University Press Week: Local Voices

Happy University Press Week! Help us celebrate university presses Nov. 9-15. Since 2012, members of the Association of University Presses have participated in an annual celebration of University Press Week. Following the example of the first University Press Week, proclaimed by US President Jimmy Carter in the summer of 1978, this event recognizes the impact that a global community of university presses has on every one of us.

Today the UP Week Blog Tour’s theme is Local Voices. The following is a guest blog by James J. Kimble, author of Prairie Forge: The Extraordinary Story of the Nebraska Scrap Metal Drive of World War II (Bison Books, 2014).

Local Voices, Scrap Metal Heaps, and the Fate of World War II

You have probably never heard of Nebraska’s Grant County. That’s not so surprising. Located in the Sandhills, a ranching region some six hours west of Omaha and four hours northeast of Denver, it’s not usually part of the national conversation. And the county’s current population of just over 600 people—whether from Hyannis, the county seat and only incorporated town, or from one of the area’s many picturesque ranches—is understandably focused on supporting the local industry: livestock. The fact that much of the world is oblivious to their labor is of no real concern.

It’s perhaps more surprising that most World War II buffs have never heard of Grant County. Sure, they’ve heard of General Marshall and Ike, Rosie the Riveter and All-Out Arlene, and Keeping it Under Your Stetson because Lucky Strike Green has Gone to War. But this remote, pastoral patch of Nebraska rarely comes up when even the most dedicated World War II buff talks about the home front. It seems that the word about Grant County’s dramatic leading role in one of the war’s greatest and most essential campaigns is still getting out.

Ironically, the distant voices of Grant County’s World War II era scrapping army are loud and clear for anyone who cares to listen. Such an act of listening was, in fact, one of the essential tasks of the research for my book Prairie Forge: The Extraordinary Story of the Nebraska Scrap Metal Drive of World War II. When I first stumbled upon this long forgotten story in the depths of the Duke University advertising archives, I soon realized that telling it would require an inversion of the usual World War II tales. The White House and the Office of War Information would play bit parts in the story, to be sure. But in some ways they were the unwitting antagonists, repeatedly trying to use an overly bureaucratic and centralized approach to convince everyday Americans to find and turn in the scrap metal that was so desperately needed by the wartime steel industry in the summer of 1942. No, this story was about local ingenuity and grassroots patriotism, not the supposed brilliance of the national leadership. Even more fundamentally, it was about ordinary citizens showing the government how to rally the people under a united banner.

To its credit, the Roosevelt administration did ask the home front to find scrap metal. The disorganized pleas resulted in unimpressive and sporadic efforts. But Henry Doorly, publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, thought that he had a better solution, and that Nebraska was the perfect place to try it out. Using the considerable resources of the World-Herald as well as some of his own funds, he organized an all-out, three-week scrap metal contest. Each of Nebraska’s 93 counties would compete against each other for the greatest per capita totals of scrap metal. The reward? Some $2,000 in war bonds, not to mention the priceless bragging rights of victory.

The competition was on. Decades-old county rivalries soon resurfaced. Scrap commandos joined scrap squadrons as housewives, bankers, farmers, schoolchildren, and the elderly combed every part of the state for extra metal to add to the county pile. Courthouse cannons were heaved next to roller skates, old safes, ancient bed frames, obsolete bridge girders, and even World War I-era German military helmets as scrap heaps leapt into life in village after village across the far-flung state.

Omaha’s Douglas County, with over 200,000 laboring scrappers, created the biggest heap—a pile near downtown so big that Life magazine dubbed it the “scrap pile [that] made history.” But it was tiny Grant County’s 1,327 scrappers that won the contest on the all-important per capita basis. Their astonishing total? 637 pounds per person. In all, the state’s citizens—sweating, hauling, laboring, and exerting even as they completed their normal jobs and chores—had gathered over 100 pounds per capita. It was an unprecedented achievement. Best of all, the critical metals started arriving at steel mills at exactly the right time, for the Allies were soon to go on the offensive.

The blueprints for Doorly’s Nebraska Plan, as the national media soon dubbed it, quickly made it to Washington. The Roosevelt administration immediately embraced it. By that fall, local newspapers across the country had adopted the World-Herald contest format, with the three-week competition this time taking place among all 48 states. It was, proclaimed Newsweek, a “dizzy three weeks of stunts, gags, and cheesecake art.” But after witnessing the entire home front gather 5 million more tons of scrap metal, the Saturday Evening Post took a broader view. In this drive, wrote the magazine, “Main Street was out to show Pennsylvania Avenue how to win a war.” Grant County’s local army of scrappers, these days largely forgotten by the usual World War II tales of heroic soldiers and visionary politicians, knew exactly what the magazine meant.

Prairie Forge, published by the University of Nebraska Press under its imprint Bison Books, will now have the opportunity to reach readers again through the state’s One Book One Nebraska program, which is sponsored by the Nebraska Center for the Book. Selected as the 2021 title for the state to read, this slice of local history that influenced a national effort will now be even better positioned to inspire a new generation to support each other—and to learn how even one county can make a huge difference.

Explore how other university presses are putting a spotlight on local voices:

Temple University Press: A look at regional collaboration by the editors of the Pennsylvania History series

Fordham University Press: Guest post titled “Women’s Voices: Expanding the Audubon Park Narrative” by Mathew Spady, author of The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot: Audubon Park and the Families Who Shaped It

Syracuse University Press: A blog post about SUP regional titles from our regional acquisitions editor

University of California Press: A look at the A People’s Guide Series, whose latest titles focus on the social justice and lesser known histories of Boston (A People’s Guide to Greater Boston) and San Francisco (A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area)

Manchester University Press: An interview and video with locally based authors on their forthcoming book Manchester

University Press of Kansas: A post about how UPK works with a local bookstore to promote regional books and authors

Penn State University Press: A Q&A with Acquisitions Editor Kathryn Yahner about Keystone Books, plus an excerpt from Wood Hicks and Bark Peelers

American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Discussing the local Athenian voices behind the recent publication Vrysaki: A Neighborhood Lost in Search of the Athenian Agora

University Press of Mississippi: Author John Marszalek on friendship and comradery he developed with other local authors

University of Toronto Press: Another Story bookshop in downtown Toronto has long been a strong supporter of university press titles; Laura Ash, Manager, and Anjula Gogia, Events Coordinator, will write about the importance of supporting UPs

University of Toronto Press Journals: Reuben Rose-Redwood, editor of a special edition of Cartographica, discusses the importance of decoloning the map

University of Virginia Press: Author Tom Kapsidelis reflects on the evolution of gun-safety advocacy since his time reporting on the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and offers a study guide directing students’ thinking about the issue of campus violence and the survivors’ recovery process thereafter

Eurospan: Overview of UP Week for those overseas

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