It was only 10 days after Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and many of the generous folks of North Platte, Nebraska, had arrived at the train station to hand off Christmas presents to their loved ones who had volunteered for the Nebraska National Guard. But when the rail cars pulled in, none of the men from Company D were there. Instead, it was the Kansas National Guard.
Undeterred, one person stepped up and offered her gifts to the troops. Her name was Rae Wilson, a local store clerk, and it was her idea to begin what would soon evolve into the country’s largest and most unique volunteer war effort of its time.
By Christmas Day 1941, dozens of community volunteers, spearheaded by Wilson, were handing out baskets filled with cookies, fruits, cigarettes and magazines through the train windows. Due to security, the men were not allowed off the train as yet. But before long, with more and more trains coming through filled with troops heading east and west to their respective military bases, they were allowed to disembark for a much needed break so a larger site was needed to provide the warm welcome and refreshments. Wilson contacted the head of the Union Pacific Railroad, North Platte resident William “Bill” Jeffers, and asked if her volunteers – who would soon represent 125 different communities – could use the depot’s vacant lunchroom.
Jeffers said yes and the North Platte Canteen was born.
More than 3,500 troops came through the canteen daily on 24 different trains between 1941 and 1946, with no charge to the soldiers and no train ever missed. Mostly older women and young girls (though some men worked there too) volunteered to serve sandwiches and drinks, provide baskets, and stand at the platforms to wave a friendly greeting.
As a travel writer on the back roads of America, I had the privilege of meeting a surviving member of the canteen volunteer staff who was only 18 in 1941. Now 92, Waneita May Schomer (her maiden name was Anderson) retains fond memories of her years at the canteen, handing out sandwiches, cookies and cakes, and serving hot and cold drinks. At the time, she lived in Maxwell, a tiny town of less than 500 residents, about 13 miles from North Platte.
“Everyone around here stepped up to help,” she says. “If a farmer got sick and needed his feed put away, other farmers came to his aid. If someone needed food, even though butter, coffee and sugar were rationed, we all made do and helped each other out.”
Now 92, Waneita May Schomer recalls her days as an 18-year-old volunteer at the North Platte Canteen.
Still sharp as a tack, she can rattle off the list of items served daily to the men going off to war: 36 birthday cakes, more or less, 20 per day on average; 75 fried chickens; 1,000 bottles of milk; thousands of boiled eggs; 30 pounds of ground beef; 2,000 buns; 90 dozen cookies; 23 pounds of butter; 16 pounds of coffee; three grates of oranges; and eight bushels of apples.
“I keep a list,” she says, smiling, “because no one believes how much food and how many drinks were provided each day, or how many troops came through.”
With eggs more plentiful on the local farms than other staples, the Canteen volunteers found creative ways to serve sandwiches and snacks.
Schomer also laughs at the memory of the soldiers carting their coffee mugs with them as they dashed to their departing trains.
“When the trains returned to the depot, the conductors brought us boxes of dirty coffee cups to wash.”
At night, she and her mother, with no electricity on their farm, would take turns beating eggs by hand and baking angel food cakes, up to six or eight at a time. Some of the other young girls made popcorn balls, and if they were brazen enough, placed their name and address inside to give to a parting soldier.
One young volunteer ended up marrying the recipient of her popcorn ball. They had four children and were devoted to each other for more than 40 years.
What did Schomer get in return for her years as a volunteer at the Canteen? “Thankfulness,” she says. “We were all very grateful for what they did for us.”
Following the war, the depot canteen was torn down, but its remnants and its rich history remain at the Lincoln County Historical Museum: 308-534-5640. Stop by and visit next time you’re in North Platte, or contact the North Platte Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau; 308-532-4729.
A young sailor during World War II, Lloyd Synovec of North Platte would entertain the troops at the piano during canteen stops. He still loves to play and continues to say, “Nebraska has the best cooks in the country, who, despite rationing, managed to come up with something good over and over. Best quick food I ever had.”