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Food and Drink in WWI Minnesota

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. The lives and stories of two Lakewood residents Rozette Hendrix and James Ford Bell shed light on the role of food and drink—specifically the conservation of food and the prohibition of alcohol—in World War I Minnesota.

Minneapolis: On the Front Lines of Food Production

Let’s start with a bit of background. Though World War I did not take place on American soil, it shaped everyday life for American citizens, including Minnesotans. Nearly 120,000 Minnesotans served overseas in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. On the home front, nearly all business endeavors and daily obligations were redirected in service of the war effort. Minneapolis, which had established itself as the greatest wheat producing city in the country by the 1880s, boasted a thriving economy based largely on milling; because of this, nearly all of the city’s industrial efforts were redirected overseas, providing food for the Allies whose farmland had been destroyed by combat.

It was in this context that food and drink became politically charged. Conserving wheat and sugars, growing your own food and limiting alcohol consumption became patriotic activities in Minnesota and beyond.

Rationing, Victory Gardens, and James Ford Bell’s Milling Division at the Food Administration

From the early days of the war, the U.S. provided food to the Allies, many of whom were starving after combat ravaged their agriculture centers. As the U.S. redirected food production efforts overseas, conservation and at-home gardening became patriotic activities. Minneapolis high schools operated greenhouses to grow vegetables, children planted “Victory Gardens,” and many residents grew their own grains and vegetables at home. Food preservation and canning workshops were hosted at public forums like the Minnesota State Fair.

Students at Minneapolis’s North High operate their school’s greenhouse in 1918

Source: Hennepin History Museum

Just like gardening, food conservation became imbued with pro-war, pro-American sentiment. The Food Administration (now the Food and Drug Administration) was formed, in part, to encourage rationing that stretched the wheat supply at home. They expertly used posters and pamphlets to tie conservation to patriotism. “Food will win the war” became a national rallying cry.

A Food Administration poster encouraging food conservation.

Source: The Gilder Lehrman Collection

Food rationing and conservation was ubiquitous among American citizens during World War I. However, this rationing was technically voluntary. On the supply side, however, changes were involuntary. To guarantee that the U.S. could supply sufficient food for the Allies, Food Administration president Herbert Hoover tapped Minnesotan James Ford Bell to lead his agency’s milling division.

James Ford Bell. Source: Minnesota Historical Society

Bell’s career in Minnesota had prepared him well for the job. Born in Philadelphia in 1879, Bell studied chemistry at the University of Minnesota before entering the milling industry. He became vice president at the Washburn-Crosby Company in 1915. During his tenure, his company produced more wheat than any milling company in Minneapolis. As head of the Milling Division of the Food Administration, Bell introduced policies to stretch the supply of wheat. Millers were required to register with the government, operate under price controls, and mill whole wheat flour instead of refined flour.

After the war ended in 1918, Bell returned to Minnesota, where he formed General Mills. But perhaps it was his wartime career that developed Bell’s passion for conservation. He went on to donate to conservation causes and to fund the renovation of the University of Minnesota’s Zoological Museum, later renamed the Bell Museum of Natural History.

Bell’s grave at Lakewood

Rozette Hendrix and the Final Push to Ban Alcohol

Thanks in part to the work of the Food Administration, scaling back on grains and sugar was as American as apple pie by 1918. This food consciousness provided a new platform for advocates of a certain political campaign to advance their cause. That campaign was the prohibition of alcohol.

The fight for prohibition started long before WWI. In fact, Minnesota had been a hotbed for prohibitionist sentiment since the 1850s—the early days of statehood. Alcohol, they said, contributed to domestic abuse, unemployment, promiscuity, and other social ills that damaged families. Men and women alike supported the cause. It is largely remembered, however, as a women’s campaign, since it was one of the few socially acceptable political roles for women at the time.

The Minnesota chapter of the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had been active since 1877. But state chapter president Rozette Hendrix used the food consciousness of World War I to propel the group’s mission. Rozette, who was almost sixty years old when the U.S. entered the war, distributed literature and posters in many languages about patriotism, conservation, and temperance. She used the food-consciousness of the era to promoted rallying cries like “We need grain, coal and transportation facilities for victories in warfare, but we do not need whisky, beer, and other intoxicants.” She also saw to it that WCTU members support the war. Local chapters raised funds, knit blankets for soldiers, and volunteered with the Red Cross. Even after the war was over, Hendrix’s WCTU continued to support soldiers by donating supplies to the Fort Snelling hospital.

A 1918 entry from temperance magazine “The Union Signal” linking prohibition to wartime victory

Hendrix’s efforts succeeded. The number of “dry” territories in Minnesota increased during World War I, as did membership in the WCTU. Statewide prohibition passed in early 1919, long before federal prohibition went into effect in July 1920.

A 1918 button worn by supporters of prohibition. Source: Minnesota Historical Society

Prohibition has gone down in history as an unpopular decision. In 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, ending the prohibition of alcohol and making prohibition the only constitutional amendment to be overturned. But the hard work and patriotism of Hendrix and other Minnesotans made our state a leader in a popular national movement intended to lessen the social ills of the time.

Hendrix’s grave at Lakewood

Minnesotans in Leadership

Minnesotans, with their strong ties to milling and agriculture, helped shape the role of food and drink on the Home Front during World War I. After the war ended and prohibition was enacted, global and local demand for wheat lessened. Minneapolis’s wheat production output peaked during World War I. But James Ford Bell, Rozette Hendrix and countless other Minnesota leaders leveraged their connection to food and drink to support the war effort and advance their causes.

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