Merci Train - Minnesota

Minnesota Merci Boxcar Minnesota Flag

Location:
Minnesota Military Museum
Camp Ripley National Guard Post
Little Falls, Minnesota

Contact:
Unknown at this time - (612) 632-7374

Artifacts:
There is no knowledge of any existing gifts.


Printer Friendly version of the above location information.



The History of the Minnesota Merci Boxcar

Timothy J. Bill

Minnesota's Merci Boxcar arrived in Minneapolis on February 13, 1949. The following day at 10:30 a.m. in what could only be described as miserable conditions, icy cold and windy, a brief ceremony was held on the front steps of the capitol. Speakers included Governor Luther Youngdahl; Jacques Fermaud, the French consul in Minneapolis; J. J. Viala, the French consul general of Chicago; and Gladys Peterson, a 15 year old school girl from Tyler, Minnesota in recognition of the work the state's school children performed when the Friendship Train came through Minnesota.[1]

The boxcar was placed on display at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, which would allow many Minnesotans to come and view it. Affixed to the side of the car was a plaque with the inscription:

"French Merci Boxcar. Presented by the People of France to the State of Minnesota in gratitude for the Friendship Train of 1948. Accepted in trust by the Grand Voiture du Minnesota la Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux for the State of Minnesota on February 14th, 1949. This car is one which was used during World War One for military purposes. 40 Hommes et 8 Chevaux indicates capacity of 40 men or 8 horses."

The Grand Voiture du Minnesota was a branch of the national veterans' organization, La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux, also known as the 40 and 8s This organization had been formed in 1920 by World War I veterans as part of the American Legion.[2]

The Minnesota State Historical Society handled the hundreds and hundreds of gifts that were in the thirty one crates in the boxcar when it arrived. The gifts included paintings, engravings, prints, books, posters, china, glass, fine fabric, lace, dolls, toys, lamps, and many other items. These contents from the boxcar remained on display at the State Historical Society until July of 1949, when distribution began. A committee was created by Governor Youngdahl to oversee the distribution process, dividing the gifts into different categories. Those that were of historical or artistic value remained with the State Historical Society. Those that were educational were given to schools or to public libraries. Items of interest to particular religious groups were forwarded to them, and everything else was set aside for general distribution to the public.[3]

The boxcar itself was place at the state fairgrounds along what was known as Fraternal Row. During the first year of its placement, the boxcar was again dedicated. The 40 and 8 society held a second dedication ceremony on August 31, 1949, at the state fairgrounds. However, after this ceremony, the Minnesota Merci Boxcar seems to have temporarily faded from Minnesota's collective memory. The boxcar remained at Fraternal Row until 1963, when, presumably, it was removed as Fraternal Row was demolished to allow for road construction that began in 1964. At this point, the location of the boxcar becomes a bit sketchy.[4]

For the next two decades, the Merci Boxcar itself seems to be missing in action. The most likely explanation from the evidence gathered indicates that it was brought to Camp Ripley for storage until another location for display could be found. On February 24 of 1986, the boxcar was sitting between two warehouses at Camp Ripley in a deteriorated condition. After March 28 of the same year, the boxcar was moved to the Minnesota Military Museum on the grounds of Camp Ripley for public display.[5]

By this point in time, the state of Minnesota seems to have abandoned the Merci boxcar. When considering moving the boxcar from between the warehouses to the military museum, the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs expressly mentioned that they would not pay for the boxcar to be put on display. Fort Ripley would assist with pouring the concrete base that the rails and boxcar rest upon, but the rest of the project and refurbishment had to be paid for by the 40 and 8 Society. The 40 and 8s also had to provide for the perpetual maintenance of the boxcar. While Minnesota initially viewed the boxcar as a valuable piece of history, now the state did not want to pay for its preservation.[6]

The renovation project, done by the shops at Fort Ripley and the 40 & 8 Society at Camp Ripley, was completed by 1995. During this process the boxcar was restored to a presentable condition and its shields from the French provinces were replicated by the workshops at Camp Ripley. By using past photographs from the Minnesota car, as well as photographs from other Merci cars, fiberglass replicas of the original shields were created. A structure was also built over the car to protect it from the elements. Members of the Grand Voiture du Minnesota still offer their assistance to maintain the boxcar and occasionally add a coat of paint. As of 2010, the Minnesota Military Museum is the current place of residence for the Minnesota Merci Boxcar. [7]

Somewhere along the line, the Minnesota Merci Boxcar lost some of its original provincial shields. Each Merci boxcar had been affixed with forty shields from the historic provinces of France, divided between each side of the car. By 1963, a photograph of the boxcar reveals that one side did not have any shields at all. When the restoration took place at Camp Ripley, only twenty shields were affixed to one side of the car, while the other side was left blank. It is not known what happened to the twenty other shields. It is also interesting to note that the shields on the Minnesota Merci Boxcar differ from those of the North Dakota Merci Boxcar, which also underwent a renovation in 2005. The North Dakota boxcar has a full set of forty province shields. Without a list of original provinces or large enough photographs to compare, it is impossible to determine what the original shields were. Seventeen shields match between the two boxcars, but the shields for Cherbourg, Toulon, and Cannes on the Minnesota car cannot be found on the North Dakota boxcar.[8]

Compared to many of the other Merci boxcars, the Minnesota Merci Boxcar is in very good condition. Of the original forty nine boxcars, forty two, including the Minnesota boxcar, are in the care of a museum or other group. These cars are in varying states of repair and renovation. Some have been completely renovated, while others have been maintained. Of the remaining seven boxcars, three have been destroyed by fire. Two others have been sold for scrap, and the boxcar from Colorado is missing. The boxcar given to both Washington D.C. and Hawaii is heavily dilapidated and beyond repair. Overall, it seems Minnesota has been one of the better caretakers of its Merci Boxcar.[9]

The Minnesota Merci Boxcar is largely a surprise to most visitors of the Minnesota Military Museum. According to the museum's director, only a few people a year visit specifically to see the Merci Boxcar. She went on to state that most people do not know anything about the Merci Train, and those who do know of it do not know that the museum has it. The only group to bring people to see the boxcar is the Grand Voiture du Minnesota, which also maintains the boxcar. It would seem that the Minnesota Merci Boxcar has nearly vanished from Minnesota's collective memory. The only remaining memory group is the Grand Voiture du Minnesota.[10]

The Grand Voiture du Minnesota is a member of the larger Voiture Nationale, also known as the 40 and 8s. The national group was founded in 1920 by American veterans of the Great War as an arm of the American Legion. The group took its name directly from the 40 and 8 boxcars of French notoriety. In 1960 the organization became an independent veterans' organization. This national organization's endeavors include involvement in different charities, programs and scholarships to promote children's welfare and programs for nurse's training. They also look after the remaining Merci 40 and 8 boxcars. In the case of Minnesota's Merci boxcar, they are the only remaining memory group.[11]

As the sole memory group of the Minnesota Merci Boxcar, the Grand Voiture du Minnesota is hugely important in terms of its collective memory. The group has spent its time and money to keep the boxcar in as good as condition as possible. The reason this group has had such a large interest in the boxcar is likely due to the fact that it helps reinforce the group's identity. As Michael Kammen explains, "history is an essential ingredient in defining national, group or personal identity." As veterans of World War I, the members of the Grand Voiture du Minnesota likely experienced riding in the 40 & 8 boxcars across France to the front lines. This iconic experience helps them explain who they are as a group, and the boxcar is the living reminder of that experience. In this respect, France made a fortunate choice in selecting 40 and 8 boxcars.[12]

Even though the group has been active in preserving the Minnesota Merci Boxcar, time has taken its toll on the Grand Voiture du Minnesota. Membership records show that since a peak membership level was reached in the early 1990s with the inclusion of World War II veterans, the total membership for Minnesota has greatly decreased. In 1972, the membership for Minnesota was 1,831. In 1992, the ranks had grown to 2,446 likely because of campaigns to bring veterans into the organization. However, by 2009 membership had sunk back down to 1,457 as members passed away, with current projections for 2010 at 695 members. As these veterans continue to age and pass away, the memory group will also disappear, likely leaving the Minnesota Merci Boxcar completely forgotten.[13]

There are a number of likely reasons that no other memory groups developed for the Merci Boxcar. The largest single reason is the fact that no American memory group chose to create this monument. It was a gift from France, which meant no group had to invest in creating the monument and therefore had no stake in its future. While the 40 and 8s have adopted the boxcar, no other group has an intrinsic connection to it. The boxcar was also moved from its original location and was transplanted in central Minnesota. This uprooting of the monument disconnected it from any potential memory group by isolating it on a military base away from public viewing. All of these circumstances cumulated to the point that no other memory group formed around the Minnesota Merci Boxcar.

What is interesting to note is how the memory of the Minnesota Merci boxcar seems to correlate to the tenor of the Franco-American relationship at each point in time. When the boxcar first arrived, the United States had recently sent France the Friendship Train out of good will, and the two allies had just won World War II. However, by the 1960s, the relationship had cooled dramatically as France had withdrawn from NATO's integrated military structure. For the Minnesota Merci boxcar, that meant exile away from the capitol. As the Franco-American relationship warmed again in the 1980s, the boxcar was rediscovered and renovated. While no group was likely acting directly as a result of this relationship, it may reveal a wider sentiment at work during the life of the Minnesota Merci boxcar hinting that it may be seen in the light of the broader Franco-American relationship.

Over the sixty one years since the Minnesota Merci Boxcar arrived, it unfortunately has been discarded, transplanted, and forgotten. While the Grand Voiture du Minnesota has a strong connection to the boxcar, a larger memory group never formed within the Minnesota population, just as many of the other boxcars were neglected and forgotten. This is largely due to the fact the boxcars were a very specific monument, and with Minnesota's boxcar, it was moved to a different location away from the public for many years. As Kammen explains, monuments help create or reinforce a group identity. In this case, only one small group was able to adopt such a specific monument to help explain who it is. Kammen also tell us that "public interest in the past pulses; it comes and goes." While interest in the Minnesota Merci Boxcar grew during its renovation, it has again faded away. Even though this monument is largely forgotten, it still remains an important artifact of Minnesotan generosity after the Second World War.[14]

While the Minnesota Merci Boxcar has largely faded from Minnesota's collective memory, it still remains as an important piece of Minnesota's past. Any Minnesotan should be able to feel pride in Minnesota's generosity following World War II. With the boxcar's complete story compiled in one place, it is now possible to track its memory through history, providing an excellent example of the interaction between memory groups and monuments. The Grand Voiture du Minnesota and all those who have helped maintain the boxcar over the years should feel proud of its accomplishments, considering the state of some of the other Merci boxcars. Even though the Minnesota Merci Boxcar may at times feel slightly out of place, it is nonetheless an important piece of Minnesota's history. However, who knows what the future will hold for the boxcar once its memory group has disappeared.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Footnotes

[1] H. J. Res. 433, passed during the 80th Congress, 2d Session, June 18th, 1948, archives of the Minnesota Military Museum, Little Falls, Minnesota; "Merci Car Under Wraps" - St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 14th, 1949, 13;
Pursley, "Story of the French Merci Train"; "State Gets French Gifts Today" - Minneapolis Morning Tribune, February 14th, 1949, 3.

[2] 'Merci' Gifts Give At Ceremony Here - St. Paul Dispatch, February 14th, 1949, 10; "What is the 40&8," La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux, accessed November 10th, 2010, fortyandeight.org.

[3] "French Gifts To Arrive Today," St. Paul's Sunday Pioneer Press, February 13th, 1949, 2; "The Historical Scene," New of the Historical Society (1949): 179; Pursley, "Story of the French Merci Train"; "State Gets French Gifts Today" - Minneapolis Morning Tribune, February 14th, 1949, 3.

[4] 'Merci' Gifts Give At Ceremony Here - St. Paul Dispatch, February 14th, 1949, 10; 1949 Minnesota State Fair Annual Report, 14, received electronically by the author from the Minnesota State Fair Archives, St. Paul, Minnesota; 1964 Minnesota State Fair Annual Report, 4, received electronically by the from the Minnesota State Fair Archives, St. Paul, Minnesota.

[5] Adjutant General, Minnesota Department of Military Affairs message of February 24, 1986 to Camp Ripley, in regards to French "Merci" Boxcar, archives of the Minnesota Military Museum, Little Falls, Minnesota; Sandy Erickson, Minnesota Military Museum Administrator, e-mail correspondence with author, October 28, 2010.

[6] Minnesota Department of Military Affairs message of February 24, 1986.

[7] Erickson, Minnesota Military Museum Administrator, e-mail correspondence with author, October 28, 2010; Sandy Erickson, Minnesota Military Museum Administrator, personal interview with author, November 4, 2010.

[8] Photograph of the Merci Boxcar, ca. 1963, from the Minnesota State Fair Archives, St. Paul, Minnesota, received electronically by the author on November 4, 2010.; Erickson, personal interview with author, November 4, 2010.

[9] "Merci Train - Boxcars by State," mercitrain.org, accessed November 8, 2010 from mercitrain.org.

[10] Erickson, personal interview with author, November 4, 2010.

[11] "What is the 40&8," La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux, accessed November 10th, 2010, fortyandeight.org.

[12] Michael Kammen, Mystic Cords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 3-14.

[13] "Membership," The Forty & Eighter. (April 1973): 14, archives of the Minnesota Military Museum, Little Falls, Minnesota; "Membership," The Forty & Eighter, 65 (July 1993): 38, archives of the Minnesota Military Museum, Little Falls, Minnesota; "Membership 2011," The Forty & Eighter, (Fall 2010): 5, accessed online at fortyandeight.org.

[14] Michael Kammen, Mystic Cords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 3-14.


Back to Top of Page