Catherine Jean “Kate” Wright (1870-1937) was the daughter of Jackson and Nancy (Thompson) Wright, born in Brownsville, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. By the time she turned three, the family had settled in Madison County, Iowa, near Winterset.
It seems that life got difficult for the Wright children after the death of their mother in 1882. Several family legends place the blame squarely on Jackson and his second wife, Josie. It’s hard to know what went on and why, but it’s a fact that seven of Jackson’s nine children left Iowa for Montana for extended periods; I think Kate was second or third out the door. She joined her elder brother George in Utica, Montana around 1889.
Kate married Harmon E. Meacham in 1895 back in Winterset – so she returned at some point, likely after her father’s death in 1890. The couple had sons Rex and Fred in Iowa, but returned to Utica in the Spring of 1900, where daughter Virgie, and sons Jack and Homer were born. Eventually the family moved to Kalispell, where their descendants are to this day.
There are a few tidbits about Kate that especially interested me. #1 – I was in contact with some of her descendants, and had an opportunity to buy an old bedroom set of hers. #2 – She really looks like a Wright – there’s a particularly strong resemblance between her and her sister, Myrtle. (Stay tuned for a Myrtle feature, coming soon!) And #3 – Kate’s daughter Virgie was a favorite cousin of my mom’s Aunt Eve, whom I knew quite well.
But the most fascinating point about Kate was her participation in a Gold Star Mothers pilgrimage in 1930. Pvt. Rex A. Meacham was a casualty of World War I, killed in France and buried in the massive Meuse-Argonne Cemetery there. And it was for Kate and the thousands of mothers like her that the US government began the Gold Star Mothers program, footing the bill to enable ladies to see the graves of their fallen sons. (A man named John W. Graham wrote a book and produced a PBS documentary on the Gold Star Mothers project, if you’re interested in learning more.)
The following are excerpts from the article from the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake, July 14, 1930, detailing Kate’s journey, much of it in Kate’s own words.
Every detail to provide comfort and entertainment for the Gold Star Mothers who visited the graves of their sons who died overseas in the World war and were buried in France, was provided by the United States government [and] the French government, and the people cooperated in every way to make the visit a memorable one according to Mrs. H. E. Meacham and Mrs. Martin Rising, who returned recently from their pilgrimage to France.
“The whole journey seemed to be worked like machinery; there was no hesitancy, no doubt as to the care of each of the groups of Mothers, and everyone received such wonderful attention,” said Mrs. Meacham. “All of those in charge of the groups were American army officers, aids and nurses, and in France, those in charge were the French army officers and nurses.”
“We could not have found France at a more beautiful time. Our trip took about six weeks and it was spent at the best time of the season. Thousands of War Mothers are being transported back and forth all of the time and this work will be done until October. These pilgrimages are to last for three years, so that each mother will have a chance to visit her son’s grave.”
Before leaving for Europe, the War Mothers, with army aids, made a sight-seeing trip in New York… The Mothers were stationed at the Hotel McAlpin. On May 31, the “S. S. Washington,” carrying the Montana delegation, sailed. There were about 1600 people on the boat, many of them the Mothers, and the majority, regular passengers as well as a crew of 600. Outstanding among the passengers [was] Father Flanagan, who was returning to Ireland to study.
The Washington landed at Cherbourg, France, a port not often visited by passenger vessels. Major Carott and Captain Ernst of the French army met the Mothers and several aids and lieutenants assisted in taking charge. Three nurses also aided in the care of the delegation of which the Kalispell ladies were members. The three nurses had all seen duty at the front in the World war. “We found Miss Seller, the Scotch nurse, especially delightful,” said Mrs. Meacham.
The first act that the Mothers did after arriving in Paris was to place wreaths on the grave of the Unknown Soldier. They also visited the Napoleon and Lafayette monuments, and spent some time shopping in the stores of Paris.
The following day after they had landed in Paris, 196 Gold Star Mothers were taken in omnibuses to the Meuse-Argonne cemetery which is about 157 miles from Paris. They were stationed at the Hotel Commodore at Verdun, near the cemetery, and their various trips were within a short radius of that town. Here at Verdun there is a monument dedicated to the allies, and it bears the inscription, in French, “They Shall Not Pass.” Here also is erected a war mausoleum.
The Meuse-Argonne cemetery, which is the largest and the most beautiful American cemetery in France, is entered through the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. There are 14,095 American soldiers buried in the cemetery here. White marble crosses mark each grave, whereas the German graves are marked with black crosses and have a lavender flower against the black background. “They are very striking-looking,” said Mrs. Meacham. The French graves are marked only with white crosses of wood.
In the Meuse-Argonne cemetery, Rex Meacham, an esteemed member of the medical corps, was buried. He was killed in action.
“It was worth the whole journey just to know how perfectly wonderful the cemetery was kept up,” said the Kalispell Gold Star Mothers.
The War Mothers returned on the S. S. Roosevelt, a much smaller ship that the one in which they had crossed the Atlantic. They arrived home weary, but very happy.
What a lovely thing for the government to do, really. And BONUS! This article provided me with yet another Small World Moment. The Hotel McAlpin, where Kate stayed in New York (Herald Square, 34th & Broadway), was also where I stayed in New York – my best friend’s apartment, as well as my actual home for the eight loooong weeks in 1984 that I tried to live there. Spooooky.