Once Upon a Town

The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen

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Recommended by my sister, when we got to talking about books last summer when we visited her in Iowa. She really liked it, and who could blame her, it's a feelgood story of small-town Midwest virtue with notes of bittersweetness of how things change over time.

Between December 1941 and April 1946, the citizens of North Platte, Nebraska provided an unparalleled example of diligence, voluntary cooperation, and unselfish patriotism. Back then, North Platte was a quick stop for troop trains heading both east and west, many times per day, every day. The North Platters took on what turned out to be a near-impossible task: during the stop, the soldiers would be provided with chicken, eggs, sandwiches, cigarettes, cake, popcorn balls, candy,… basically, whatever the citizens could provide.

If anything, the author of this history, Bob Greene, understates how difficult this was. North Platte wasn't a particularly prosperous town. During the war, a lot of basic foodstuffs were under strict rationing. They did have the advantage of being right in the middle of a lot of farming communities. But that poised problems of its own: gasoline was also rationed. How you gonna get those chickens to North Platte without gassing up the truck?

Well, they figured it out pretty well, by all accounts presented here. It is largely an oral history. Bob Greene found numerous folks, both soldiers and civilians, to tell their tales. (The book was published in 2002: roughly speaking, the folks in their twenties during the war were in their eighties then.)

Greene tours the town, with (as I said) bittersweet observations of how things changed. Passenger trains stopped coming through North Platte in the 70s, and the depot that housed the Canteen was torn down by Union Pacific not long after. (The town is still home to a thriving freight railroad business: the Union Pacific Bailey Yard is "the largest railroad classification yard in the world.")

Green has an ear for telling interesting and illustrative stories. The Hotel Pawnee (then: Hotel Yancy) was built in 1929 by North Platte native (and one-term Nebraska Governor) Morell Keith Neville. It was meant to be a luxury destination; instead the Great Depression happened. When Greene visits, it's been repurposed into an "Assisted Living Facility", but it seems to be a depressing, smelly old-people warehouse. (These days it's supposed to be in the process of a fantabulous restoration, but the newest stories I can find about that are a couple years old.)

But here's the thing. While doing my usual few minutes of superficial research on Wikipedia (footnotes elided):

On July 13, 1929, a black man shot and killed a white police officer. The black man reportedly took his own life, being trapped by a mob. This led to the formation of white mobs combing the city, and ordering black residents to leave North Platte. Fearing mob violence, most of North Platte's black residents fled.

Um. This was only a dozen years before the war, and the North Platte Canteen. And Greene doesn't mention this at all. And, geez, he pretty much had to know about it.

I can kind of understand why. It would complicate his narrative, and he'd have to wonder how many good citizens of North Platte participated in both the Canteen, and the perhaps-a-lynch mob.


Last Modified 2022-05-16 6:23 AM EDT