PEORIA — As World War I raged 100 years ago, citizens across the home front did their part to support the war effort. But two central Illinois communities also saw dramatic changes as the nation moved to a war footing.
The burgeoning Holt Caterpillar Co. orchestrated a master class in maintenance and repair of Holt tractors adjacent to its East Peoria production facility at a military encampment — Camp Herring — whose legacy is little known. Meanwhile, a portion of the campus at what was then Bradley Polytechnic Institute was transformed into a separate training site for a bevy of skills for both students there and others in the area.
With production accelerating at Holt, which ultimately would supply thousands of tractors to the war effort, there was a need for men at the front who could perform maintenance on the vehicles.
Hence the creation of Camp Herring.
"People from Holt would go over ... and they would train the soldiers on how to use the equipment," Caterpillar corporate heritage supervisor Lee Fosburgh said in an interview at the company's archives.
"Holt employees were the trainers. They were on line during the day; they'd bring their guns to work, they'd run over to the camp after," he said.
Holt officials worked with the government to create the facility, located in the area alternately known as Richland Farms or The Bottoms.
It's not certain exactly where the camp's boundaries were in the area, though Fosburgh said a portion of it likely included the area where the company's Building KK now stands, south of the Cedar Street Bridge along Edmund Street.
Across the river, Bradley Polytechnic Institute answered the War Department's call to action.
In early 1918, with American involvement in the "Great War" in full swing, military leaders reached out to 20 technical institutes across the country and asked them to offer intensive, 60-day courses in a variety of mechanical arts alongside military drilling. The resulting encampment's history is extensively detailed in documents in the special collections section of Bradley University's library.
A Bradley brochure extolled the virtues of the program under the heading "Uncle Sam wants you to go to school."
Among its sales pitches, which may still seem familiar today: "Modern warfare is a battle of trades and sciences, fought in the field, it is true, but prepared for in workshops and laboratories."
More than 2,000 men went through the camp according to a War Department letter preserved in Bradley's special collections archive. About 1,500 saw overseas service.
Trainees at what was dubbed Camp Bradley were quartered in what was then the school's gymnasium — now the Hartmann Center for Performing Arts — as well as in barracks buildings the trainees built themselves.
Space inside Bradley Hall provided mass cafeteria seating for 700 people at once, and trainees drilled on the athletic field, including a bayonet run.
The school's 1918-19 course catalog lists training in "automobile mechanism, blacksmithing, machine shop, carpentry, instrument repair, practical electricity, gunsmithing, the tractor, lens grinding."
Operations at Camp Bradley won wide praise from the government, which in a 1919 letter from the War Department, "The food and housing service given at Bradley ranked among the highest in this entire district."
University records say there were only eight deaths during all the rounds of training — none from accident and five from influenza. There were zero court martials, and only one desertion — and that trainee voluntarily returned.
And it was economical. The camp cost a half-million dollars over its one-year life and the university refunded $20,000 to the federal government.
It even introduced some new language to the youth of the area. The school's 1919 yearbook says that, "Even the students of Bradley not connected with the army caught the military spirit and terms such as 'at ease' and 'as you were' became very popular."
Chris Kaergard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.