Senior Uses Letters from WWI for Theses

Carolyn Johnson

Carolyn Johnson in the Scottish Highlands during her studies abroad in the fall of 2013.

"Let me Google that," is not a phrase Senior Carolyn Johnson from Goodhue, Minnesota, was able to use while working on her senior and honors theses. This information has yet to hit the Internet but can be found in the form of letters written during World War I at the Center for Western Studies.

A history and psychology double major, Johnson came across the letters during her sophomore year for a “Methods and Philosophies of History” class requiring her to write a paper using primary sources.

“I thought it would be easiest if I used sources at the Center for Western Studies,” she said. “So I looked through their collections, and the Vivian Ranney Raab Collection, which included her letters from the Sisters of Cheer, caught my eye. I realized that there was no information about the organization on the Internet, so I thought this would give me the chance to research and write about something completely new. It was going into uncharted waters, and it was the first time I felt like I was really "doing” history.

When she learned that her senior thesis had to relate to WWI, she knew she wanted to return to these letters.

“At the most basic level, I am in the process of expanding the research and writing to produce an honors history thesis. But I can also see how much I have grown as a student in the time I've been studying the Sisters of Cheer and Vivian Ranney,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, the Sisters of Cheer was formed on Aug. 1, 1917, in Sioux Falls to pair young women from the area with local soldiers. The women were instructed to send letters and care packages to their soldiers who were at training camps.

The group was very popular and satellite chapters were formed in many other South Dakota counties. There were similar groups in other parts of the U.S. and Europe, but Johnson speculates that it was not a coordinated, large-scale movement.

“Vivian Ranney was a 25-year-old schoolteacher at the time, and she wrote to at least four soldiers during the war,” Johnson said. “Microfilm copies of the letters she received back from soldiers are currently held in the CWS.”

“Besides trying to decipher the letters there, my research has taken me to the archives at the Old Courthouse Museum, Pettigrew House, and the public library. And of course, lots of time spent researching and writing in Augie's Mikkelsen Library.”

Through her years of working with these letters, Johnson has noticed how much her skills have grown as a writer and researcher.

“There is such a difference in what I wrote as a sophomore compared to my history thesis last semester and now my honors thesis. The honors thesis is still a work in progress, but I am using Ranney as an example of the importance of studying personal histories, and what studying these ‘normal’ people can tell us.”

She hopes to continue studying personal histories while pursuing graduate school and working in a history museum.

“When I first started, I was surprised that there was nothing about the Sisters of Cheer or any similar American letter-writing organization, but my professor pointed out that this absence says something important. As I have done more research, I have realized that there is very little written about American women on the WWI home front, particularly the ‘average’ woman like Vivian Ranney.” Johnson said. “Women (and men) who go against social convention or do something noteworthy make history; but the majority of people throughout history are, for the most part, normal, everyday people. I think these people have a place in history, and I have discovered that I want to tell their story.”

Johnson also found  something intriguing in a correspondence between Ranney and a soldier.

“I love seeing the relationship that developed between Ranney and Fred Lehmkuhl, who was one of the soldiers she wrote to. At the beginning, he thanked her for being his Cheer Sister and he talks about how much just getting a letter could cheer him up,” she said. “By the end, Lehmkuhl referred to Ranney as a true friend.”

“What is intriguing is that a different letter from Lehmkuhl says that he would start writing another one shortly, but there are no other letters from Lehmkuhl in the CWS collection. So he either didn't write the letter he promised he would, the letter got lost in the mail, or Ranney received the letter but didn't keep or donate it with the other letters. There is this element of mystery that I don't think will ever be solved, and that fascinates me.”

After graduating this month, Johnson will spend the summer as an intern for the Siouxland Heritage Museums and hopes to work for a few years before continuing her education to earn her master’s in public history or a similar field.