Letter from Army to Stella Edgecomb about Frank Edgecomb's death in WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
Letter from Army to Stella Edgecomb about Frank Edgecomb's death in WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
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Quite often, my “Jane’s World” and “Old Mission History” stories here on Old Mission Gazette intersect, and such is the case with this story. When I cleaned out my parents’ house a few years ago, it gave me the opportunity to discover vast amounts of history, not only about my family, but also the Old Mission Peninsula. In fact, here’s my public service announcement: never let someone else clean out your parents’ home; it’s time-consuming and emotional and hard, but you will probably unearth some fascinating bits of history that might otherwise be lost forever.

Another bonus of cleaning out the house myself is that I now have several generations’ worth of family and OMP stuff to write about here on Old Mission Gazette. Most of them are all wrapped up together, since my family’s been on the Peninsula forever. My Dad, Walter Johnson, was born just north of Mapleton in 1923, and his family had been here since the mid-1800s.

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While cleaning out one of the hall closets in my parents’ house, I discovered a small brown paper bag in the very back of the closet, wedged underneath home-made quilts and flannel sheets and brightly-colored 1960s bedspreads. In the bag was a tattered envelope filled with letters and documents from WWI dated 1918 and beyond. It’s hard to describe the feeling of holding this spectacular piece of history that dates back 100 years – which in the grand scheme of things, is really not that long ago.

My grandma – my dad’s mom, Stella (Smith) Edgecomb Johnson – came to live with us in our house in Old Mission towards the end of her life in the late 1970s. This envelope must have come with her. It contained letters, newspaper clippings and other documents from when her first husband, Frank Edgecomb, died in Texas during World War One. Here’s the envelope…

Letter from Army to Stella Edgecomb about Frank Edgecomb's death in WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
Letter from Army to Stella Edgecomb about Frank Edgecomb’s death in WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo

First, a bit of background. Grandma grew up about a half-mile north of Mapleton, on what was the old Cosgrove farm for longtime OMPers. The Edgecombs owned the farm adjacent to her family’s farm. This farm, which we call “The Home Farm,” is still in the family, and owned and farmed by my brother, Dean Johnson.

Known as “Crescent Hill Fruit Farm” from the time the Edgecombs owned it in the 1800s up until about the 1990s when it became simply “Johnson Farms,” it was originally owned by Robert M. Edgecomb. The book “Sprague’s History of Grand Traverse and Leelanaw Counties,” published in 1903, describes the farm this way:

“One of the finest farms of Grand Traverse County lies in Peninsula Township and is the property of Robert M. Edgecomb. A beautiful residence stands in the midst of richly cultivated fields, giving promise of abundant harvest. A large barn and other substantial outbuildings have been erected and there is a fine orchard of eight acres. All the features of a model farm are there found and an air of neatness and thrift pervades the place and is indicated of the energy and enterprise of the owner. The farm comprises one hundred and twenty acres, of which eight acres is under cultivation. His possessions have been acquired by Mr. Edgecomb through his own efforts. He has labored earnestly and persistently, realizing the truth of the old Greek adage: “Earn thy reward: the gods give naught to sloth.”

I’ve not heard that Greek saying before, but it certainly describes our family. My brothers, Dean Johnson and Ward Johnson, now farm about a thousand acres on the Old Mission Peninsula, both their own and other farms. We grew up in a culture of hard work and perseverance – a requirement of any farm family – and that has certainly followed all of us kids into our various careers.

Robert Edgecomb was born in 1837 in Rochester, New Hampshire, to Humphrey Edgecomb and Lovey W. Drew. The family moved to Ohio, where he eventually married Martha M. Bigbee. They moved around to Nebraska and Kansas before settling in Lake County, Michigan, where Robert ran a sawmill for five years before buying the farm on the Old Mission Peninsula in 1879. As mentioned above, that’s the farm we now call “The Home Farm.”

Here’s a photo of the barn on “The Home Farm” then and now. The house on the right, which burned down in 1964, is where the Edgecomb family lived, and where my dad was born in 1923 (on a sawn oak table that now sits in my house, but that’s another story).

johnson farms, edgecomb, barn, barns of old mission peninsula
Johnson Farms Barn, Early 1900s | Old Mission Gazette Photo
johnson farms, barn, barns of old mission peninsula, edgecomb
Johnson Farms Barn 2017 | Jane Boursaw Photo

Robert and Lovey Edgecomb had six kids: Aden, who died in infancy; Herbert L., who drowned in the mill pond in Lake County at five years old; Lewis M., who died on the Old Mission Peninsula at the age of 26 (I’m not sure of the circumstances); Nellie, who married William Strohm of Leelanau County; Mary B., who was bound out to the Edgecomb family at 13 months old (again, not sure of the circumstances) and married another Peninsula boy, William Johnson; and Frank, who married my grandma, Stella Smith. Again, she lived just over the hill on the adjacent Smith farm. I wish I could time-travel back and see how Frank courted her.

I’ll mention here that I am not related to the Edgecomb family by blood. After Frank died in the war (read on), Grandma Stella married my grandpa, Lester Johnson, who was working as the hired hand on the Edgecomb farm. Stella and Lester then had two kids – my dad, Walter Johnson, and my uncle, Guy Johnson. Complicating matters is the fact that, as noted above, Mary married William Johnson, and Grandma’s mother, Clara, was also a Johnson.

Back to Frank and Stella … they had two kids, Fred and Gladys, at the time when Frank volunteered to serve in WWI. While training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, he died of pneumonia on March 7, 1918. This clipping, I assume from the Traverse City Record-Eagle, was in the envelope in the brown paper bag in the hall closet at my parents’ house. It notes that Frank was the third person in Grand Traverse County to have died during WWI. The first two were Harry Pray and Clarence W. Allen.

Frank Edgecomb dies of pneumonia at Fort Sam Houston in Texas during WWI
Frank Edgecomb dies of pneumonia at Fort Sam Houston in Texas during WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo

Also in the envelope was an assortment of documents from the Army, including the following list of Frank’s effects that were sent to my grandma after he died. Note that they incorrectly say “mother” at the top; this should have read “wife,” as my grandma was Frank’s wife. For the record, the effects included three letters, a New Testament, checker board, thread and spool, razor, shoe brush, nail brush, toothbrush, towel, housewife(?), bex(?) pills, union suit, shoe polish, money belt(?), hat cord and hat strap.

List of Frank Edgecomb's items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo
List of Frank Edgecomb’s items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo
List of Frank Edgecomb's items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo
List of Frank Edgecomb’s items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo

The following note from the envelope, dated March 9, 1918, looks like a notification that Frank’s items would be arriving to my grandma on the Old Mission Peninsula and would be paid for by the government.

List of Frank Edgecomb's items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo
Notification of Frank Edgecomb’s items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo

Here’s a certified inventory dated March 12, 2018, of Frank’s effects when he died, which also included $20.25.

List of Frank Edgecomb's items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo
List of Frank Edgecomb’s items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo

This letter dated March 12, 1918, is another note about Frank’s personal effects, including “a check for $20.25 to cover the cash in possession of your husband at the time he went to the Hospital…” Grandma was asked to sign the enclosed receipt and return it in the envelope provided.

Frank Edgecomb's items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo
Frank Edgecomb’s items sent to Stella Edgecomb after he died during WWI in 1918 | Jane Boursaw Photo

This document, dated Jan. 28, 1918, indicates that Frank applied for $10,000 worth of Government Insurance, and the application was forwarded through military channels to the Treasury Department, Bureau of War Risk Insurance Division of Military and Naval Insurance.

Frank Edgecomb WWI Insurance | Jane Boursaw Photo

Frank Edgecomb WWI Insurance | Jane Boursaw Photo

The following documents in the envelope indicate that Frank had been promoted to Corporal, Aviation Section, Signal Corps of the Regular Army. I can’t quite make out the name of the person who issued it, but it looks like Walter L. Eming, 1st Lieutenant Sig. R.C.A.S. Commanding 661st Aero Squadron. It was issued at Kelly Field, South San Antonio, Texas, on Feb. 1, 2018. (If anyone knows more about this document or person, leave a comment in the comments section below the story.)

Frank Edgecomb promoted to Corporal, Aviation Section, Signal Corps of Regular Army, Feb 2018 | Jane Boursaw Photo
Frank Edgecomb promoted to Corporal, Aviation Section, Signal Corps of Regular Army, Feb 2018 | Jane Boursaw Photo

And here is a note dated March 26, 1918 from Hq. 661st Aero Supply Squadron, Flying Dept., Kelly Field, Texas, which was sent to my grandma indicating that she may have wished to know Frank was promoted from Private to Corporal. It’s from the C.O. 661st Aero Supply Squadron, and signed by C. H. Welch, 1st Lt., Sig. R.C., A.S.

“We did not have an opportunity to deliver the warrant to him before he was taken sick,” Welch writes, “but it occurred to us that you might be glad to know that he was found to be worthy of a promotion, and that he would have been steadily promoted had not a Divine Providence seen fit to call him to other fields.”

Frank Edgecomb promoted to Corporal, Aviation Section, Signal Corps of Regular Army, Feb 2018 | Jane Boursaw Photo
Frank Edgecomb promoted to Corporal, Aviation Section, Signal Corps of Regular Army, Feb 2018 | Jane Boursaw Photo

Here’s a letter dated April 30, 1918, from the Treasury Department, which included an application for emergency compensation that my grandma was required to fill out. The application had to include proof that she was the widow of Frank and that they had two children. I imagine that finding herself suddenly a widow with two kids and a farm to run on the Old Mission Peninsula must have been a lot to absorb.

Application for War Compensation, WWI for Stella Edgecomb, widow of Frank Edgecomb | Jane Boursaw Photo
Application for War Compensation, WWI for Stella Edgecomb, widow of Frank Edgecomb | Jane Boursaw Photo

And here is another letter dated April 30, 2018, which included an application for Grandma to apply for the insurance compensation as the widow of Frank Edgecomb. I’m trying to imagine her dealing with all this paperwork through what we now call “snail mail” so shortly after Frank’s death, all the while caring for two children and running the farm (don’t forget – it’s Spring now – planting season).

Letter to Stella Edgecomb regarding Frank Edgecomb beneficiary after death during WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
Letter to Stella Edgecomb regarding Frank Edgecomb beneficiary after death during WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo

This “Award to Beneficiary,” dated May 13, 1918, from the Treasury Department, Bureau of War Risk Insurance, indicates that my grandma would be receiving $2500 as beneficiary to Frank Edgecomb, because she was the legal guardian of their child, Fred Edgecomb. It looks like that amount would be issued as $14.38 per month, from March 8, 1918. I don’t know if that’s in addition to the $2500 or if that’s how it was doled out. There was not a similar document for their other child, Gladys, but if you read on, you’ll see that Grandma did receive $2500 for each child.

Award to Beneficiary, Stella Smith Edgecomb, after Frank Edgecomb's death in WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
Award to Beneficiary, Stella Smith Edgecomb, after Frank Edgecomb’s death in WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo

This letter from Richard D. Jones, Deputy Commissioner in Charge of Claims of the Division of Military and Naval Insurance, dated April 11, 1918, indicates that Grandma would be receiving $5000 as Frank’s beneficiary. She was asked to fill out the enclosed affadavit and return it.

Letter to Stella Edgecomb regarding Frank Edgecomb beneficiary after death during WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
Letter to Stella Edgecomb regarding Frank Edgecomb beneficiary after death during WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo

And here are letters dated April 11, 1918, to Stella Edgecomb indicating that each child – Fred and Gladys – was the beneficiary of $2500 of insurance.

Letter to Stella Edgecomb regarding Frank Edgecomb beneficiary after death during WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
Letter to Stella Edgecomb regarding Frank Edgecomb beneficiary after death during WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
Letter to Stella Edgecomb regarding Frank Edgecomb beneficiary after death during WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
Letter to Stella Edgecomb regarding Frank Edgecomb beneficiary after death during WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo

This “Award of Compensation” from the Treasury Department, Bureau of War Risk Insurance, dated May 25, 1918, indicates that Grandma would be receiving $47.50 per month from March 8, 1918, “as the Natural Guardian of Gladys Edgecomb and Fred Edgecomb, Old Mission, Michigan.” It was signed by William C. De Lanoy, Director, and approved by W. G. McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury.

Award of Compensation to Stella Edgecomb after Frank Edgecomb's death in WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo
Award of Compensation to Stella Edgecomb after Frank Edgecomb’s death in WWI | Jane Boursaw Photo

Here are documents dated Dec. 19, 1922, from the Bureau of War Risk Insurance indicating that Grandma would be compensated $15/mo. from Sept. 1, 1922, for each child in her care – Fred Edgecomb and Gladys Edgecomb. I’m wondering if this is an adjusted amount because she had remarried my grandpa, Lester Johnson, by then. They married earlier that year.

WWI letter to Stella Edgecomb for compensation for each child | Jane Boursaw Photo
WWI letter to Stella Edgecomb for compensation for each child | Jane Boursaw Photo
WWI letter to Stella Edgecomb for compensation for each child | Jane Boursaw Photo
WWI letter to Stella Edgecomb for compensation for each child | Jane Boursaw Photo

The following letter, dated May 21, 1928, indicates that Grandma’s application for adjusted compensation was denied, as she had remarried my grandpa, Lester Johnson, by then. There was also the matter of a $60 bonus that was never paid.

WWI compensation denied to Stella Edgecomb after remarrying | Jane Boursaw Photo
WWI compensation denied to Stella Edgecomb after remarrying Lester Johnson | Jane Boursaw Photo

This document, dated Sept. 10, 1918, is from the Grand Traverse County Probate Court, Fred H. Pratt, Judge. I’m not sure what this is about, but it was in the envelope. It appears that grandma submitted $130 as payment in full for … something.

Grand Traverse County Probate Court document dated Sept. 10, 1918; Judge Fred H. Pratt | Jane Boursaw Photo
Grand Traverse County Probate Court document dated Sept. 10, 1918; Judge Fred H. Pratt | Jane Boursaw Photo

If anyone has further information about these types of documents, military personnel, or military protocol during WWI, feel free to leave comments in the comments section at the bottom of this story. Or if you have similar documents pertaining to your own ancestors.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. The “housewife” referred to in that early document is what soldiers called their pocket sewing kit. It usually includes a few lengths of thread, a couple of needles, assorted buttons – just the bare necessities to make minor clothing repairs while in the field.

    • Thanks, John! It’s hard to describe the feeling of holding those documents in my hands. Documents that hold so much history and basically changed the course of our family history.

  2. I always enjoy reading your articles. I would imagine that the pneumonia he succumbed to was probably due to influenza. WW I technically ended not because any side “won” but because of the rampant influenza at that time worldwide. I remember learning this at a nurses conference I attended years ago in TC that was presented by an infectious disease specialist who worked at MMC. I found it very surprising to learn that fact. Thank you for sharing this interesting story.

    • Thanks, Cindy! Really interesting about the effects of influenza’s outcome on the war – and so many families, too, including mine. We might be living in a whole different world had it not happened, and I would not be sitting here writing this. We always heard that Frank died of the flu, so I bet you’re right that the pneumonia resulted from the flu. I was surprised to see “pneumonia” instead of “flu” as his cause of death in the documents.

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