American wheat sales rose to unprecedented levels in the fall of 1914 due to the European war. The wheat exchange in Chicago made record sales through purchases from agents of the German and English governments.
Northwestern Elevator and Mill Company, Mount Vernon, Ohio
An Ohion newspaper headlined “Flour Mills busy” in October 1914. Northwestern Elevator & Mill Co.’s two largest mills, in Mount Vernon and Toledo, and National Milling Co. in Toledo, coped well with the large orders. They exported their entire production to Liverpool, Glasgow and Paris.
At the end of November, the mills made the newspapers again because of a humanitarian relief movement intended to help the population of occupied Belgium. The mills contributed to the relief effort of the Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement, organized by the Minneapolitan trade journal Northwestern Miller.
Northwestern Elevator & Mill Co. immediately pledged 50 barrels of flour and invited the citizens of Mt. Vernon to contribute to the relief campaign by purchasing at least one sack of flour at cost price:
“The flour is to be shipped in heavy cotton bags containing forty-nine pounds. Anyone wishing to donate, can purchase flour from us at the cost price of $5.00 per barrel. No donations will be accepted for less than one forty-nine pound sack. … We will donate 50 barrels, and trust that enough more will be donated by our generous citizens to make the shipment from Mt. Vernon at least a car load of two hundred barrels.” (The Democratic Banner, 1 december 1914)
The call for aid made by Northwestern Elevator & Mill Co. was a success: a full train car with 820 sacks of flour (205 barrels) left for Philadelphia at the end of December to be delivered to SS South Point. The local organizing committee of Mt. Vernon thanked all donors through a newspaper article:
The Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement’s relief effort was successful throughout Ohio. Dozens of mills contributed for a total of 4,861 barrels of flour (equivalent to over 20 carloads, 19,444 sacks of 49 Lbs, 430 tons of flour). The Relief Report stated the following regarding Ohio’s mills:
Re-use of Ohio flour sacks in Belgium
Using cotton sacks was a necessary stimulus to the American cotton industry. The cotton sacks in which the flour was packed were intended for reuse in Belgium. The Belgian women and girls have gratefully made use of the cotton. After the sacks were emptied at the bakeries, they proceeded to make the sacks into clothes.
An example of a jacket made from a Northwestern Elevator & Mill flour sack is part of the collection of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, West-Branch, Iowa (HHPL).
Most flour sacks are embroidered and embellished.
Belgian author Gilles wrote about a flour sack from Springfield, Ohio:
Saturday 17 July 1915
The American sacks that contained the wheat flour for the Belgian National Relief and Nutrition Committee (CNSA) are particularly popular among collectors of war memories. The sacks are printed and the more characteristic the printing, the higher the sales price. A sack of 30 francs is printed with blue and red letters, the text reads in English:
From the city of Springfield, Ohio
As a testimony of affection
Our friends the Belgians
To this heroic nation
God bless it!
Besides the jacket, I have located four more copies of the flour sacks delivered in Belgium by the Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement.
Two embroidered flour sacks have been preserved:
One flour sack of the Moody & Thomas Milling Co., Peninsula (collection HHPL); the second of The National Milling Co., Toledo (Hoover Institution Archives collection, Stanford University, HIA).
Also, two original flour sacks have been preserved: one from Dewey Bros. Co., Blanchester (collection War Heritage Institute, Brussels (WHI)); the second of The National Milling Co., Toledo (collection HHPL 62.4.120).
OHIO Commission for Relief of European War Sufferers
Six weeks later, another appeal was made to Ohioans. The Ohio Commission for Relief of European War Sufferers was founded on January 4, 1915 in Columbus. During a luncheon those present decided to raise supplies and money to help victims of the European war, with the support of State Board of Commerce staff.
President of the committee was E.D. Libbey from Toledo, treasurer E.R. Sharp from Columbus, Secretary O.K. Shimansky from Columbus.
The state of Ohio was home to European emigrants and their descendants from many countries; that is why the Commission made a broad effort to provide assistance to “European War Sufferers”. Priority was given to assistance to the Belgian population; the commission intended to secure a shipload of provisions for the Belgians to be moved early in February 1915.
The Ohio Woman’s Auxiliary: Mrs. Estelle Thompson, née Clark
Although men were appointed to the committee, women carried out the work. The existing and well-managed women’s organizations started working centrally and locally. Communication proceeded through letters, calls and advertisements in the newspapers; orally at regular meetings of clubs, churches and schools.
The Ohio Woman’s Auxiliary was headed by Mrs. Estelle Godfrey Thompson, née Clark (Massillon, Stark County 13.02.1862 – Columbus 29.06.1945), wife of President William Oxley Thompson of Ohio State University in Columbus. Mrs. Wm. O. Thompson was a member of The Woman’s Section of The Commission for Relief in Belgium, serving both on the “Executive Co-operating Committee” as chair of the National Federation of College Women as the “State Chairmen” as chair of Ohio.
Estelle Clark Thompson descended from a well-to-do Cleveland family; she worked as a teacher of dramatics at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. At the age of 32 she married William Thompson; she was his third wife; he was twice widowed and had two daughters from his first and two sons from his second marriage. Estelle Clark Thompson took care of the four young children; she remained childless herself. She played an active role in Ohio women’s organizations and campaigned for women’s rights: “Favors women suffrage”.
Mr. Brand Whitlock and Mrs. Ella Whitlock, née Brainerd
During World War I, the diplomat Brand Whitlock (Urbana, Ohio, USA 04.03.1869 – Cannes, France 24.05.1934) was American minister plenipotentiary in Belgium seating in Brussels. He acted as patron of the international “Commission for Relief in Belgium” (CRB) and the Belgian National Relief Committee “Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation” (CNSA), the organizations that coordinated and implemented food relief for the population in occupied Belgium.
He lived in Brussels with his wife, Ella Whitlock, née Brainerd (Springfield, Ill. 25.09.1876 – Brewster, NY 11.07.1942). Ella Brainerd Whitlock worked energetically to help the Belgian population and closely collaborated with the Belgian women’s organizations.
Brand Whitlock felt connected to the state of Ohio. Before becoming a diplomat in 1914, he had been elected mayor of Toledo four times (1906-1914); he had worked there as a lawyer from 1897. Due to his connection with Ohio, he became member of the honorary advisory commission of the Ohio Commission for Relief of European War Sufferers. He successfully appealed to the American people to aid the Belgians with food.
As a result of their work, the Whitlocks received many gifts for their efforts, including decorated flour sacks.
After her husband passed away, Ella Brainerd Whitlock returned to the US. She donated many objects, including their interesting collection of flour sacks to the Champaign County Historical Society in Urbana and Toledo. The Champaign County Historical Society Museum in Urbana (CCHSM) preserves this collection. See also the blog: Flour sack trip from Urbana to Overijse
Flour sacks with portrait of Brand Whitlock
Two flour sacks with Brand Whitlock’s portrait stand out.
The origin of flour sack no. 4001 is “American Commission”; the Belgian embroiderer added as texts: “A.S.E.M. Brand Whitlock, M. P. des Etats-Unis à Bruxelles; E Pluribus Unum; La Belgique Reconnaissante 1914-1915”. The portrait looks like a lithography, surrounded by an embroidered green laurel wreath; to the left and right of the portrait are embroideries of the Belgian and American flags; on the lower part of the flour sack the “Great Shield of the United States” is embroidered, along with the eagle with spread wings and the stars representing the thirteen original colonies of the US plus the text: “E Pluribus Unum”.
The other flour sack, no. 4003, bears the original print “Contributed by the People of Kentucky and Southern Indiana” via The Louisville Herald, produced by Louisville Milling Co, Louisville, KY. In Belgium, the sack had been printed with red letters: “A Son Excellence Monsieur Brand Whitlock, Ministre des Etats-Unis à Bruxelles. La Belgique entière acclame les Etats-Unis.” The flags of Belgium and the US are embroidered, as are the letters of the original print. The photo portrait of Brand Whitlock is colorized, signed “L. van Loo”. The photographer may presumably have been Leo Petrus Julius (Leon) van Loo (Sint-Joris-ten Distel 19.08.1841 – Cincinnati 10.01.1907) He was an art photographer born in Belgium, who emigrated to Ohio at the age of 15, following his Ghent teacher Charles Waldack. Waldack was able to emigrate to Cincinnati, because Leon van Loo’s father paid him in exchange for his son’s training as a photographer. Van Loo lived in Cincinnati for the rest of his life. It seems likely that he made a photo portrait of (a younger) Brand Whitlock in the US and that a print of the portrait ended up in his old hometown Ghent, Belgium, where it has been used for the flour sack(s).
State Ship SS Naneric
CRB’s New York office contracted the British steamship Naneric as State Ship of Ohio. SS Naneric had made an earlier trip to Calcutta, India, and had to voyage from there to New York to take the cargo on board. On that 65-day voyage from Calcutta to New York, SS Naneric passed through the Suez Canal and was caught up in war. The battle it found itself in was between the Allied army, supported by fire from French and British cruisers, and a Turkish land force, commanded by German officers.
Captain Tulloch of the Naneric reported that his steamer entered the Suez Canal on February 1, 1915 but had not been allowed to proceed because of the battle. After days delay, the vessel was permitted to proceed to Port Said, protected with sandbags. On March 8, SS Naneric docked in Philadelphia.
The Ohio women’s fundraising campaigns were successful; trains brought carloads of flour to New York Harbor.
On March 27, SS Naneric departed from New York as the Ohio State Ship with the relief supplies on board and arrived in Rotterdam around April 20. The relief supplies were transferred to barges for transit to the Belgian villages and towns. By the end of April, the Belgian bakers were able to bake bread from the flour and the local population could taste the good gifts that the people of the state of Ohio had given for a second time.
With the emptied flour sacks, the Belgian women and girls could continue with their charitable work, transforming them into souvenirs.
Nine embroidered sacks, presumably from the State Ship Ohio, have been preserved.
- A sack of “Bakoto Flour” from Bako Mills, Canton Feed and M’L’G Co., Canton, is in the Embassy of the United States of America in Belgium in Brussels;
- Three preserved “Square Deal” sacks from The Gwinn Milling Co., Columbus are in the Musée de la Vie wallonne in Liège (one embroidered, one original), respectively in Mons Memorial Museum in Mons (one embroidered);
Five flour sacks “The Famous White Loaf Roller Flour” by Sunbury Mills, G.J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury, are preserved in both a private collection in Belgium (98 Lbs) and in the United Kingdom (49 Lbs) (both embroidered): at the In Flanders Fields Museum (IFFM), Ypres (98 Lbs, embroidered, panel in folding screen); at the Royal Art & History Museum (RAHM), Brussels (49 Lbs, original sack, Tx 2648); at Hoover Institution Archives, Palo Alto, Ca. (24 1/2 Lbs embroidered).
Sunbury Mills, G. J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury, Ohio
The history of the Sunbury Mills mill is detailed on the website of the Big Walnut Historical Society located at the Myers Inn Museum in Sunbury.
Gottleib Jacob (Jakie) Burrer (Germany, 03.01.1848 – Sunbury 18.02.1926) owned Sunbury Mills since 1875. It was a family business. He was married to Amy Ann Gammill; their sons Karl (age in 1914: 35), Paul (28), Rudolph (26) and Gordon (20) worked in the expanding business (including electricity generation and supply), which meant a lot to Sunbury. Sunbury Mills has been the longest operating mill in Sunbury. In 1945 the mill, which had meanwhile merged with the Condit Elevators, was sold to the Farm Bureau.
Charlotte Burrer, née Pagels: American Flour Sack Embroiderer in Ohio
The youngest Burrer son, Gordon Jacob (Sunbury 02.02.1894 – Pleasant Ridge, Ohio, 04.07.1960) is a war veteran. He served in World War I, in 1917/18, as a captain in the US Army Infantry.
At the age of 35 he married Charlotte Grace Pagels (1895 – Hamilton, Ohio, July 2, 1991); they married on October 3,1929 at Pleasant Ridge, near Cincinnati. They had three children: Charlotte Amy, Gordon Jacob and Frederick Pagels. Charlotte Pagels Burrer’s grandparents had been German emigrants.
Charlotte deserves eternal glory for embroidering a Sunbury Mills flour sack! Yes, a flour sack “The Famous White Loaf Roller Flour” by Sunbury Mills, G.J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury.
In which year she embroidered the flour sack I do not know, but it seems she produced the embroidery after a visit to the Hoover Tower at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. She became acquainted with the collection of decorated flour sacks in the archives of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, kept in the Hoover Institution Archives and was surprised to see an embroidered flour sack “White Loaf” from Sunbury Mills.
It inspired Charlotte to embroider exactly such a flour sack.
Back home in Ohio, she looked for a flour sack printed with the “White Loaf” brand at Sunbury Mills and got to work. A so-called ‘Replica’ of the flour sacks decorated in Belgium during WW I was born; it is proudly preserved in Sunbury’s Community Library.
Former Sunbury librarian, Mrs. Polly Horn, is now curator of the Myers Inn Museum in Sunbury. She published a photo of Charlotte’s embroidered flour sack in her “Burrer Mills” blog. Thanks to her I came into possession of a photo of this embroidery by an American flour sack embroiderer: Charlotte Pagels Burrer.
Embroidery of flour sacks in WW I: getting started
The embroidery of flour sacks in times of war and occupation has been a remarkable undertaking by Belgian women and girls in 1915/16. The recognition for their special work is recorded in the American booklet “Out of War. A Legacy of Art”.
The publication came about as a group project from the Red Cedar Questers, Iowa. Belle Walton Hinkhouse took the initiative and Joanne Evans Hemmingway led the project to bring about the release.
Central to the book is the collection of decorated flour sacks from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa. Former curator Phyllis Foster Danks of the museum (circa 1977-1986) contributed with her expertise on the “Embroidered Belgian Flour Sacks”.
Two experienced embroidery teachers, Catherine Robinder and Angeline Hoover Shuh, analyzed the embroidery on the flour sacks.
They concentrated on decorations added by the Belgian women themselves and chose six copies for a reconstruction. The result are six embroidery patterns with detailed descriptions of threads used and embroidery stitches. Embroiderers receive instructions on which cloth to use for the pattern: you could use a sack, but that’s not necessary.
The embroidery patterns are:
- Woman and sheep
- Flemish scene
- Viking ship
Anyone who wants to, can get started! Just like Charlotte Grace Pagel’s Burrer did embroidering her Sunbury flour sack.
Decorated flour sacks can inspire even more creative crafts!
– Mrs. Polly Horn, curator of the Myers Inn Museum in Sunbury, Ohio, for the wealth of information she sent me about the Sunbury Mill and the Burrer family. She is the author of dozens of blogs on the Big Walnut Area Historical Society.
Watch my program at YouTube: “Decorated Flour Sacks in WWI. From Aid to Embroidery in Ohio”.
Program of the Big Walnut Area Historical Society, Ohio. Mrs. Polly Horn, director of the Myers Inn Museum in Sunbury invited me to develop this presentation. Enjoy!
– Mrs. Cheryl Ogden, director, and Megan, intern, of the Champaign County Historical Society Museum;
– Hubert Bovens from Wilsele, Belgium, for researching the biographical data of photographer Leon van Loo.
 The Tribune, Coshocton, Ohio, October 22, 1914
 Edgar, William C., ‘The Millers’ Belgian Relief Movement 1914-15 conducted by The Northwestern Miller. Final Report of its director William C. Edgar, Editor of the Northwestern Miller, MCMXV’. Minneapolis, Minn. USA, 1915
 Gille, Louis, Ooms, Alphonse, Delandsheere, Paul, Cinquante Mois d’Occupation Allemande. Volume I 1914-1915. Brussels: Librairie Albert Dewit, 1919
 Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, 9 maart 1915
 The US Ambassador, Mr. Gidwitz, showed the flour sack during a recorded message at the online opening of the exhibition ‘When Minnesota Fed the European Children’ on October 12, 2020. Here the link to the YouTube recording of the opening, the American ambassador speaks 4 minutes: you can find it between 3.30 and 7.50 min. https://www.globalminnesota.org/events/past-events/exhibit-opening-of-when-minnesota-fed-the-children-of-europe/
 The two black and white photographs of Hoover Tower and the embroidered Sunbury Mills flour sack in HIA are from the book: Danielson, Elena S., Hoover Tower at Stanford University. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2018
 Hemingway, Joanne, Hinkhouse, Belle, Out of War. A Legacy of Art. West Branch, Iowa: Iowa State Questors, 1995.
“Out of War. A Legacy of Art” is available for purchase for $9.95 in the Gift Shop of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa, USA.