Last Wednesday, March 15, Trexler Library held their 3rd “Transcribathon.” The transcribathon is a come-and- go as you please style event wherein Muhlenberg students, faculty, and staff transcribe, or type up, a handwritten document, from the Library’s Special Collections archive. In the past, the transcribathon has seen documents from the extensive Muhlenberg Papers collection, but this past Wednesday’s event offered a more recent manuscript. Co-sponsored by the Support our Troops club, the transcribathon introduced the World War I journal of Martin D. Fetherolf, ‘14.
Without events like the transcribathon, men like Fetherolf would remain unduly undiscovered. However, thanks to the efforts of Carol Taylor, Fetherolf’s granddaughter, and Susan Falciani, Special Collections Archivist, Fetherolf’s story has been brought back into the light.
Martin D. Fetherolf was born September 15, 1887 in Wescosville, PA. Almost exactly 23 years later he entered Muhlenberg College as a doey-eyed freshman. While at Muhlenberg, Fetherolf served a variety of roles, from promising athlete to Editor-in-Chief of this very publication; then called just “The Muhlenberg.” Nicknamed “Stonewall Jackson,” his classmates described him as a quiet yet brilliantly intelligent man. Most of Fetherolf’s ‘Berg fame came from the athletic department: on top of playing as Center for all four years, Fetherolf ran track and was assistant manager of the track team, played baseball, basketball (serving as the manager his second year), and was a member of the varsity M club. Off the court, Fetherolf was the secretary of his class his sophomore year, a member of the drama association, Sophronian society, student council, Woodrow Wilson club, Webster club, and A.P.S. club. On top of his long list of extracurricular activities, Fetherolf was studying to be a teacher. After his graduation in 1914, his educational aspirations wouldn’t be long lived.
Less than two years later, Fetherolf stayed true to his militaristic nickname and was stationed at the Mexican border, due to the Mexican Revolution and subsequent Border War of 1910-19. Gone was “Stonewall” Fetherolf, and here to stay was Pvt. Fetherolf, 4th Pa. Infantry Medical Corp. Though not much is known from his time on the border (his diaries have yet to be cataloged), what we do know reiterates the picture of the intelligent yet carefree Muhlenberg man. While on the border, Fetherolf took meticulous notes of his day-to-day life. He mainly complained of the weather, but always seemed to find the best in things, once writing of how happy he was to have saved up enough money to buy a rug to send home. What we do know, however, is a multi-page list of names, ranks, and dues, of many men who apparently owed Fetherolf money.
With the Border War still going on, Fetherolf soon moved his patriotic service overseas. With President Wilson entering the U.S. into WWI, Fetherolf was undoubtedly one of the first to sign up. Now serving in the 110th Infantry Regiment, Fetherolf was both enjoying and bemoaning his stay in France. Though it is not believed he ever engaged in conflict, Fetherolf still experienced his fair share of stressful situations. Martin begins his memoir, now almost fully transcribed, describing how he did his part “during the hot campaigns against the Germans in 1918.” He writes “Upon his return, he was greeted by friends who thought they were now gazing upon a hero. One of them asked ‘Tell me, how many Germans did you shoot.’ He replied, ‘None, nor did any German shoot me. The only killing I did was that of seriously wounded horses, many cooties and some overly-bold rats.’” He described himself as “No hero, but one who helped.”
Fetherolf littered his memoir with stories of heroism and hardship, but his memoir consisted mostly of stories of rain. Whether marching through knee deep mud or sleeping in flooded foxholes, Fetherolf’s gripes never seemed to dampen his spirits. His worst night of sleep, far surpassing that of any loud trash truck waking you up at 5 am, came one early morning while sleeping in a French forest (sounds quaint, right?) He writes, “I had slept for a few hours when I was awakened by a terrible din, no mistaking, the Germans were putting over on us a fearful barrage.” Stories involving him waking up to the sound of artillery fire were littered throughout the manuscript, but among such destruction, more lighthearted tales stuck out.
Early in his time in Europe, still in England, Fetherolf got quite hungry after a long train ride through the countryside. Stopping to get some “eats,” Fetherolf reported that “international difficulties arose.” While buying cookies from a vendor in Rugby, England, Fetherolf soon realized he didn’t know the value of his American currency in British Pounds. To his further dismay, the vendor didn’t seem to know either. Instead of asking around or trying to resolve the issue, Fetherolf “held out a handful of change and let the vendor take what he wanted.” He then wrote that to this day, he doesn’t know who was ripped off – him or the vendor.
After his memorable years as a soldier, Fetherolf retired from the service after reaching the rank of Second Lieutenant of the 110th Infantry of 28th Division, U. S. A. He returned to his degree in education, and for the remainder of his life taught in the Philadelphia public school system. He married a loving wife on Christmas, 1919, and of his three children, two went into the military in both the Army and Air Force. Fetherolf died March 5th, 1951. Had it not been for the efforts of his granddaughter in collecting his stories, and the Transcribathon participants in digitizing them, his story would be just another forgotten tale in not only Muhlenberg but also American history.