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The 1947 Friendship Train in Illinois
by Dorothy R. Scheele

The Friendship Train originated from an idea developed by Drew Pearson, well-known broadcaster and columnist of the mid-twentieth century. While in Europe after World War II, he noted that Communist Russia was sending a paltry number of boxcars of grain to France and Italy, and when the grain arrived, created huge celebrations emphasizing the source. Pearson surmised that the purpose of the parades and festivities was to persuade the European countries that the Soviet Union was their friend and that they would be much better off choosing Communism. Considering a Communist Europe anathema, Pearson concluded that the United States could send food to Europe. He wanted the American people, not the government, to send the food and to that end, he and others organized a train which would cross the country collecting food from the people. Although the Friendship Train crossed only eleven states, every state contributed.  Illinois was one of the 11 states the Train traveled through. The citizens of Illinois donated wholeheartedly.

Friendship Train CB&Q Boxcar 36262

Boxcar image courtesy of Gerald Edgar of the CB&Q Historical Society

On the morning of November 14, 1947, the Friendship Train made its first stop in Illinois in Sterling, a town about 30 miles east of Clinton, Iowa. A crowd of 5,000 greeted its morning arrival with unbounded enthusiasm. Sterling had organized exceptionally well for the Train’s arrival. Factories blew their whistles, a signal announcing that the Train was at the station. Shops and retail stores closed; schools dismissed their students; and almost all town activities ceased until the Train’s departure about one hour later. The gala festivities which had occurred at almost all stops on the Friendship Train’s amazing transcontinental journey reflected the country’s zeal for the Train and its mission.

Mayor and Mrs. Wetzell boarded the Train in Clinton, Iowa, and rode it into town. From this city, Gov. Green boarded the Train and rode it to Chicago. As had become customary, the governor of one state boarded the Train and stayed with it until it crossed the border into the next state.

The master of ceremonies for the thrilling occasion was L. E. Ellison, President of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Mayor Wetzell delivered the welcoming speech.

Bands from Sterling, Rock Falls, and other local high schools played. School children reportedly had talked about nothing except the Friendship Train for two weeks prior to its arrival, and they ‘autographed’ the boxcar with chalk or their handprints, despite Train workers continually erasing them. Sixteen months later children in France would repeat the same activity when the French sent their thank you Train, the renowned Merci Train, to the United States.

The gala festivities which had occurred at almost all stops on the Friendship Train’s amazing transcontinental journey reflected the country’s profound interest and concern for the Europeans.

Sterling, Morrisville, and Rock Falls had donated 68,000 cases of canned milk and 200 of canned meat. Forty Amish and Mennonite families had contributed $2,375 to the milk fund. Whiteside County’s contribution was 32 cans of canned fruit, 21 cases of macaroni, and numerous cases of canned meat. Dubuque, Iowa, added its 684 cases of canned meat at the Sterling station.

Some of the other Illinois towns donating at this stop were Prophetstown, Erie, Tampico, and Pekin. Carroll County contributed 21 cases of macaroni, and Pekin donated 32 cases of canned fruit.  Ottot K. Eitel, chairman of the Mayor’s committee, reported that at least $1,000 would be forwarded to New York for the additional purchase of food. According to Drew Pearson the two cars which the area contributed were cars number 81 and 82.  Although some sources stated that the Train’s next stop would be in Aurora, such was not the case. The Train departed for Chicago.

Mayor Kennelly had proclaimed November 14, 1947, as Friendship Train Day in Chicago. Greeted by 4,500 people, the food-laden Train, 82 cars long, roared into Chicago’s North Western Train Station late afternoon of November 14th. The welcoming ceremony was held at the east side of the Chicago and North Western Railroad.

Present at the festivities, in addition to Henri Bonnett, the French Ambassador, and Italian representative, were the Mayor, Gov. Green, and actor Maurice Chevalier.

In his address Gov. Green stated that the very existence of the Train is noteworthy as it is a result of the goodwill and humanitarian concerns of the people of the United States, and he lauded the leaders in business, labor, government, and industry for their cooperation and leadership. In the Windy City workers added, at least, 21 more boxcars. Enough cash had been collected, $75,000, to add one more car, and the expectation was that by the next evening, the cash total would reach $100,000.

Lester Armour, treasurer of the Friendship Train committee, and Otto K. Eitel, chairman of the Food Conservation Headquarters, handled the cash donations and checks respectively.

Donors were encouraged to place a letter along with their gift stating where it was from and the name of the donor.  The suggestion was that they begin the letter, “French Friend,” or “Italian Friend.”

Before leaving, the Train was divided into two sections. Although some newspapers stated that the two sections were headed for France and Italy, this information was not accurate. Ultimately this fact was true, but the Trains did not go directly to Europe from Chicago. One section headed north through Ohio and rural New York before reaching New York City. The second Train traveled more directly East through Pennsylvania. The departure from Chicago was the termination of the first Train through Illinois.

On November 22, 1947, the first stop of the second Friendship Train traveling through Illinois was in Galesburg around 11:00 a.m.  Along with many other boxcars, this one had been held in Wichita, Kansas, in order to combine it with other boxcars from Texas and Oklahoma. Because its cargo was almost exclusively wheat, the Train was known as the Bread Basket Special.

Earlier in the week Harry Gehring, President of the Knox County Farm Bureau, and Mayor Ralph B. Johnson had issued statements supporting the wheat campaign. The Mayor had proclaimed the week of Nov. 16th to the 22nd ‘Food For Europe Week,’ urging his fellow citizens to help the Europeans. Galesburg citizens set one carload of corn as their goal.

Approximately 3,000 people greeted the Special when it rolled into Galesburg, stopping at the railroad station between Broad and Cherry Streets. The residents had contributed both food and cash to meet their goal. The cash donation had reached $6,300. The contributions had been sent to the First Galesburg Band and Trust, the Farmers and Mechanics Bank, and the First Galesburg Bank. Wesley Hechlor served as treasurer of the local Council of Churches which had headed the drive.

At the ceremony for the badly needed foodstuffs, John Black, President of the Galesburg Council of Churches, presented the car to Tom Slater who was a member of President Truman’s Citizens’ Food Committee. (Noteworthy is the fact that the entire Friendship Train phenomenon had no connection with the government of the United States; therefore, Slater’s sporadic presence throughout the journey was largely ceremonial.)

Rev. Leman V. Olsenius, pastor of the First Lutheran Church, served as master of ceremonies. Mayor Johnson spoke on behalf of the city, and A. R. Kemp, Knox County Farm Advisor, spoke on behalf of the farmers. Other clergy present were Dr. G. Christie Swain of the First Presbyterian Church who led the spectators in prayer. On page one of the November 22, 1947, Daily Register-Mail is a picture of the many participants.

The Train departed for its next destination, Chillicothe.

In Chillicothe, the welcoming ceremony began at 12:30. Additional cargo was added there, including a carload of grain from Peoria.  Several Peorians, Miss Woodson, Dr. Clarence W. Scheroeder, and Boyd F. Goldsworth, rode the Train from Galesburg to Chillicothe where officials had planned a half-hour ceremony.  The choir from the First Methodist Church, directed by Dr. D. Deane Hutchinson, sang at the ceremony. Speaking at this brief celebration were Mayor Carl O. Triebel, Rev. William O’Neil, President of the Peoria Council of Churches, and several other residents.

Although Peoria had no organized city-wide campaign for food and cash for the Friendship Train nor did the Train stop there, the city did contribute one carload of grain. The city’s slogan undoubtedly encouraged donations: “No one will call you but your conscience.”

Peoria made a conscientious and prideful effort to be part of America’s Friendship Train. Radio stations were instrumental in encouraging donations. One station, WEEK, held a question and answer session during the week of November 14th to inform the people about the Train and its purpose. The stations themselves collected money, and all cash donations ultimately were sent to Franklin G. Harsh who was the treasurer for the Train. Peoria, knowing it would not have enough cash to fill a boxcar when the first Train went to Chicago onNovember 15th, had sent $800 to Galesburg to assist in their contributions. Miss Dorothy Woodson, Executive Secretary of the Peoria Council of Churches, stated that every single penny collected would be used to purchase food, not even one postage stamp would be bought with the money. The people were determined to do as much as they possibly could to help in the contribution. To that end, the Peoria Star carried many more articles about the Train than all the other city papers which were searched. The Star was so eager to trumpet its enthusiasm for the Train that it reported a woman from Morton, whose son had died in the war, sent a donation, and the money from the piggy-bank of a two year old was also contributed. Every school child donated one nickel.

Peoria undoubtedly surpassed its goal and raised $5,088. Its carload of wheat was added to the Train in Chillicothe on Nov. 22nd.

The Train then departed for Streator, its final stop in the Prairie State.

Situated on the Vermilion River in north central Illinois, Streator was very successful in meeting its target for the Friendship Train. The city’s residents believed that because they had money, food, and clothing to spare, they should give all that they could to their European cousins.  Their goal was to fulfill that commitment.

Their campaign was unique in that many civic organizations felt that they did not have enough time for a robust campaign and collection. The hesitation galvanized the History Department of Streator Township High School.  The International Relations Club, led by advisor Dorothy Bush and its student members fulfilled the club’s purpose: ‘building friendly relations with the world.’  With eagerness and civic pride, they set about fulfilling their commitment.  The members distributed boxes on Main Street for contributions, and they volunteered in area banks to help with the monetary collection.

Their efforts resulted in Streator’s contribution of two carloads of grains. One car consisted of 1,762 bushels of oats contributed by the combined efforts of Streator, McNabb, Ransom, Wenona, and Henry. The Mennonite Committee of Roanoke contributed the second boxcar of soy beans. Monetary contributions originated from the LaSalle County Farm Bureau, Rural Youth Organization of LaSalle County, and local farmers in the area.  Some of those attending the Streator welcoming activities for the Train included Charles Whitney, J. J. Carey, Commissioner Herman Engle, Charles Whitney, Z. H. Dorland, principal of the Streator Township High School, Mrs. Carl Iserman of the high school board, and Anna Waldschmidt of Swaney High School.

Following a zealous reception in Streator, the Train, approximately 28 cars longer, exited Illinois.

The history of the Friendship Train is the first part of a two-part history. The second half is the Merci Train. An entire web site created by Mr. Earl Bennett,, offers a wealth of information about the Merci Train. The site has pictures of all the boxcars which France sent to each state except six and also pictures of many of the gifts and the stories behind them. The Merci Train, like the Friendship Train, was created by the French people, not the government. Information on Earl Bennett’s book can be found at his site mentioned above.


List of Works Consulted

“$300 Given For Friendship Train” Peoria Star Nov. 13, 1947: 12.
“5 Peorians Will Ride Food Train,” Peoria Star Nov. 21, 1947: 20. 
“103 Carloads Of Food With Illinois Donation” Peoria Star Nov. 15, 1947: 1.
“169 Carloads On Food Train” Peoria Star Nov. 18, 1947: 2 
“Corn For Hungry Europe Added to Train Here as Donors Voice ‘Good Will’ Register Daily-Mail [Galesburg, IL] Nov. 14, 1947: 6.
“Food Goal is Short $2,000” Peoria Star Nov. 17, 1947: 16.
“Food Train Adds 21 Carloads in City For Europe’s Hungry” Chicago Daily Tribune Nov. 1, 1947: Chicago Daily Tribune Nov. 9, 1947: Part 1, 6-F.
“Food Train At Chillicothe On Saturday” Peoria Star Nov. 20, 1947: 12. 
“Food Train Fund Here Now $1,671” Peoria Star Nov. 15, 1947: 10.
“Food Train Halts Today in Sterling” Rockford Morning Star Nov. 14, 1947, 1.
“Food Train Nearing Goal” Rockford Morning Star Nov. 18, 1947: 5.

“France Thanks U. A. for Food” Aurora Bea on News Nov. 30, 1947: 23. 
“Friendship Train Day Proclaimed For City Tomorrow” Chicago Daily Tribune Nov. 13, 1947: 40.
“Friendship Train Donations Sought; Due Next Week” Peoria Star Nov. 12, 1947: 30: 12.
“Friendship Train Leaves Hollywood” Aurora Beacon News Nov. 9, 1947: 7. 
“Friendship Train Swelled to $5,088 By Late Donations” Nov. 19, 1947: 25. 
“Friendship Train to Ship” Aurora Beacon News Nov. 30, 1947: 38. 
“Goal Far Short on Food Train” Peoria Star Nov. 14, 1947: 23.
“Good Will” Daily Register-Mail [Galesburg, IL] Nov. 22, 1947: 2+.
“Hold the Train Move Spreads In Food Relief” Aurora Beacon News Nov. 19, 1947: 2.
“Milk Piles Up For Food Train” Rockford Morning Star Nov. 13, 1947: 17. 
“Participant in ‘Friendship Train’ Program Here” Register Daily-Mail [Galesburg, IL] Nov. 22, 1947: 1. 
“Peoria Succeeds In Wheat Drive” Peoria Star Nov. 18, 1947: 16. 
“Sterling Ceremonies Between 11:30 and 12:30 At Siding East of Chicago and Northwestern Station” Rockford Morning Star Nov. 13, 1947: 23.
“Train With Food To Aid Europe Due Here Friday” Chicago Daily Tribune Nov. 9, 1947: Part 1, 6-F. 
“Hold the Train Move Spreads In Food Relief” Aurora Beacon News Nov. 19, 1947: 2.
“Sterling Ceremonies Between     11:30 and 12:30 At Siding East of Chicago and Northwestern Station” Rockford Morning Star Nov. 13, 1947: 23.
“Goal Far Short on Food Train” Peoria Star Nov. 14, 1947: 23.
“Corn For Hungry Europe Added to Train Here as Donors Voice ‘Good Will’ Register Daily-Mail [Galesburg, IL] Nov. 14, 1947: 6

The author welcomes any additional information which would add to this state's history.

The Friendship Train was the genesis for the French Merci Train. Website has information about that Train.

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