"Lindsborg During WWI: Service, Sacrifice, Dissent"

By Jolyn Johnston-Myers
August 21, 2016

Lindsborg’s Bethany College was recently awarded a $3,223 grant from the Kansas Humanities Council to fund a collaborative project between the college and the McPherson County Old Mill Museum in Lindsborg.

Dr. Thomas Jorsch, a professor in the Bethany College Department of History and Political Science, will serve as the director of, “Lindsborg During World War I: Service, Sacrifice, and Dissent.” It’s an entirely digital project that will focus on telling the story of Lindsborg residents during the First World War, which was fought in Europe from 1914-1918, although the United States didn’t officially join until 1917.

“We’re trying to create what we call a digital humanities project,” Dr. Jorsch explained. “Which means putting a bunch of historical information on the internet that’s available to the public, and they can interact with it in various ways depending on what was produced.

“It’s a good research project for students, too,” he continued. “They’re researching an historical topic, but instead of just writing a paper about it, they produce this public thing that can be educational, or just informational.”

The project will be completed mainly by honors students who are enrolled in a research intensive course, although Dr. Jorsch may involve some of his regular history students as well. Either way, he intends to have the project ready to present to the public by the end of the 2017 spring semester, which would coincide nicely with the 100-year anniversary of the United States joining the war when they declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

“Hopefully by May of next year is when we’re going to do a presentation of it at the Old Mill showing whatever we have.” Dr. Jorsch went on to explain that he can’t be sure what all that presentation might entail until the work is underway and they see how much information is discovered in their research.

“I have a class that’s going to work on it this next semester and they’ll get a big chunk of it done -- maybe all of it. I’m not quite sure how all of this is going to work,” Dr. Jorsch said. “I don’t know how much information is out there.

“I might have classes working on it the following semester, but [regardless] there’ll be some kind of big unveiling in May at the Old Mill.”

Despite the project being completely digital, only a small portion of the grant is anticipated to go toward technical support and development – even though that side of things can get very complicated depending on what options are utilized.  

“There’s elaborate mapping programs that you can use that show how people move across the world,” Dr. Jorsch offered as an example. “[Recruits] are drafted in Lindsborg and they train at Ft. Riley and then they go to France… And you can map all of this in very sophisticated ways, and that gets complicated. But we have some people around campus that can probably help with that if we want to go that direction.

“A lot of it’s just going to be scanning documents, putting them on the internet, giving some explanation to it, and things along those lines that aren’t terribly complicated.”

What a big portion of the grant will go toward, however, is hiring translators to help with WWI documents which, for the most part, are now 100 years old.

“One big chunk of money is allotted for translation because a lot of documents in Lindsborg from that time period are in Swedish. So we’re going to hire a translator to go through some of the newspapers and church records and other things to translate things so we can see what the Swedes are saying rather than just relying on the English language resources.”

Naturally, Lindsborg has no shortage of translators to help with that part of the project.

“There’s a ton of people around here that speak Swedish, including at the college, and I’ve already located a couple of people that are going to help with that.”

However, Dr. Jorsch is hoping that involvement from the Lindsborg community expands beyond translating Swedish documents.

“I’ve already sent some messages around town on Facebook, and there’s community posts we have, saying, ‘Hey, if you have an attic full of WWI stuff – letters home from grandpa who served on the front or an old uniform or something, let me know so I can come scan the stuff or we can just talk about it.’ I’ve only had a limited response at this point, but I’m hoping to get a whole bunch of people from the community to get involved as well.”

Dr. Jorsch anticipates more and more people contributing as word spreads and people start discovering more items and more understanding of how their own family was involved in the First World War.

“It gets lost in the shadow of WWII I think more than anything,” Dr. Jorsch said. “But it’s the 100th anniversary of WWI, which is why I’m doing this. There’s a lot of different groups that are putting up grant money to do things with the history of WWI because it’s the 100-year anniversary. So I’m taking advantage of that to just trace what happened here in Lindsborg during the war.”

It’s possible the project will eventually expand beyond the reaches of Lindsborg, and possibly beyond the scope of the original grant. Certainly, more interesting material is out there should it continue to grow.  

“One interesting thing I found already if I want to go as far south as McPherson, is people around here were a little angry about the draft,” Dr. Jorsch said, and then he went on to explain in more detail.

“Because the way it was set up was that each county had to give X percent based on their population. But in the southern part of the county – McPherson – since there were so many Brethren, they were opting out for religious reasons. So they weren’t counted. They were getting deferments. And that meant most of McPherson County’s draftees were coming from the northern part of the county, which didn’t make a lot of people too happy.

“It’s an interesting thing to throw in,” he added. “But I just didn’t know how much I want to bring in McPherson and trace the people there as well because it just adds to the project. But I’m hopeful we can start with Lindsborg, and depending on how things go, we can expand from there and go as far as we want.”

The grant from the Kansas Humanities Council is a type that’s given to encourage the preservation of local cultural resources. According to its executive director Julie Mulvihill, “This project is an innovative way to explore the impact of the war on Lindsborg residents through World War I artifacts, photographs, and other primary resources.”

Bethany College was established by Swedish Lutheran immigrants in 1881 and is a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The mission of Bethany College is to educate, develop and challenge individuals to reach for truth and excellence as they lead lives of faith, learning and service.

Bethany College is on the Web at