Cass County Democrat Missourian

Harrisonville exhibit brings World War I home to Missouri

“Missouri and the Great War” features seven standing walls full of personal stories and photographs.
“Missouri and the Great War” features seven standing walls full of personal stories and photographs. Courtesy photo

Most people in Kansas City have heard of Gen. John Pershing — or at least the road that bears his name, but a number of other Missourians also played a great role in World War I. A traveling exhibit, now on display at the Mill Walk Mall in Harrisonville, has the details.

The exhibit, called “Missouri and the Great War,” features seven standing walls full of personal stories and photographs. It grew out of an online archive project called “Missouri Over There” from the Springfield-Greene County Library District, the Missouri Humanities Council and many other historical organizations around the state.

The Cass County Historical Society brought it to Harrisonville after its executive director, Jennifer Reed, heard about it at the state historical society conference. This is its 11th stop of a planned 14 across the state.

“It’s not going to compete with the Liberty Memorial and the World War I Museum down there, but what it does is bring more individualized stories that connect Missouri to the overall picture of World War I,” Reed said.

Creating a personal connection between viewers and these historical events is one of the exhibit’s goals.

“It’s something we’re seeing with the centennial as a whole. We’ve seen a lot more statewide and local efforts to commemorate,” said Brian Grubbs, director of the website and traveling exhibit project. “These are people that lived in your community. These are people who might have been your neighbor or your family member. … It can make it more compelling and interesting to individuals.”

Grubbs, who is also manager of local history and genealogy at the Springfield-Greene County Library District, said they got a grant from the state library to start the four-year project, then connected with partners such as the Missouri History Museum, the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine, the National World War I Museum and Memorial and the State Historical Society of Missouri.

However, what makes the exhibit special is that it also features contributions from numerous smaller historical societies and private collections you might not see anywhere else.

Reed said she thought having the exhibit complemented the Doughboy monument, which recently got a plaque commemorating all service members from Cass County who died in the war.

“They didn’t put it together spending a ton of space talking about the various campaigns across Europe,” Reed said. “They really honed in on personalized stories about how people were involved, with the Navy, the Army, the supply chain. It even points out African-Americans who fought in World War I.”

Some of the Missourians highlighted include Myrl Billings, who received the Croix de Guerre; Esther Leonard, a contract surgeon; and Edwin C. Ernst, a doctor who designed a portable X-ray machine for the battlefield.

A Missouri contribution to the war that most people might not know about is livestock.

“One of the things I found most interesting in the display was talking about how Missouri mules were used in the war and the contract the Army had with Missouri mule breeders,” Reed said.

According to the exhibit, the Guyton and Harrington Mule Company provided 180,000 mules and 170,000 mules to the British army between 1914 and 1918, and another 14,000 horses and mules for the Allies came from Springfield in 1916.

The free exhibit is open during mall hours through June 3, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The online archive is at missourioverthere.org, and it is still accepting copies of photos and documents Missouri families have connected to World War I.

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