FORT MILL — They could have been tossed in the dump.
They are primary documents, penned from historical figures so real they could reach out and touch you through the page. If it hadn’t been for W.B (Jake) Ardrey’s quick thinking, none of the several photographs, scrapbooks, and speeches from 1916-1934 would be on public display at Fort Mill History Museum.
Most of the letters and scrapbook information detail the brave sacrifice of Fort Mill National Guard soldiers who served in France and Belgium during the latter years of World War I.
James Ardrey, Jake’s son, had kept the documents ever since his father died 29 years ago. At age 82, James figured now was the right time to hand over the goods to the museum.
“This is very valuable information,” he said last week. “I had no reservations at all [turning it over]. It’s just a joy for people to begin to appreciate Fort Mill’s role in the first World War.”
During his childhood, James “Jim” Ardrey lived across the road from Emma Ardrey Spratt, his grandfather’s first cousin. Throughout the war, Spratt meticulously kept scrapbooks, pasting newspaper clippings with war updates or photographs of soldiers. After her death in the early 1970s, Jake Ardrey discovered two of Spratt’s nieces cleaning out their aunt’s home.
To Ardrey’s surprise, they were throwing most everything away, not realizing the historical significance of the military records. The nieces told him he could keep what he wanted.
The cornerstone of Ardrey’s donated collection are letters that tell stories from the National Guard’s Company G, of which Fort Mill native Tom Hall was a member. Company G was fighting Mexican forces along the border in 1916 when the United States decided to enter World War I. Led by Lt. Col. Thomas B. Spratt, the company joined up with the “Old Hickory Division” in October 1917, fully aware that they would enter the thick of the action once they reached Europe that spring.
A year later, a battle broke out in Monbrehain, France. Company G began the day with 185 men. By nightfall, only 37 were not wounded or killed. Tom Hall, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in the battle, was among the killed. He was 23 years old.
“These letters are so pungent, you can almost smell the shells and the bombardment,” said Ann Evans, executive director of the museum.
The museum’s historians are fairly certain the letters were written by Francis Murray Mack, a captain in Company G. Genealogical records suggest Mack was Ardrey’s grandmother’s brother. Two scrapbooks, seven photographs, two Rock Hill Evening Herald newspapers and two speeches from Lt. Col. Spratt round out the collection.
“Maybe in our schools, when kids are reading in their books, the teachers will tell them to come by here and find out what it’s really like,” Ardrey said.
Deputy Director Kira Ferris said the museum is planning a sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War next year, along with the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Ardrey’s documents will likely receive a worthy place in the upcoming exhibit, which will open in fall 2014.
“We’re trying to get more people who have these types of collections to be involved and interested,” Ferris said. “It’s important to tell everyone’s story.”
The personal stories, with details like soldiers forced to wear the same clothes for months at a time but who would eventually break the Hindenburg Line, could have been lost to the ages. Thanks to one man’s quick reactions, a piece of history was preserved for posterity.