Fall pop-up play honors centennial of Armistice Day

Lanesboro American Legion balcony was the site of a centennial memorial service for World War I veterans during History Alive Pop-up Plays 1918. From left are Phil Dybing as Mayor Dr. Lommen and David Storlie as returned veteran Henry Hoff.
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The centennial of the end of World War I, the armistice, was celebrated in Fillmore County this fall. Lanesboro hosted this event in the form of the pop-up plays, Lanesboro 1918, presented by History Alive Lanesboro and the Lanesboro American Legion.

The original celebration in 1918 involved Civil War veteran George Dolphin shooting off an old cannon 13 times from the bluff over the town! The celebration in September 2018 avoided the cannon excitement, but provided many other forms of celebration.

The last scene was a memorial to the veterans of World War I. The banker and the mayor of 1918 (Ole Habberstad and Dr. Lommen) arrived in a model T car at the American Legion to meet the victory parade winding down the bike path. Marching in the parade were six soldiers and three nurses recently returned from the war with the numerous 1918 Red Cross members and junior Red Cross, Boy Scouts, citizens, and some suffragists.

The parade and audience stopped at the American Legion and looked up at the balcony festooned with bunting where the service began. The officials announced the total funds raised for the war through Liberty Loans as $5 million for Fillmore County. In today’s terms that would be $80 million! It may be hard to believe, but most businessmen and farmers of that time were pressured to donate and the many small banks were pressed to donate heavily. The county was dotted with small banks, even in villages like Canton and Whalan. The United States entered WWI with a miniscule military budget, which had to be quickly expanded in every county across the nation.

The local women were very involved in the local Red Cross groups across our county, making clothing for the refugees in France and bandages for the army hospitals. Lanesboro alone made some 30,000 bandages with help from the children’s Junior Red Cross. Community participation included donations, Red Cross volunteer work, and higher farm quotas, which unified the nation.

In the pop-up play, Mayor Lommen (Phil Dybing) announced each returning soldier and army nurse from the balcony. He, himself, served as a doctor for the troops. Soldiers included were Father Leo Devlin, Ole Hareldson, Irwin Ellestad, Henry Hoff, Luther Nelson and Oscar Johnson. Nurses from the area were Minnie Quanrud, Anna Boyum and Josephine Brown.

Next was a small memorial service for those four Lanesboro soldiers who had died. One of them, Henry Guttormson, is remembered in the name of the American Legion - Lanesboro Henry Guttormson Post.

Fillmore County sent 1,000 soldiers to World War I and 48 of them died. Half perished in the influenza epidemic that swept through the war trenches, the base camps, and finally all towns and countries.

A prayer was offered by Father Devlin (Matthias Harman) and taps was played by bandmaster Seymour Fosse (Jerry Barrett.)

There are many descendants from the 1,000 Fillmore County veteran soldiers and nurses. This theatrical celebration could only include ten veterans.

Playwright and director Jane Peck was able to contact four families and include some of their memories of their veterans. The Johnson/Danielson family (daughter Eleanor, and grandsons Nathan and Jeff ) shared old postcards, diaries and photos from Oscar Johnson who enlisted from Choice, near Rushford. Oscar was portrayed by John Heim of Lanesboro in this fall’s pop-up play. When asked about Oscar as a person, Eleanor commented, “My son, Nathan, looks and acts so much like him!”

Ole Hareldson ‘s remaining children, Richard and Orris Hareldson, Lois Danielson, Verna Quandahl and Joan Sime donated Ole’s papers, photos, and postcards to the Lanesboro History Museum. Ole enlisted from Whalan, and he and Oscar both fought in France before being sent to occupy Germany after the war ended. Ole was portrayed by Robert Lieb.

Lois Danielson commented, “Our family was so thrilled to see our father remembered in the plays. We learned a lot about the era he lived in by watching them.”

Luther Nelson from Lanesboro has descendants, nephew Dwight and grandnephew Brooke Nelson, in the Twin Cities. Luther volunteered on a St. Olaf –connected ambulance crew to help the French army in the battle of Verdun before the U.S. entered the war. He wrote about his experiences in the Norwegian book, “Omkring Verdun.” In 1918, he joined the U. S. Aviation Corps as an aviator. Luther was portrayed by Blake Norby in this fall’s pop-up play.

Brooke Nelson commented, “ Until Jane called, we knew very little about Luther’s time in WWI.”

Nurse Josephine Brown (with Norwegian roots as Bruen) enlisted from North Prairie and was sent to Gievres, France, where she worked in the hospital near the front. She met her husband, Albert, there, likely after he had been gassed. Her family includes nieces, nephews and grandnieces of the Arthur, Jeanette, and Richard Brown and Hatlevig families of Rushford.

When interviewed, Jeanette commented, “We are so very pleased to see Aunt Jo’s service remembered in this lively manner.” Anna Boyum, unrelated to the existing Boyums, also entered from North Prairie and had no children. Josephine was portrayed by JLee Blankenship and Anna by Xena Blankenship.

Nurse Minnie Quanrud and Private Henry Hoff were portrayed by Rachel and David Storlie. Henry fought in the ferocious St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne battles, was wounded and gassed. Henry returned to become the depot master in Lanesboro for 40 years. Minnie worked in base camps during the flu epidemic. Irwin Ellestad, portrayed by Evan Thiss, was already an inventor. He worked in the Signal Corps with the new wireless (radio) technology that was so important to that war. He went on to work with Bell Telephone as an inventor.

Father Leo Devlin from Rochester went to seminary in Italy and then joined the war as a chaplain during the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne battles. After his service he became priest at Lanesboro’s St. Patrick Church. Father Devlin, Henry Hoff, and Dr. Lommen were among the founders of the Lanesboro American Legion.

Later, Henry Hoff said in a Lanesboro Leader interview, “We were so excited for the adventure of war, until we were actually at the front. Had we known what it would be like over there we might not have so eagerly enlisted.”

Local Germans and Norwegians were harassed during the intense patriotism of WWI. All of the vets and nurses portrayed, except Father Devlin, belonged to these two ethnic groups, as was common in our area.

Lanesboro Legion member Richard Wolfgramm commented, “We are so proud to have partnered with History Alive on this project. It has told the stories of some our veterans in an unforgettable way.”

Postscript: Four million U.S. men and women were part of the armed forces in The Great War, as WW I was called. Two million U.S. troops fought in France and 51,000 died from fighting and influenza. The war brought changes. The military changed from a horse-powered to an engine-powered army with an air force. The vets were exposed to many different types of people during their service and that opened their horizons. Many returned with PTSD. Chemical warfare was banned. These young men and women were told they were fighting “the war to end all wars,” but only 23 years later the US was fighting again in another World War. All Fillmore County veterans are listed in “In the Great War,” Fillmore County Edition 1920. It’s available at the Lanesboro History Museum.


Thanks, Bluff Country, for publishing this article and all the photos! We had lots of good comments!