During World War I, the American Red Cross coordinated many drives and activities to provide relief for civilians as well as American soldiers overseas and in America. In Thurston County, the local Red Cross (then known as the Olympia chapter) organized dances for soldiers visiting Olympia from the nearby Camp Lewis army base (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord). These dances helped raise thousands of dollars for both local and national Red Cross programs while providing supervised fun for soldiers far from home.
The Olympia Chapter of the Red Cross was established in February 1917. This group formed 26 auxiliaries throughout Thurston County during World War I. There were auxiliaries at churches, clubs, lodges and schools and in most rural communities, from Grand Mound to McLane. Surviving both World Wars, the Olympia Chapter grew into the South Puget Sound Chapter of the American Red Cross. This now includes Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pierce and Thurston Counties.
With the establishment of Camp Lewis in Pierce County in mid-1917, tens of thousands of soldiers-in-training were looking for something to do on weekends and on leave. The Commission on Training Camp Activities organized the Greene Park amusement area just outside the camp, but hundreds went further afield to Olympia. To keep soldiers from being lured to drinking, gambling and other vices as well as to form a steady source of funding, the Olympia Red Cross organized ticketed dances.
Taking buses or trains to Olympia on Saturday, sometimes as many as several hundred soldiers usually stayed overnight to Sunday. The Olympia Chamber of Commerce’s Soldiers Recreational Committee recruited families to board soldiers overnight at their homes. Other soldiers could pay 50 cents for a cot at a specially created dormitory on the third floor of the Chamber of Commerce building (that had a capacity of 500 cots) or at a dormitory in the vacant front room of the Kneeland Hotel. Both were run by the Chamber of Commerce and the cots and bedding were donated by local seamstresses and financed by donations from local businesses.
The Red Cross actually held a few dances to raise funds throughout Thurston County before soldiers started to come. Dances without soldiers would continue throughout the county during the war. Saturday dances for soldiers began in the fall of 1917.
These dances were held in the Tumwater Club, located on what is now the 3300 block of Capitol Boulevard. Built in 1908 by Leopold Schmidt for the Olympia Brewing Company, the club hosted numerous public events over the years. The Leopold Schmidt Estate transferred ownership of the club by simple fee title to the Thurston County Red Cross in May 1918, who quickly renovated and enlarged it.
Still the Tumwater Club proved too small to accommodate all the visiting soldiers, and Red Cross dances were also held at Olympia’s Central Hall and Masonic Temple. The Tumwater Club charged 50 cents per couple and 25 cents for a single person. Dances lasted from 8:00 to midnight. These events provided a big source of funds for the Red Cross. For example, on February 9, 1918, they earned $300 from all dances held that day. The Red Cross also earned money by auctioning prizes at the events, including quilts, a goat and chickens.
Music was provided by local musicians. Popular music, especially jazz, was played and singers sometimes accompanied the band. The 347th Field Artillery Orchestra from Camp Lewis performed several times at the Tumwater Club. They played two weekends in December. On March 30, 1918, the Artillery Orchestra played a series of three concerts around town—at Main Street (now Capitol Way) and Fourth Avenue, Sylvester Park, and finally at a Tumwater Club’s dance.
With the deadly flu pandemic in the fall and winter of 1918 and 1919, the Red Cross dances were cancelled along with all other public meetings and events. Camp Lewis put their entire facility under quarantine and no soldiers were allowed to visit Olympia. By the time the epidemic had eased and the Red Cross started holding dances again, World War I was over and Camp Lewis was demobilizing.
The Red Cross continued to hold regular weekend dances at the Tumwater Club into the 1920s as fundraisers. The building burned down on December 20, 1955. Although Thurston County would later hold more dances at a USO Club in Olympia during World War II, these soldier dances 100 years ago in 1917 and 1918 were a new experience. While helping to raise money for civilian and solider relief, they also provided a safe place for young soldiers far from home. The events left many happy memories for organizers. Mrs. Mary (F. C.) Owings, in a postwar Red Cross official report remembered: “Oh, those dear boys, how I love them. You know the 91st were a fine class of fellows. And they felt at home at our dances.”
Thank you to Karen Johnson, curator of the Olympia Tumwater Foundation Schmidt House Archives, for information about the Tumwater Club.