Troy

Local historian Scott Trostel tells tales of WWII trackside canteens

By Tim Walker

Photo: Troops enjoy snacks and reading materials courtesy of volunteers from the Lima, Ohio, canteen, the longest operating canteen in the U.S.

One of the city of Troy’s many hidden treasures is Scott Trostel—local historian, lecturer, painter, and the author of 38 books on a variety of subjects. One piece of history on which Trostel is an expert is unfortunately rarely discussed these days: the trackside canteens maintained by volunteers for servicemen and women at the railroad stations around the United States during World War II. Dayton City Paper asked what captivated him about the subject:

“It was the good will that they showed,” he says. “The humanitarianism. And not only in Troy, but in Bellefontaine and Springfield and Lima and Crestline. I could take you all over the country—they had two buildings in Reno, Nevada, and they served from both sides of the track.”

WWII-era soldiers, some preparing to be shipped overseas, others heading home for a brief visit while on furlough, traveled mainly by rail. These young men, who sometimes numbered in the thousands on a single train, were tired, scared, and far from home, and their journey by rail might last five to seven days. Food on the trains was expensive, meals were rationed, and the trains’ brief stops would allow these young men only 10 to 15 minutes or so to stretch their legs—which is when the volunteers saw an opportunity to step in and help.

“The Troy Canteen was operated by a group of teenage girls,” Trostel continues, “who went over to flirt with the soldiers coming in on the B&O trains. As they stopped at Troy, the engines took on water, and, of course, the boys would say to the girls, ‘Hey, you got any magazines that we can read?’ So—they just lived across the track—the girls would run home and raid the magazine stands for newspapers and magazines. And then it got to be cookies and then something to drink. And then, the mothers showed up, and that’s how that canteen got started.”

“All of this food was donated from the pantry shelves and private homes,” he adds. “When the girls weren’t meeting the trains in Troy they were out knocking on doors for extra magazines and newspapers. When it was a holiday, such as Christmas, they put a story in the newspaper: ‘We need packaged gifts to give the soldiers.’ And do you know in probably one of the most terrible winters, in December of 1944, when those trains came in through Troy about midnight, those girls were there. It was 10 degrees below zero. And they happily handed on the good will of the community.”

In his lectures, and in books like “Angels at the Station,” “Lima’s Operation Kindness,” “The Columbus Avenue Miracle,” and the “West Street Ambassadors,” Trostel discusses the many acts of kindness local residents showed to the soldiers, and the impact of that kindness on so many lives. Letters from the soldiers, reproduced in the books, attest to how important the generosity of the communities was to these brave, young men.

“The Lima Canteen operated for 28 years,” Trostel says. “It was the longest operating trackside canteen in the United States, and it serviced over 4 million soldiers during World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War.” The author pauses before continuing, “What’s most fascinating—there was no government money and no government support for these trackside community canteens. The military told the community organizers of those canteens at the start of World War II that they had just set up the USO, and they didn’t really want these people around the railroad track. And even the railroads got a little bit hairy about it in the beginning—until they discovered it was a great PR tool. And so, then, the railroads endorsed the canteens. The one in Troy specifically said the girls could not be on railroad property. But those trains all stopped right at the West Street crossing, so it didn’t make any difference because the girls bagged up baskets and bags and they handed them up to the conductor or a representative out of each coach on the train. There might be two or three thousand soldiers on a single train.”

Dayton City Paper asked the author what it was about canteens, and railways in general, that prompted him to devote much of his life to studying and writing about them:

“Transportation is a very complex subject when you get into it. And rail transportation is really fascinating. I wanted to make sense out of the complicated.”

For more photos and stories about the canteens, and for more information on Scott Trostel or to order one of his books, please visit CanteenBooks.com.

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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