Gracie Lock and Sara Dinari 2014-05-27 13:13:11
The Tanner letters project started simply enough: As library student employees at Sonoma State University, we were given the task of documenting World War I letters that were gifted to the library by Sonoma County historian and local newspaper columnist Gaye LeBaron. The letters, documenting the wartime experience of Santa Rosa, California, soldier Edward Tanner and his sister Eliza, a nurse, were given to LeBaron in 1984 by a woman who had the Tanner name, but had no relation to the letters’ scribes. Prior to that, the stack of correspondence had been kept by an editor of a Napa newspaper. How the editor obtained them remains a mystery. As we scanned, transcribed, and cataloged these letters, our curiosity grew. Who was Edward? Did he make it home from Europe? What became of him following World War I? Edward’s Fate Due to the nature of the letters, we know that Edward and Eliza were stationed overseas during the war. Eliza returned safely to the States, her final letter documenting her arrival from Europe to Virginia via the U.S.S. Finland: Arrived in America 8:30 last night. Had a grand trip on the U.S.S. Finland. Have reported to a Navy hospital in Virginia. Have sent my name in for transfer to Mare Island. So may be in San Francisco in a couple of weeks. On leaving Scotland, I went to Plymouth Eng then to Brest France from there to St. Nazaire and then on the good ship Finland to Newport News Virginia. Edward’s fate was more of a mystery. In his last letter home, written on April 1, 1919, Edward was still waiting in Pauillac, France, for his journey to the United States to begin. Considering it was the final letter addressed to Santa Rosa, we were left to speculate if he made it home. A key to tracing Edward’s path was noting the battalion he was assigned to in 1918. The 40th “Sunshine” Division was the company in which he was placed at Camp Kearny, San Diego. He often signed his letters “144th Machine Gun Battalion,” or “144th M.G. Bn” for short. In addition to Edward’s own record of the movements of his company, the history of the 79th Infantry Brigade, of which the battalion was part, gave us definitive proof of his general movements. After the War Researching the Tanner family began with a trip to the Sonoma County Library’s Local History and Genealogy Annex in Santa Rosa. Locating the Tanner family in local phone books and census records was easier than anticipated. There was a moment of elation after finding proof that Edward did in fact make it back to Sonoma County safely and led a productive life. With his vital statistics in hand, we were able to find Edward’s obituary after a brief scan of Sonoma State Library’s archived Press Democrat microfilm reels. According to census records, his World War II draft card, and his obituary, Edward spent his remaining years in Sonoma County. He worked as a laborer in Cloverdale for a time and married late in life. In the late 1940s he worked for the Works Progress Administration in San Francisco. He was later employed by the Press Democrat as a printer, eventually retiring from that position. He settled and later passed away in Healdsburg, California. Using information from Edward’s and Eliza’s obituary notices, we did more digging to find their final resting places. With the assistance of the Santa Rosa Memorial Park and Eggen and Lance Mortuary, the graves of Edward and Eliza were found next to those of their parents, James and Delilah. However, no headstones mark their locations. Speculation has been made as to why, as both were veterans. However, this piece of the puzzle remains unsolved. What the Letters Revealed Learning Edward’s fate gave us a sense of completion. But it was through the letters that we were able to experience his character. With detail and frankness, Edward wrote of France, the weather, the prices and quality of goods, and the beautiful countryside. Although he made only brief mention of it, he also wrote about how he longed to be home: France is a pretty country with hedge fences around each field which generally is very small and wooded hills and forests are every where [sic] to be seen. It is cold and rainy now and I don’t like the weather at all. Take it from me and stay in Sonoma County. I saw southern Cal. And the corn Eastern states and I saw nothing to compare with Calif especially Old Sonoma County and what I see of France I don’t like at all. [August 1918] I am well and getting along fine even if it is a wet rainy country and the state of Washington is a desert compared to it as it rains all of the time here. [March 27, 1919] Also contained in Edward’s letters are numerous mentions of local people: George Schelling, a bicycle repair man and Santa Rosa’s first automobile dealer; Finlaw Geary, a well-known and respected lawyer; and California State Senator Walter Price. Edward’s firsthand accounts of these individuals, who were more a part of Sonoma County history than Edward ever was, gave us insight into the early part of the twentieth century. Although the letters were at the mercy of government censors, a great deal of information about daily life and social commentary by both Edward and Eliza was encapsulated within. The Tanner correspondence includes references to popular culture and commentary on the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, differences between Europe and the United States. Own Santa Rosa during the early part of the twentieth century. Documents such as these are the little gems that one can find while conducting research or simply perusing the library catalog at Sonoma State University. Notes and Sources The Tanner letters are available at: http:// northbaydigital.sonoma.edu/cdm/search/collection/ Lebaron/searchterm/tanner/order/title. To make an appointment to view the original Tanner letters and other Gaye LeBaron materials, please contact the Special Collections Department at SSU: (707) 664-4152 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Clark, George B. The American Expeditionary Force in World War I: A Statistical History, 1917–1919. “Eliza Tanner Dies at 79.” Press Democrat. August 12, 1965. “Edward Tanner.” Press Democrat. July 9, 1961. “Good County Facilities Attract Best in Field.” Press Democrat. October 24, 1965. History of the Fortieth (Sunshine) Division; Containing a Brief History of All Units Under the Command of Major General Frederick S. Strong, 1917–1919. 1920. LeBaron, Gaye. Santa Rosa, a Twentieth Century Town. 1993. (pp. 20–22, a68, 206.)
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