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CAMP CUSTER

 

            Before the spring of 1917, the war in Europe was a distant conflict which Americans watched from afar, with little direct impact on their daily lives.  On Friday, April 6, 1917, that all changed when President Wilson signed the joint resolution of Congress and the United States of American declared war on Germany.

            Within three months, the city of Battle Creek was changed forever as construction began on Camp Custer.  The government issued a call for sites for “cantonments” or training centers for recruits.  Local government officials went to work to obtain one of these valuable sites for Battle Creek.  Their efforts were rewarded and the community pitched in to make the dream a reality.

            Construction began on July 1, 1917 and on December 5, less than six months later, the completed camp was turned over to the government.

            A booklet, “Souvenir of Camp Custer,” published in 1918, gives an excellent contemporary view of the camp and its resources.

            Camp Custer was called a “national university that takes a young man from the farm, the shop and the office and in a few short months graduates soldiers, trained and equipped, ready to fight the battles of democracy.”

            “Camp Custer is a wonder place.  Nothing like it was ever built in America before -- and this is one of thirty-six such cantonments, all built in an amazingly short time to meet the country’s emergency needs.

            “The site of Camp Custer was as peaceful and quiet stretch of countryside as existed in America.  Then came the declaration of war, and in five months a complete military city of two thousand buildings, with comfortable quarters for 36,000 men, stretched its length over four miles of territory.

            “Camp Custer occupies a site chosen by the Spiritualists before the civil war for a Utopian community to be named Harmonia.  [Note:  This is where Sojourner Truth lived for the first ten years she was in the Battle Creek area, from 1857 to 1867, before she moved into the city itself.]  The camp stretches along a series of hills overlooking the Kalamazoo river, the land being high and well-drained.

            “Land for the cantonment was leased by the Battle Creek Chamber of Commerce, which raised a fund to pay the farmers their rent in advance, the organization acting as agent for the Government, but first going on record pledging itself to return to the Government any profit that might accrue from the transaction.

            “Workmen all over the middle west heard the call for help, and in a few weeks the number of men employed in the construction reached eight thousand.  Material used in the construction of the camp would fill a freight train thirty-six miles long.  The total cost of the camp was $8,000,000.

            “This military city has its own water system, a sewer system, its own pavements, its central heating plants, its own hospital, bakery, laundry and all institutions that go to make a modern and sanitary city.  A paved road was built connecting it with Battle Creek.

            “Camp Custer today [1918] covers, with its barracks, rifle range, drill grounds and quartermaster buildings, ten thousand acres -- two hundred farmers vacated their land to make way for the needs of the nation.”

            There were additions to the basic structure of the camp.  Early in 1918 the base hospital was doubled in size, to include more than 120 wards.  180 additional barracks were also built in 1918.

            “Besides the barracks there are a number of interesting camp institutions:  a remount station where thousands of horses and mules are trained and equipped for army service; a camp bakery with a capacity to furnish bread for a city of 40,000; a water system with a supply of artesian water of 3,000,000 gallons daily; and a laundry as large as any in the state.”

            At its peak, the camp held more than 60,000 soldiers-to-be.  Young men poured into the camp from all over the Midwest, arriving by Michigan Central or Grand Trunk railroad lines.  “When a selected man arrives at Camp Custer, he goes first to the depot brigade, where he receives a thorough medical examination and is given his uniform and equipment.  He is then given his first military instructions and is later transferred to a special branch of the service -- the infantry, the artillery, or some specialized branch of fighting.

            “The army gives him all military instruction, but after his drill hours, there is opportunity to attend classes in many courses of instruction, the curriculum equaling a high school course.

            “Camp Custer turns out trained soldiers for the great United States army, but it also graduates men who gain in its training a better conception of the value of clean living, a knowledge of discipline and an education which fits them better for the obligations of a citizenship in a great democracy.”

           

 

CAMP CUSTER AFTER WORLD WAR I

 

            After World War I was over, the camp was used by a variety of military and governmental agencies, including the ORC and ROTC.  The district headquarters and training center for the CCC was also located at Camp Custer in the 1930s.

            In 1940 the name was changed to Fort Custer and it was designated a permanent military reservation.  During World War II, another 6,000 acres and additional barracks were added to the site.  The Fort continued to be a training site and was named headquarters of the Provost Marshall General’s 350th Military Police escort guard.

            The Fort was also a processing center for prisoners of war and more than 4,000 German POWs were interned here, several of whom were buried at nearby Fort Custer National Cemetery.

            In 1945 Percy Jones General Hospital took over the facility and converted the Fort into a rehabilitation center for more than 10,000 patients.

            Fort Custer is currently an Army National Guard and Reserves Training Center serving Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio units, as well as providing training facilities for the FBI, State Police and ROTC.