A Great War Remembered in Tennessee Mementos

Mar 21, 2018

Doris Bright's collection of World War I-era photos.
Credit Savannah Smith, WKNO-FM

A century ago, when America was pulled into World War I (1914-1918), many Tennesseans joined the fighting in Europe. They returned with treasured souvenirs, letters, gifts and mementos, many of which would be handed down to their descendants. For the past two years, the Tennessee State Library and Archives has been traveling across Tennessee, photographing and cataloguing memorabilia.


Last month, archivists visited the Morton Muesum of Collierville History. 

Dee Waldrup brought along a prized possession: a thick blue binder stuffed cover to cover with photographs.  

The pictures were collected by her late mother during the World War I era. She turned to the first page of the book and gently touched a black and white photo.  

"She was born 1899 and so she was 18, 19-year-old during that time," Waldrup said. "And so she knew a lot of people in the war and I remember her talking about it extensively. She could sing all the songs that they sang and do all the dances and she remembered everything they did." 

The Tennessee State Library and Archives project is titled "Over Here, Over There: Tennesseans in the First World War." It's freely accessible on the state website. 

Waldrup wanted to share the past. "To me, having my mother live through and talk about it a lot it brought it to life," she said. "But, I didn’t remember anything that happened because I was born after it was all over. But the younger people really need to know about what had happened and why it happened." 

At each stop, artifacts are photographed and documents are scanned. Participants keep the original objects but leave a detailed record of their provenance. 

Archivist Myers Brown said the beauty of the project is that it allows people to share their history with the world. "Some of these items have been within families and known about within families for the last hundred years, but beyond that they have never been shared with anybody else." 

People bring in a wide range of items for this project: sweetheart pens, postcards, letters, guns, and clothing.  

Steve Cole holds up an unusual item from his collection, a German "death card," made as a keepsake for a soldier who had died in battle.
Credit Savannah Smith, WKNO-FM

Steve Cole brought his collection of World War I memorabilia, which he has been gathering for years. One of the more unusual items was a "death card."  

"They would print it up when your son or husband died," he said. "And they would give it out at the memorial services and it was a way of remembering these people that died in the war." 

It takes a couple of months to process all that history. That could include translating old letters from French or German. The photographs and scans are eventually added to the Tennessee State Library and Archives' website, permanently available for all to see.    

Brooke Mundy, director of the Morton Muesum, says now is the time to act on preserving this portion of history. "This event is important to Tennessee because as we get further and further away from WWI it is becoming more important to preserve and collect the past materials from that time period." 

Dorris Bright was delighted to finally get the chance to add her family's history to the nation's history. "I have seen these things all my life, and I am so happy to share them now with the rest of the world," Bright said. 

Among the items brought in for examination: a WWI canteen and a German pickelhaube helmet.
Credit Savannah Smith, WKNO-FM

For many participants, like Dee Waldrup and Doris Bright, reliving the past was both emotional and challenging, but satisfying because their memories now have new life. 

The Tennessee State Library and Archives will wrap up their collecting tour in the fall of 2019. But hundreds of items are already on the website. For more information, click here.