(Editor’s Note: This article was written to celebrate our rich local history, in recognition of March as Women’s History Month.)
The Eldred World War II museum offers room after room of displays and memorabilia for an immersive educational experience. In one room, the wall is covered with photos and short snippets sharing facts about local residents who were part of the war effort — both overseas and here at home. Numerous faces on the wall belong to women.
“We’re a Girl Power museum,” said Curator Steve Appleby during a recent visit. He noted that, without the munitions plant that was located in Eldred during World War II and the primarily female employees who worked there, the museum would not exist.
Appleby shared a story he noted was a personal favorite — that of Arlene Cook, a Buffalo, N.Y. native whose brother died while serving in the Army during World War II. Cook, a 17-year-old junior at the time, quit high school and moved to Eldred to work in the munitions plant. Cook is still a resident in the area.
Cook is featured in a display in the entrance room of the museum. A photo is kept with the display, which features Cook in her uniform years after her employment, standing beside a photo of her and in front of the photo mural, where Cook is one of the workers on the line, forever immortalized while hard at work. The photo shares a clear protective sleeve with a V-mail from Cook’s brother during his time in the Army.
V-mail was the accepted stationary used in the war, according to Appleby. The mail was made a certain size, so soldiers could write letters or draw images to communicate with family, and then military personnel could shrink the image to microfilm, which saved space on the military transport planes used to convey the correspondence to the United States. The images were then resized to the standard stationary dimensions and delivered to family members free of charge.
Appleby explained the plant had 1,500 workers, with women accounting for around 95% of those employed at the facility.
Other faces who are immortalized on the wall include:
- Marjorie “Marge” Fowler, who was born in Bradford and moved to Eldred in 1940. She began working for the British at the Eldred munitions plant in the Spring of 1940, one of the first women hired to work at the plant. She helped assemble and install the explosive charge in the base of 81mm mortar shells.
- Charlotte Stull Walch, who was born in Eldred and worked with her husband, Lee Evans Stull, at the munitions plant. They both worked to assemble and pack bombs. According to the museum display, Lee joined the Navy and died in April of 1945. Charlotte worked as a timekeeper at the plant following Lee’s death.
- Arline Baker Cook, born in Hamburg, N.Y., who worked in the munitions plant in 1942 and 1943.
- Gerry Baker Zetler, who was born in Rixford, and worked in the plant during the summers of 1943, 1944 and 1945. She did general assembly work on incendiary bombs and also riveted tails on bombs in 1944.
- Hazel Nicholls, born in Sawyer, Pa., and a transplant to Bradford, worked as a letter writer during the war, writing to American servicemen.
- Josephine Kennelley Jones, born in Bradford. She worked at the munitions plant from 1941 to 1945. She worked as inspector #1 on the mortar bomb assembly line in building 12.
- Ortha Kemp Goodman, who passed away in 2018, was born in Rew and a longtime Eldred resident. Ortha worked at the munitions plant from 1941 to 1945; she held many different positions, including packing cartridges and assembling smoke bombs, as well as working on the fuse line. She was also one of the first co-directors of the Eldred museum.
World War II was not the first time women worked outside the home, but it did change the type of work women did and the scope of their involvement. In particular, World War II led many women to take jobs in defense plants and factories around the country, jobs left open by the soldiers departing for the fighting overseas.
The munitions plant in Eldred came to be as the answer to a quest for a new site for munitions manufacturing for the British — which was originally intended for Canadian soil. Eldred was a backup suggestion from the Cleveland attorney, George Roundebush, who was tasked with finding a suitable location. The criteria for the site included seclusion in a rural setting, a nearby railroad line and residents who would be available to work in the new plant. With the history of oil and gas exploration, McKean County was a region where a munitions plant wouldn’t draw undue attention, according to official logic at the time. Plant No. 1 was constructed shortly after 1,800 acres of farmland were purchased. The plant opened in January 1941, almost a full year before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of the year, a government munitions plant was built on the same site and the collective entity, known as Eldred Munitions Plant, operated through 1946.