Picture if you will a cold, crisp night at an Army encampment at the very end of World War I. It’s far from being the place anyone would want to spend Christmas, but just a little over 100 years ago it was the setting for a special Christmas Eve for one Mount graduate.
Anna Louise Keller McCormack graduated from Mount de Chantal in 1916. Three years later she recounted her experience of singing for soldiers at Camp Pike Army encampment in Arkansas for the 1919 Mount yearbook. Anna, it turns out, was quite the accomplished singer. An Arkansas Catholic newspaper from 1918 mentions that she held a concert in January of that year and was “quite a favorite with Little Rock people”.
On Christmas Even 1918, the first World War had ended just a few weeks prior, but a war of a different kind of raging on – the fight against the Spanish Flu pandemic. At Camp Pike alone, the American Medical Association reported that almost 25 percent of the soldiers based there contracted influenza and by the end of October 1918, 486 of them had died. Overall, the U.S. Army lost an estimated 30,000 soldiers to the pandemic that year. To put that number in perspective, 54,000 soldiers were killed in combat during WWI.
As for Anna, she would go on to contribute just a little of her spirit to an American Christmas tradition we all now know and love. Her husband, Bob McCormack, formed a candy company in Albany, Georgia, in 1919 that would pioneer the mass production and packaging of candy canes.
Candy canes at that time were fragile to ship and labor-intensive to make. Anna’s brother, Father George Harding Keller, helped contribute to ‘Bob’s Candies’ by inventing a machine that took straight candy canes and curved them at the top to create that familiar shepherd’s crook shape. Anna’s son, Bob Jr., created a packing device that wrapped the candies and made them easier to ship. If you enjoy candy canes, you’ve probably had one of Bob’s. Though the company was bought by a different manufacturer in 2005, their candy canes are still produced under the name ‘Bob’s’ and even come in flavors like butter rum, mac and cheese, and pickle.
But, back to Anna. While it’s unclear what sort of other work she was doing for the war effort, it is clear that she was able to help bring some comfort to the Camp Pike soldiers that night. At a time when we can so acutely empathize with the heartache of pandemic, I hope her letter also puts a smile on your face.
Christmas ‘Eve at Camp Pike
Of all my experience in war work there in one that will stand out never to be forgotten – Christmas Eve at Camp Pike. I was asked to sing the Christmas Carols with the nurses and doctors at the base hospital; to sing those messages of cheer through the corridors and courts of that huge government hospital. I must admit I felt like an alien amongst those ministering angels, but my song went forth no less fervent. I was signing of great truths and for the great purpose of bringing a message of cheer to the sick and wounded boys of “Uncle Sam.”
We started from the comfortable little Red Cross Nurses’ Hut and sang through the miles and miles of corridors. At the contagious wards we stood outside while the wind beat an accompaniment around those roughly constructed buildings. Later in our course, one of the medical corps men joined us with a violin. Our little chorus would not be considered anything wonderful in the music world, for after three hours’ singing, our tones were nothing to boast of, but that night it seemed heavenly; often I found myself silent just listening to those old but ever new carols. Many cheers and happy-voiced calls of “Merry Christmas” came from those bed-ridden boys in the wards.
At ten o’clock we reached the Convalescent Home. What a fairyland! In comparison with those cold, dark corridors, this home seemed heavenly. It was a master effort of our great Red Cross. It is presumptuous of me to try to describe it, but nevertheless I make the attempt. The stage was a bower of pine trees, cotton and tinsel, all aglitter with white and blue lights. The hall was hung with pine boughs, cotton, and ribbon confetti. The place was crowded; boys in rolling chairs, on crutches, some in convalescent robes, some in khaki, some bandaged, some limping, but there was no sign of sadness. White clad nurses and hostesses distributed candy, nuts, favors, and good cheer while music land song were in progress on the stage.
This was not the end of my experience that night. My father had charge of the music for Midnight Mass at the Knights of Columbus Hut and three of us from our little carol chorus were to sing the Mass. We drove to that building and this is the sight I shall never forget. The hall where we had so often seen revelry and mirth was magically transformed into a temple of God by the mere opening of the small folding doors in front of the altar. The large Christmas tree in the middle of the hall which had been the center of attraction the night before at a big dance, was no longer noticed. The entire congregation was khaki clad, boys whom we had so often seen marching and drilling on the field, whom we had entertained with programs and dances. They were now bowed in devout prayer before their King and God. Ah, it was a sight for the poet’s pen! Would that I could wield it!
My Christmas Eve at Camp Pike shall always live in my memory – it was “Peace on earth, good will to men”.
Anna Louise Keller, ‘16
It’s worth mentioning that I found supporting information for this post
from goldenglow.org, the Arkansas Catholic, and the Albanyherald.com. Also worth mentioning: Anna’s daughter, Anna Louise McCormack, attended Mount de Chantal and worked for Bob’s Candies, Inc., for more than 50 years. An image of her as a child was used in some of Bob's first advertisements.