Young man’s fight; old man’s war
Madera County Historical Society
Madera’s first to join WWI. Herbert Macon is second from the right. The two men in the center were on the local draft board.
Dr. Dow Ransom and his wife Edyth arrived at the Yosemite Hotel a little before 7 o’clock on the evening of September 8, 1917. He had been chosen as Master of Ceremonies for the event that was about to take place, and she was there to represent Madera’s War Relief Committee. Town leaders were gathering to say farewell to a special group of Maderans.
Folks who remembered that night said that it was the most elaborate affair ever held in the hotel dining room. Thirty-one dignitaries and guests joined six raw recruits to pay special tribute to the first Maderans to go off to fight in World War I, the war that was supposed to end all wars. One of them they would never see again.
Following a social hour, the banquet was served, and following the meal, a local orchestra entertained the group. Then, of course, some gave patriotic speeches.
Mrs. Ransom, made a few remarks and presented a “comfort bag” to each of the draftees. Following this, her husband, Dr. Ransom, was introduced as the Master of Ceremonies, and tried in his remarks to add a little humor to what could have been a sad occasion.
Professor W.L. Williams who taught at the high school was the main speaker. He spoke passionately about the need for America to be in the fight and insisted that more men of honor, such as were being acknowledged, were needed in the struggle. Williams took a verbal swipe at all who opposed the entry of the United States into the conflict and was roundly applauded.
Mill owner George Thurman then proposed a toast and led the group in “three cheers that were given with such enthusiasm that they made the walls echo.” Then the boys left with their families to spend their last night at home before boarding the train for camp the next day.
War fever had swept Madera in the spring and summer of 1917. America had entered World War I, and the local boys were not going to shirk their duty, least of all Herbert Macon. He was the oldest son of Horace Macon, Madera County Tax Collector, and in August 1917, he was drafted into the army along with James Hilton and Torrence O. Tlbhets of Oaknurst, John A. Franchi and Robert Rowe of Madera and William Forrester of Fairmead.
It was reported that these half dozen Maderans were “anxious to leave for mobilization,” as they arrived to be sworn in on September 8.
Little did Herbert Macon know when he raised his hand to take the oath that day that he had less than a year to live. He would be the first to go.
The local draft board put the Fairmead recruit, William Forrester, in charge of the six-man squad, and they spent the afternoon being instructed on how to proceed to Camp Lewis, Washington for training before being shipped to the front. Then they all returned home to get ready for the big shindig at the Yosemite Hotel restaurant that night.
The Macons lived at 718 West 5th Street in Madera, and one can only imagine the scene that night after the party, as Horace and Ida Macon surrounded by their children Viola, Lawrence, and Elton, said their private good-byes to Herbert. Since they were members of the Presbyterian Church in Madera, one would not be surprised to learn that they leaned heavily on their faith that night.
The next morning, September 9, came quickly. The family dressed, ate breakfast, and drove to the Southern Pacific train depot. When they arrived, they found a huge crowd of Madera folks on hand ready to say goodbye, including Dr. Ransom. The platform was crowded with well wishers and family members. Henry Seron, a professional photographer managed to grab John Griffin and George Teaford, members of the local draft board, and line them up with the six draftees in front of the depot office for a picture. It was the last photograph ever taken of Herbert Macon.
At 11 o’clock that Sunday morning, the northbound train arrived, and Madera’s first World War I soldiers said farewell and boarded. As the train pulled away from the station, tears filled the eyes and fear filled the hearts.
Herbert Macon and his comrades-in-arms were taken to Camp Lewis for basic training. He was then assigned to Company B of the 59th Infantry, Fourth Division. Within weeks he was in Europe.
Macon made it until July 1918 when he was wounded in the Battle of Chateau Thierry. He died a few days later—the first Maderan to give his life in World War I.
Word of Macon’s death did not reach Madera until October, but when it came, it devastated the town, including Dr. Ransom who was not home when the cablegram arrived. He had put his medical practice on hold so that he could put on a uniform and join the struggle.
Madera’s pioneer physician refused to sit by and allow this to be a “young man’s fight and an old man’s war.”