The North Platte Canteen was one of the largest volunteer efforts of World War II. It began on December 17, 1941 when the families and friends of the local Nebraska National Guard unit (Company D) came to the North Platte Depot to give them their Christmas presents. As the train pulled into the depot, the families began to crowd up to the train cars in anticipation. The excitement abruptly came to an end as they looked up and down the train for their boys and none were to be found. Company D had really come, but it was from the Kansas National Guard. Everyone stood in disbelief, but finally, one person stepped forward and gave their presents to the troops. Soon, everyone else followed. The amazement and happiness expressed by the soldiers at receiving these gifts sparked an idea in Rae Wilson’s mind. Wilson, a local store clerk, wrote into the North Platte Daily Bulletin newspaper the next day to raise support for a canteen that would meet every troop train stopping in North Platte. She figured, if the North Platte Red Cross ladies could run a canteen during World War I, it could be done again. Little did she know how big the effort would become.
The North Platte Canteen met its first troop train on December 25, 1941. Baskets of goodies were prepared across the street from the depot at the Cody Hotel.
When it arrived, the troops had to stay on the train for security reasons, so the women handed the cookies, fruit, cigarettes, and magazines up through the windows. Before long, though, security lessened and, simultaneously, the number of troops coming through the city became too great for the facilities at the hotel. Wilson then contacted William “Bill” Jeffers, who was both a local resident and President of the Union Pacific Railroad. She asked him if the canteen could be run in the vacant lunchroom at the depot. He immediately agreed and preparations were made to move in as soon as possible. The facility would serve as the canteen’s location for the remainder of the war.
Volunteers donated their extra stamps to the canteen so that the items needed could be purchased. Children gave up their birthday cakes so that the sugar could be used to make cakes for the soldiers. Gas rations were pooled so that groups of women could make it in from distant towns or farms. The extra farm produce was saved for the canteen by farm families instead of selling it. Even a local boy, Gene Slattery, auctioned his shirt off at the local livestock sale barn every week. By doing this and working odd jobs, he was able to raise $2,000 for the canteen. As the war became an all out effort, troop trains began to pour into North Platte. As many as twenty-four trains a day stopped in the city, giving thousands of troops a chance to experience the canteen on a daily basis. All of this activity meant that a continual stream of volunteers was required to meet this increasing need. From 1941 until the canteen closed, 55,000 volunteers from 125 different towns, some 200 miles away, gave both food and time to make sure not one of these trains were missed and that each soldier was fed.
At any time of the day or night, soldiers were able to escape the war for a short 10 or 15 minutes as they stepped into the canteen and were met by mothers, sisters, and sweethearts. North Platte’s war industry was not munitions, airplanes, or tanks; it was raising morale and every volunteer knew it. The war ended in August 1945. Just like in the rest of the country, celebration overtook the canteen. However, soldiers were continuing to come through North Platte and the canteen volunteers were right there to meet them. As the soldiers came home they were able to find the same hospitality as before.
On April 2, 1946 volunteers were in the depot cleaning for the last time and a train pulled in. It was full of troops. Unable to give them anything but the coffee they had put on for themselves, they handed out the cups and filled them up. A fitting ending to an extraordinary story. So extraordinary, in fact, that from 1941-1946, the canteen served 6 million troops. None of which were ever charged and no train was ever missed. Our goal is to bring back that sense of community. These times brought out the best of the best of people and we want to bring that back to our Downtown.
Moving forward to 2021, Downtown North Platte is among Nebraska's best examples of historic preservation. Travel along brick streets adorned with overhead festoon lighting and enjoy an idyllic collection of notable architecture in this National Register district. Shop, dine and unwind with several unique shops and restaurants. Shop among antique and art galleries, bike, floral, gift shops, furniture stores and boutiques. Get a taste of some of the best local ice cream, coffee, barbecue, Mexican, Japanese or American Fusion restaurants. Unwind at one of our salons or celebrate with us during our music festivals and Holiday activities. You’ll feel aglow in the Canteen District’s main corridor during our Annual Christmas Light Up the Night parade. Come enjoy year-round events and experience our Canteen sense of community
For more information on our history, please click here.