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Sunday, February 7, 2021

A box full of history: items about Sidney Baker, local hero

A certificate sent to Mr. and Mrs. B. F. Baker, honoring their son, Sidney.
Click on any image to enlarge.

Last week I reported here on a letter Earl Garrett wrote to his sister, Harriet Garrett, from the front lines in France during World War I. (Earl Garrett died in that war, and our community honored his heroism, as well as the heroism of Sidney Baker and Francisco Lemos, by naming three downtown streets for them.) 

The letter itself was in a large container of items relating to another of those heroes, Sidney Baker.

Sidney Baker,
around 1918
Sidney Walter Baker was one of the twelve children of Benjamin Franklin Baker and Elizabeth Peterson Baker. Sidney Baker was born in 1896 in Gonzales County, Texas. His father was a carpenter and farmer, and helped build the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad line into Kerrville. The family moved to Kerrville in the 1880s, moved away to Gonzales County, where Sidney Baker was born, and then returned to Kerrville in 1904.

Among the items given to me last week were several photographs of Sidney Baker I’d never seen before. One was a formal soldier portrait, which, in my opinion, isn’t the best photo of Baker in my collection. Another showed Baker and several of his siblings when they were quite young. Another showed his mother, Elizabeth Baker, visiting her son’s grave in France after the war.

Company D had been recruited locally by Captain Charles J. Seeber, and in the spring and summer of 1917, the company drilled on the grounds of Westminster Encampment, just east of town. The grounds of the encampment are now part of the campus of Schreiner University. The company also drilled on the West Texas Fairgrounds site, which was across Town Creek south of the Five Points area, between Junction Highway and the river. For the most part, the drills were practiced without weapons or equipment, and many of the men did not have regulation uniforms.

Company D departed Kerrville by train on September 5, 1917, heading to Camp Bowie, near Fort Worth. 

It was a sad day for everyone, but especially young Sidney Baker. He was saying goodbye to his steady girlfriend, a young woman named Daphne Williams.

Bill Sloan, a former editor of this newspaper, shared some research on Sidney Baker with me years ago. That research was based on Baker family correspondence, and offered a unique look into Sidney Baker's life.

Sidney Baker joined the National Guard unit on the advice of his older brothers, Frank and Ira. Having worked as a helper for his father, and also as a seasonal worker on the Peterson Ranch, Sidney was attracted to the prospect of a steady income. 

According to Sloan's research, Sidney Baker was a reluctant soldier. After basic training at Camp Bowie, he was promoted to PFC, "but a few weeks later, after getting into an altercation with another recruit, he was busted back to buck private, and he never received another promotion."

A planned visit to Kerrville to see Daphne Williams was canceled when an "old sergeant wouldn't let me off, so there was nothing I could do."

Again, according to Sloan's research, Sidney Baker sought a hardship release to help his mother, who was in financial difficulties. "Please do everything you can to get me out of this Army life," Baker wrote his mother, "and tell all the Kerrville boys to take a d----d fool's advice and stay out of the Army."

Then, in March 1918, when Baker was in New York awaiting transport to Europe, Daphne Williams broke off their relationship.

On March 25, 1918, Sidney Baker wrote his mother, before leaving for France.

"I guess we are leaving tomorrow for France, but we sure had lots of trouble trying to get started. Daph sure has gone back on me, and I had just as soon the whole German army shoot at me as for to do that. You tell Daph what I said when you see her and ask her to keep writing to me and I will fix things when the war is over."

Baker left the States on the Finland, on July 26, 1918. The Finland was the same ship which carried Francisco Lemos to Europe.

The war in Europe was a long way from Kerrville, and the worst battles for American troops were yet to come.

When the war was over, on the very first Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, Elizabeth Baker, Sidney Baker's mother, was so very happy. Kerrville was celebrating the end of the war. On that same day wrote to Sidney "I write to let you know we have received the news that we have peace, and I was never as happy in my life. Oh, if I could just be with you to rejoice, but I have the pleasure of thinking you won't be killed now."

Her son never saw the letter.

Two days later, on November 13, 1918, she received a telegram informing her that Sidney Baker had been killed during the bloody fighting near Hill 288 in the Argonne. When Kerrville was celebrating on November 11, Elizabeth Baker did not know her son was gone.

That Sidney Baker was a reluctant soldier does not mean he was not brave. He was very brave and saw some of the worst fighting any American soldier saw. Of the three Kerr County men who died in battle in World War I, he survived the longest, living until the last weeks of the war. But of the three, he was the youngest to die.

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is very thankful to the kind and generous person who shared these priceless items with all of us. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times February 6, 2021.

Yep -- you can help produce this free newsletter by sharing it with someone.  Sharing is certainly caring. (Buying one of my books helps, too!)

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