Ft. Devens Museum Highlights a Shirley Family
Creating a Canteen for Soldiers in WWI
Fort Devens Museum’s monthly program for visitors on Saturday, December 15, at 1 p.m. focuses on one Shirley family’s efforts to create a “home away from home” for soldiers at Camp Devens training to take their place on the field of action in France during World War I.
Ayer with its railroad hub and bustling downtown drew soldiers to a number of service clubs and canteens quickly set up there to offer hospitality, a sense of home, and a boost to morale. The history of this concerted effort on behalf of servicemen has been generally made known. However, in the adjacent town of Shirley efforts were made also to create homey, friendly places for the crowds of soldiers assigned to Camp Devens with off-duty time but no way or means of getting anywhere near their own families’ homes.
Now a recent publication has brought to light the story of one family’s making a longtime commitment to provide a 24-7 informal canteen in their own home. The book Water for Soldiers: New England Villages Answer the Call in World War tells of one of Shirley’s institutions created to enhance soldiers’ wellbeing and dispel loneliness. The home offering water for soldiers marching by and much more can be seen still on Parker Road at Shirley Center, looking much as it did over 100 years ago, located quite near the common on which soldiers drilled.
Thinking to help the lot of the common soldiers were Frank Lawton and his daughter, Shirley, along with Anna, Frank’s wife and Shirley’s mother. It is Shirley who later in life wrote down her reminiscences, with a big assist from a logbook in which visitors wrote their names and unit numbers and commented on their times at the Lawton house.
In her manuscript Shirley Lawton Houde (Married after the war) gave her impressions of Camp Devens being built. She described individual visitors the family had become friends with, many over extended time periods – at first those in training or instructing the recruits (in the 76th and 12th Divisions), then those recuperating from battlefield wounds and veterans being mustered out (mainly from the 26th Yankee Division with some from other units). She described activities and entertainments at the home and local people who joined them to meet the soldiers.
Telling the Lawtons’ story on December 15th will be Paul Przybyla, a retired Fidelity Bank executive and Shirley resident active in the Shirley Historical Society. He will describe also the story of how this fascinating, many-faceted manuscript came to be dusted off and finally given a well-deserved place in print for a wide audience.
The Fort Devens Museum is located on the third floor of 94 Jackson Road, Devens, MA. The museum will be open from 10 AM to 3 PM on this day and the program is free and open to the public.