Historically Speaking: West end’s food struggles during the great wars

ISHPEMING – Food was an essential element to winning any war, even the first World War. Almost immediately after declaring war, the food propaganda began, even in Ishpeming.

It was a three-pronged approach. Grow more food, waste less and find substitutes for the most needed commodities.

Ishpeming, with its short growing season, poor soil and cool temperatures was not suited for growing much, but potatoes flourished and were heavily promoted. Many of the mines, railways and even the golf club allowed their vacant lands to be used for gardens and potato clubs became the rage.

“William Blamey, commonly known as “Bill,” plans on growing about twenty acres of rutabagas in the vicinity of Ishpeming. He has secured one 10-acre patch of ground northwest of Deer Lake that is a very good one, having been under cultivation several years. He has hopes of getting another of like size. Rutabagas are a very valuable food and a large tonnage can be raised per acre. Rutabagas have no insect enemies to bother, are easily grown and harvested. (Iron Ore, May 19, 1917)

The job of conserving food fell to the ladies of the city. There were countless articles in the newspaper as well as talks such as the one given by Lucia Kangas in July of 1917. “By conserving food supplies we do not mean that we are to have short rations, for that would be injurious to ourselves. Nor does it mean that we must give up the use of luxuries for we who can afford the luxuries, which we feel we have a right to have, should be allowed to have them. But it does mean to eliminate the wasting of food.

Now, the great problem of wheat! We can and must learn to use substitutes for wheat flour. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t use wheat flour but that we can save as much of it as possible for the war needs, but using rice, bran, corn-meal etc., in place of and with some wheat flour in homes to meet the war demands.” (Iron Ore, July 28, 1917)

Indeed, wheat was in high demand and many tons of it went overseas to feed our troops. As the months went on, Wheatless Wednesdays were promoted and in the winter of 1918 new regulations came out regarding flour. “By a recent ruling of the United States food administration all flour mills are required to sell an equal amount of wheat flour substitutes to the retailers and jobbers of wheat flour, or secure a written and signed statement from the buyer that he has either on hand at the time of the purchase, or has purchased from some other source the necessary amount of substitutes to cover that particular sale.

Rye flour, whole wheat flour and wheat graham flour are not wheat flour substitutes. Substitutes for wheat flour are as follows: Hominy, corn grit, cornmeal, edible corn starch, barley flours, rolled oats, corn flour, oatmeal, rice, rice flour, buckwheat flour, potato flour, sweet potato flour, soya bean flour, feterita (grain sorghums) flour and meals.” (Iron Ore, February 16, 1918)

Corn bread was heavily promoted. Those who hailed from the southern part of the US had no problems with using corn bread, but Midwesterners needed a bit of convincing.

The bread baked using such substitutes was named victory or war bread, depending upon how much of the substitutes were used to make it. There were also plenty of admonishments to ‘not complain, it’s for the war effort!’ Interestingly enough, almost a century later, many of those same items would be used to make gluten free products.

Wholesale bakeries were no longer allowed to accept day old bread back from the retailers. This forced the retailers to cut down their daily bread orders as they then had to dispose of the left over bread.

Sugar was another commodity in short supply. “There’s a lack of sugar in this district. Two pounds is all anyone can get and this must cover the needs of the family for thirty days, says the most recent order we have heard. There will soon be plenty of sugar, it is said. Just as soon as the freight car congestion is eased it will be coming in sufficient quantities to care for the needs of the people who do not waste it. This is no time for rich cakes.

In a few weeks the flow of maple syrup will start and some of the enterprising boys around Michigamme and other places can make big money if they will arrange to collect the sap from the sugar maple trees, (and) boil it down for syrup and sugar. It will command very high prices.” (Iron Ore, January 26, 1918)

As the war ground on, sugar became the only commodity to be rationed. Families were allotted one pound, per person, per month and they had to register at their preferred retailer, who kept track of all purchases of sugar. Soft drink and chewing gum manufacturers had limited supplies and restaurants were told to discontinue the practice of putting bowls of sugar out on the table. Patrons had to ask for sugar.

Along with Wheatless Wednesdays came Meatless Mondays. However, only beef and pork were shipped overseas leaving chicken, mutton, and fish for use domestically. “Bacon is needed for army and navy rations. Will you rob the boys ‘over there’ when you can eat other things at home? Fats make nitroglycerin, a prime necessity in this war. Wasting fat destroys ammunition. Chicken fat is good for making cake and pastry. The French housewife likes it better than butter or lard. Substitution will do more for food conservation than the strictest economy. Use vegetable fats.” (Full page advertisement, Iron Ore, February 16, 1918)

While the restrictions on beef especially were not popular then, in later years, the use of chicken and fish over beef and pork would become a key part ‘heart healthy’ diets.

The end of the war brought an end to many of the restrictions in regards to food, although not as fast as people hoped for. During World War II, many of the same commodities were rationed and the ideas of conservation of food and growing gardens once again came into vogue.

Editor’s note: Karen Kasper is a member of the Ishpeming Historical Society.


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