An eyewitness to Perkasie’s most-iconic photograph

Early on a September 1917 morning, a group of young men marched off to World War I in a scene that lives on today in one of Perkasie’s iconic photos. Recently discovered records of that day shed new light on that emotional event.

The Mercer Museum’s library contains the records of Local Draft Board Division 3, kept by Perkasie resident Mahlon Keller. In this brief file, Keller described the scene as local young men from the Perkasie area were escorted down Seventh Street to the Reading train depot. The Perkasie Central News also reported the event on the morning of September 19, 1917. It went to press later that day.

“Our soldier boys have gone. As their special train pulled out of the depot this morning at 9:45 the real taste of this bitter war was brought home in reality to the relatives of the boys. But with a bravado spirit to the last they went away to their training camp in Camp Meade, Maryland,” said the Central News. “The Harmonic Band played the Star-Spangled Banner and the boys themselves cheered as they left. They left behind them sorrowing wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. Only yesterday a number of married men were granted a temporary exemption to ease the situation somewhat. Perkasie gave them a hearty sendoff and wished them God-speed. The schoolchildren marched to the depot in a body. Many of the factories were closed in. People who are interested in the boys came in from the surrounding district, and crowded the streets. The farewells were numerous as the time approached to leave. The drafted men marched in a body from Fireman’s Hall, headed by the band, a large number of citizens, and the officers of district #3. They are no longer with us. but they will be remembered with letters and gifts, and they cannot forget their home interest in this manner period.”

Mahlon Keller’s Official Report

Keller description, for the official record, showed the emotional scene that morning. “While entraining, men many pathetic incidents took place. … The usual place of meeting for those to be entrained and the members of the board on the day of entrainment was Fireman’s Hall, Perkasie, from which place they marched in parade to the railroad station. The procession was led by the Harmonic Band whose strains of patriotic music added to the solemnity of the occasion. And we record with great appreciation the patriotic service rendered by this local organization. The touching farewell scenes at the railroad station will linger with us for many years. In some instances, mothers and sisters fainted and medical assistance was secured. Several cases when marriage took place after the passage of the act of Congress, the wife of the registrant making pleas for the exemption of her husband broke out in sobs and tears, fainting at the time when she was told that no exemption could be given. These pathetic scenes were witnessed by several 100 townspeople and friends who came out to bid farewell and best wishes to the departing soldiers.” More than 60 men marched off to war that day, including a man in the crowd who enlisted on location even though his draft number wasn’t called.

Mahlon Keller

Mahlon Keller, 1929

Mahlon Keller was perhaps Perkasie’s most-respected businessman during his long career of service. Starting in 1892, Keller served as Justice of the Peace until his death in 1947, with the exception of a five-year period. Keller co-founded Perkasie’s fire department and played a major role in most of Perkasie’s civic organizations until his passing at the age of 82. Keller’s insurance agency was well-known regionally.

However, Keller’s two-year role as draft board secretary may have been his most-challenging job. Keller had to evaluate more than 4,000 enlistees, with the help of Perkasie’s schoolteachers (who were asked to do the clerical work). His son, Ralph Keller, enlisted voluntarily enlisted in May 1917. As Mahlon was winding down his role on the draft board, news came from France in February 1919 that Sgt. Ralph Keller was seriously ill. Luckily, the report from a fellow soldier was slightly exaggerated. Ralph Keller recovered from tonsillitis and returned home to his family that summer.

%d bloggers like this: