A Piece of History: ‘Dog Tags’ from the Great War

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

One of the smallest objects in the museum’s collection  consists of two small  aluminum discs on a cotton string. The object may be small, but  tell a big story.

Not used officially in the U.S. until December 1906, the Identification Tag, or ‘dog-tag’ was a small aluminum disc worn around a soldier’s neck and included name rank and “USA.” Initially, only one disc was worn, but in July 1916, a second disc was added. The purpose of the tags were to aid in identifying the dead after battle.

These small discs are very personal objects that soldiers wore at all times –  relaxing with friends or in the heat of battle.  The Identification Tags might also be the last connection a family would have with their loved one.

We have several ‘dog-tags’ from Harvey County men who were in France during the Great War.  Walter H. Deschner was one man.

Walter H. Deschner tags

Dog Tag with serial number.

Walter “Dash” H. Deschner was born January 9, 1895, the son of Charles and Orpha Fenter Deschner. He graduated from Newton High School May 21, 1916.  Deschner was working as a clerk when he enlisted on May 9, 1917 and went to Doniphan, Fort Sill, OK where he was with Co K 139th U.S. Infantry.

Before he left, his mother, Orpha, wrote on the front fly leaf of his Bible; “mother’s prayers will be often and many for you.

Walter H. Deschner, 1918

April 24, 1918  he left the US  on the Adriatic and roughly 40 days later arrived at Mellville, France. August 5, was his “first under fire”  experience in “No-Man’s Land in Vosgues Mountains.” On October 26 he was involved in the Argonne Drive.

Sad News

Evening Kansan Republican often reprinted “soldier mail” and in the October 21 issue the editor noted “there were many smiling faces that were soon overshadowed as word was noised about that three of the Newton boys . . . had fallen.

Frank Sheets wrote that he had been involved in the “big battle which had been raging for five days, and seeing Roy Barker *** lying dead beside the road.” 

Sheets went on to describe the conditions he experienced, noting “he was five days and nights without time to change his clothing and said that a cold rain fell much of the time.”

A Soldier’s Memories

These pages are from a Memory Book that Walter Deschner filled out highlighting his experiences while a part of the US Infantry.


 Friends and Places

On the Front

The same issue of the Evening Kansan Republican that had a letter from Sheets included one from Deschner.  He wrote that “he was back from the front safe and sound. . . . Leo Burgener was injured, but not seriously, but  Arthur Whitesell and Loren Finnell were both killed within 15 yards of him.” ***

Other battles he was involved in included Meuse-Argonne, and Verdun. He also noted the deathes of Whitesell and Finnell.


Return to Harvey County

Deschner returned home to Harvey County  May 8,  1919 and resumed his work as a clerk for the Santa Fe Railroad.  He worked for the Santa Fe for more than 25 years.

 He married twice. On December 24, 1920, he married Erma Marie Ragsdale.  Sadly, she died due to complications in child birth on  March 23, 1939. The infant girl also died. He remarried March 5, 1945 to Emma Billau. Deschner died August 28, 1948 survived by wife, Emma, brother, George, and a niece.

***The report of Roy Barker’s death  turned out to be false, however both Arthur Whitesell and Loren Finnell were killed during the Meuse-Argonne drive. Both were from Harvey County.
  • Walter H. Deschner Collection, HCHM Archives 98.1
    • “My Soldier” Scrapbook Walter H. Deschner Collection, HCHM Archives 98.1.9.
    • The Jayhawker in France: the Unofficial Organ of the 137th Infantry Sampigny, France  5 February 1919, Vol. 1 No.2.
    • “Pictorial Supplement Overseas Edition Camp Dodger” Published by 88th Division.
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 25 July 1917, 9 August 1917, 17 July 1918, 24 September 1918, 21 October 1918, 26 October 1918, 20 September 1920, 24 October 1921, 23 March 1939, 28 August 1948, 1 September 1948.
  • Greenwood Cemetery, “Deschner” at http://newton.harvey.ks.govern.com/cmquery.php?a=query&m=p&s2108479621=mlkflrefebslm1rt1iecken4v7
  • “Identifying the Dead:  a Short Study of the Identification Tags of 1914-1918” at  http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/the-great-war/great-war-on-land/weapons-equipment-uniform/1033-identifying-dead-short-study-identification-tags-1914-1918.html#sthash.bl6XUO0P.dpbs

Carried in Battle: Bessmer’s Briefcase

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Many of the men that settled in Harvey County in the 1870s-1880s were Civil War veterans. Most were former Union soldiers, although a few, like R.M. Spivey, had fought for the South.

Unknown, 1861-1865.

At the close of the War, soldiers from both sides returned to everyday life.  For some, this meant establishing homesteads in the west.

John George Bessmer was born in Germany in March 1841.  He came to the United States at the age of 12 and settled in New York.

Bessmer was 20 years old in September 1861 when he joined Co H, 56th New York Infantry of the Union Army. For the next four years, he fought under the command of General McClellan and later Gilmore.  Bessmer was involved in several battles, including “the battle of Fair Oaks and the Seven Days’ battles.”  He “took part in the capture of forts Wagner and Gregg and the bombardment of Fort Sumpter. . . and several minor engagements in South Carolina.”

He carried this briefcase with him throughout his time with the Union Army.

Briefcase belonged to J. George Bessmer, carried during the Civil War, 1861-1865.

Bessmer’s Briefcase.

J. George Bessemer, Co H 56th New York Infantry, 1861-1865.

Following the Civil War, Bessmer returned to New York.  He married  Rosina Kautz, also from New York, on December 5, 1867.  The couple had seven children; 2 sons and five daughters.  In March 1882, the family came to Harvey County, Kansas, settling on a farmstead in Emma Township, near Hesston,  previously owned by his brother Michael Bessmer.

The Bessmer family moved to Newton in 1908. George Bessmer passed away at his Newton home, 1211 N. Main, in the early morning hours on May 22, 1915.

His obituary noted that “he did not belong to any fraternal orders except Judson Kilpatrick Post No. 36, always preferring the quiet and duties of home above all else.”


  • Newton Daily Republican: 22 July 1888, 2 January 1889, 19 December 1893.
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 22 January 1906, 4 September 1907, 10 February 1908, 24 August 1909, 11 September 1909, 27 April 1911, 22 May 1915, 25 May 1915, 14 July 1915, 13 January 1921, 13 May 1921, 9 June 1922
  • https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/56thInf/56thInfMain.htm
  • http://minisinkvalleygenealogy.blogspot.com/2014/09/co-h-124th-new-york-infantry-regt-in.html

“The Neatest Place in the World”

Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Recently, a researcher inquired about the location of Newton’s Airport. He had found an older map that show an airport at the north end of Newton.


After some investigation, stories about this earlier airport were discovered.  He wrote of his findings and on-going research on his blog the Changelog. We thought we would share some stories discovered as we assisted him in his research.

Last week’s post featured an Aviation Meet held in 1911. The information for this post comes from  a short document by Ernest Unruh, which can be found in the Archives.

The Neatest Place in the World

Unruh wrote of his adventures growing up on the north edge of Newton, Ks.

“When I was a youngster growing up, I thought I lived in the ‘neatest’ place in the world.”

Ernest ‘Ernie’ Unruh was born in April 1920 to Henry F. and Susie Unruh.  The family lived at 117 East 17th St., Newton, Ks.

Detail of Henry F. Unruh Property and City of Newton Property,  Standard Atlas of Harvey County, 1918

Ernie’s father, Henry, ran a service station at 1812 N. Main for many years.

Henry F. Unruh in front of his service station at 1812 N. Main, Newton, Ks, ca. 1920s.

The area east and north of the Unruh home between the Missouri Pacific Railway Tracks (Mopy**), 22nd Street, and Anderson Road was known as the “golf links.” ***  With the nearby train tracks and large open area, there were many activities to occupy young Ernie.

Six days a week a freight and passenger train would travel toward McPherson in the morning and return in the evening on the Mopy tracks and Ernie was there to watch.

“Every chance I had I would watch the trains go by so I could wave at the crews.” 

In the 1920s, the open area north of Newton was  a favorite place for pilots to land and take off.

Ernie Unruh remembered;

I was fascinated by airplanes. When I would hear one, I would search the sky until I spotted it and then I would follow it until it was out of sight.  Many planes would go almost directly overhead going both directions, north or south . . . more and more planes were using the golflinks as a landing field.  When a plane was going to land, it would generally circle the town first.  I’d jump on my bike and head out to the landing field.  If at all possible I tried to see every plane that landed. Sometimes I would be the first person there to meet the people aboard.  On occasion I would make phone calls for the people . . . for a taxi.”

One time was particularly memorable:

“In about 1924, my Aunt Helen took us to the golflinks to see an airplane. . . .  What I saw was a huge plane that was bright yellow and blue.  It looked like it was made of celluloid.  It looked to me like it was too big to fly.”

“A Fine Open Stretch”

In July 1927, the golf links area, “a fine open stretch of 70 acres, just west of the end of the Main Street paving north of the city,” became the official airport for the city of Newton.

Ernie recalled that  “a two plane hanger had been built along the Mopy right-of-way to house a Swallow owned by Bert Wright and a Travel Air owned by Ira Burke.” Another local aviator, Bud Nellans, stored his Army Jenny outside.

Grand Opening of the Newton Airport

Evening Kansan Republican, 20 July 1927, p. 1.

Evening Kansan Republican, 22 July 1927, p. 1.

The dedication of the new airport, planned by the Newton Chamber of Commerce, was described as a “thrilling event.” On July 23, 1927, eleven planes participated in the grand opening with an attendance of 5,000 people.

Walter Beech, Wichita, flew his Travelair to Newton carrying “two of Newton’s own celebrities, Mrs. Eleanora Ambrose Maurice, internationally famed dancer, and Lieut. Ennis C. Whitehead, world known as a member of the Pan-American good will flight.”  As Beech circled the field, “Mrs. Maurice dropped flowers on the field, dedicating it to the progress and prosperity of aviation.”

Planes from Fort Riley flew in formation over the field.  The editor also noted that

“Passenger planes at the field were busy until dark taking Newton people up for a ride in the clouds.”

Ira Burke’s brother, Billie Burke, “favored the throngs with some spectacular stunt flying.” Seven year old Ernie considered Billie Burke his “idol.

Burke “flew  a blue Stearman with silver wings equipped wit a propeller driven siren, and, when he flew over town, he would release the brake on the siren for a short time.  It could be heard all over town. . . many times , he would do acrobatics over the town before he would land.” ****

“American Ace”

The new airport also provided opportunities for advertising local businesses. One savvy businessman used the popularity of flying and planes to promote his product.

Rudy Goerz, 1922.

“Rudy Goerz, owner of the big flour mill on east Broadway sponsored a plane to advertise his ‘American Ace’ flour . . . The plane had an emblem  of a flour bag painted on it’s fuselage showing a pilot’s head complete with helmet and goggles and “American Ace.” 

To promote the flour, pilots, Eddie Rickenbacker and Dillard Kennell, flew the plane with all over the United States.

The planes were also a source of entertainment for local people.

“There were three different Ford tri-motors that came in periodically to give rides . . . Many pilots would come in to give rides.”

By  1940, the City of Newton had decided to move the airport.  A strip of land three miles east of Main between 1st and 24th streets was purchased.  The new airport was named Wirt Field in honor of Frank Wirt, the local Dodge dealer, who was killed in a private plane crash.


  • **The Missouri Pacific Railway was locally known as “MoPac,” “Mop,” and “Mopy.”  Unruh uses “Mopy” in his document.


  • ***Today, the area is known as the Northridge Addition.  Unruh also notes that the “golf links” was the forerunner of the Newton Country Club.”  He  noted that the area was a popular place for carnivals to set up for a week at a time.
  • ****William “Billie” Burke was a well-known aviator in Kansas and Oklahoma and a contemporary of other well-known aviators like Walter Beech and Clyde Cessna. Burke drowned in 1928, when the plane he was flying over a reservoir hit a high tension wire and went down in the water.  Unruh recalled that   Ira, a brother, “was devastated. He sold his plane.”

Billie Burke and Family 1927           William Burke Jr Collection http://earlyaviators.com/eburke.htm


  • Unruh, Ernest “Ernie”. “Newton’s First Airport” typewritten, undated document. HCHM Archives, HC Residents Box 1 B, FF 13.
  • Standard Atlas of Harvey County, 1918, HCHM Archives.
  • From the WPA Book, “American Guide – Transportation” ca. 1930s: “Newton has no approved airport, but the city maintains a landing field on the southwest quarter of Section 5, Twp. 23 South-Range 1 east or the sixth principal meridian.” HCHM Archives Historical Files “Newton Airport’s.”
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 2 July 1919, 20 July 1927, 22 July 1927, 23 July 1927, 25 July 1927.
  • “William ‘Billie’ Burke” http://earlyaviators.com/eburke.htm
  • Goerzen, John at http://changelog.complete.org/archives/9741-giant-concrete-arrows-old-maps-and-fascinated-kids