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The Parachute Dress

By Marcus B. Gray, MS

Wildlife Biologist

The years following WWII are full of stories relaying the interesting ways that soldiers returning from deployment reused materials and items from their travels in civilian life. One of my high school teachers, Mr. Duncan, told us how his father, a liberator of concentration camps, brought back one of the large ceremonial German flags. The elder Mr. Duncan would periodically cut a few feet of fabric off the flag to have pajamas made. I suppose he slept well. My Grandpa Kehr had a myriad of propaganda trinkets from little cards and a lighter to swastika arm bands given to him by disillusioned party members as the occupying forces arrived. There are documented cases of dresses being made from parachutes loved ones came home with after the war. We had the opportunity to speak with a woman who not only had her favorite garment sewn from a parachute the "neighbor boy" gave her but was also directly involved in collecting milkweed pods to support the victory effort. As people from the Greatest Generation dwindle in number, the urgency to collect their eyewitness accounts is real.

Think back to a time when country doctors made house calls, returned home for their midday meal (often referred to as “dinner”) and kids walked to school. In fact, the children even returned home to eat during a break in their lessons. That was the childhood experience of Mrs. Barbara Gauger. Mrs. Gauger took some time to visit on the phone with Sustainable Monarch about her involvement in gathering natural materials used by the armed forces.

“We felt very patriotic.”

-Barbara Gauger

Barbara’s father was a WWI Veteran that attended college to study medicine. He saw becoming a physician as a way to get off the farm, yes, but really as an opportunity to help the local community. He took time out of his busy schedule to accompany Barbara on outings to collect milkweed pods. She said they would go afield with their little paper sacks in the road ditches surrounding the dairy farms outside of Waseca, Minnesota. At the time, Mrs. Gauger was 7 or 8 years old and recalled her Girl Scout Troop and friends making trips as well. While there wasn’t a clear civic movement for adults, there were an estimated 12 occasions when children in the town collected milkweed. Barbara had one sibling and her brother reportedly was active in the Boy Scouts who were also involved in the effort. It was fun and gave all the young children something to do. We asked what some of her favorite wildflowers were that she remembered, and Barbara recalled a fondness for lily of the valley and wild phlox. Now retired and living in the desert of the Southwest, she likes cactus flowers and enjoys bluebonnets. She spoke fondly of picking gooseberries, which make wonderful pies.

It can be difficult for people today to imagine the hardships previous generations faced. The sacrifices of the World Wars and Great Depression are being felt in many ways. With the pandemic situation going on now, folks are getting a taste of what it was like to mobilize against a global threat. The benefits of a real economy built on a diversity of revenue streams that forge local ties and foster a true sense of community couldn’t be timelier as everyone is looking to the past for answers. An economy built on natural resources without degrading them benefits businesses and people at home but allows for the resilience we need to pull together in times of crisis. The work of Sustainable Monarch promotes a connection with the land that improves the bottom line of farmers and entrepreneurs that invest in their hometowns while increasing habitat needed for butterflies and other wildlife. The spirit of patriotism and pride in the place where you live are just as important now as they were in the 1940’s. Let’s all be like Mrs. Gauger and do our part to bring natural fibers to the “front lines” of conservation.

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