Amateur historians Kathleen and Douglas Jones carefully leafed through the stack of handwritten World War I soldier records looking for clues.
They were digging for details, including soldiers’ occupations before the war, where they served and names of kin that — when pieced together — will tell the stories of the more than 900 men and women who left Dakota County to serve.
“It’s really detective work,” said Kathleen Jones, describing the effort’s appeal.
The Apple Valley couple is part of a new team of volunteers compiling a database of all county residents who served in WWI for the Dakota County Historical Society.
Many folks have heard of citizen scientists — volunteers who monitor weather, birds and bugs and report their observations to experts who use the data to make discoveries. The south metro Historical Society has borrowed that concept and launched its first citizen historian project, called “Adopt a WWI Soldier.”
The response has been overwhelming.
“We were hoping for about 15 to 20 [volunteers],” said Matthew Carter, Dakota County Historical Society executive director. “Right now we are working with about 80 volunteers.”
Volunteers range in age from college students to retirees, but all share a love of history and a knack for sleuthing.
The centennial anniversary of America’s involvement in World War I spurred the adopt-a-solder project.
“We had started research for our WWI exhibit,” Carter said. “As we were doing that, we realized there was no complete database to be used to identify all the men and women who served in the war.”
Given the rising popularity of online genealogy and the easy access to historic census, birth, death and military records, the Historical Society decided to ask volunteer historians to give them a hand. In addition, the Historical Society merged with the Dakota County Genealogical Society in 2017; this project is a celebration of those shared passions.
Each volunteer is given a list of five names at a time to research and a flash drive that includes forms to fill out and instructions. The goal is to map out soldiers’ lives before, during and after the war — all the way to their deaths.
Volunteers don’t just research men who served as soldiers, however. They’re also tracking women who traveled to the front to serve as Red Cross nurses and in other support roles. Sometimes, the Historical Society can assist such efforts with copies of old news clippings, letters and journals related to a name.
Volunteer historians are asked to save to the flash drive copies of all the census and military records they find so Historical Society staff can quickly double-check their work.
Kathleen Jones’ grandfather Joseph Michael Stephani was a World War I veteran. That personal connection sparked her interest.
She knew that her grandfather had left his job as a locomotive engineer in Minnesota at 27 to drive trains carrying troops in France. After the war, he returned home, married and had five children.
“He never talked about the war,” recalled Kathleen Jones, as she looked at a black-and-white photograph of her grandfather in uniform.
Adopt a Soldier provided her a chance to better understand that period in history and the lives of soldiers.
Her husband, too, has been energized by the project. “As we research these soldiers,” Douglas Jones said, “you feel like you know them and they’re almost part of your family.”
World War I erupted in Europe in the summer of 1914 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
The United States joined the war in April 1917 when it declared war on Germany. More than 4.7 million American military personnel mobilized for the war and 116,000 died either in battle or from other causes, including the Spanish influenza outbreak. Men ages 21 to 30 were required to sign up for the draft. About 17,000 soldiers from Minnesota served.
The Joneses spent a recent Saturday morning at the Minnesota Historical Society’s research library in downtown St. Paul, where original World War I documents are stored. They do most of their research side by side on the computer at home, but also like to pull the original WWI files. It’s an opportunity to hold documents once touched by the soldiers they’re researching.
Soldiers filled out papers at the end of the war detailing where they served, the injuries they suffered and details about the lives in Minnesota they were returning to. Some files include century-old photos of the doughboys tucked inside pages.
So far, the Joneses have researched 10 soldiers, including farm laborers and butchers sent to fight. Some were immigrants born in Hungary and Serbia, sent off to fight against their countries of origin, Douglas Jones said.
Many ended up on the Western Front in France. Some succumbed to illness; others died in battle. Many returned home to resume quiet lives.
One went on to become a career soldier also serving in WWII.
Retired Stillwater High history teacher Nancy Bader was volunteering for the county parks department, pulling invasive species, when she learned about Adopt a Soldier.
She jumped at the chance to do volunteer research and learn more about those who endured WW1.
“As a history teacher, you don’t want to just teach facts and figures,” said Bader, of St. Paul. “You try to personalize it because that’s where you find the best stories. These were real people who got up in the morning and loved and ached and got tired and got frustrated and got happy.”
Her favorite research subject so far: South St. Paul school nurse Helene Arndt, who served as a Red Cross nurse during the war. Some of the descriptive letters she sent home were printed in local newspapers. Everyone was hungry for news from the front, Bader said.
“At 29 years old, she got on a boat, sailed all the way to France. She got into Paris and was overwhelmed by how different everything was. She then went to the front. She said she sees miles of U.S. boys marching with their guns,” Bader said.
“That’s what I love about history — these stories.”
Interested in volunteering? Call the Historical Society at 651-552-7548.