, Boise, Id.

[10] Tom Brown, “History of Idaho’s Merci Train Box Car” Papers, Idaho State Historical Society, Boise, Id.

[11] Christine, “The Merci Train,” 18.

[12] Canaday, “Idaho Landscapes.”

[13] Dolack, “French 'Merc