Collector John Pierson loans intact WWI uniform for Elting Library exhibit

John Pierson has an extensive collection of WWI memorabilia. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

This past September 28 was the centennial of farewell festivities for the first draftees from New Paltz being called to active duty in World War I: Edward R. Platz, Clinton Bell, Myron Simpson and Ervie S. Smith. Accordingly, the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library is commemorating local veterans of the Great War with a new exhibit that will run through Veterans Day, November 11. The Historical Collection is open on weekdays from 1 to 5:30 p.m.

The centerpiece of the display is a vintage World War I uniform of the type that local soldiers would have worn — and may indeed have been worn by a local resident, if the Dutchess County-awarded medal that came with it had belonged to the same individual. “We’re assuming it was his medal,” says New Paltz resident John Pierson, a collector who purchased the uniform as part of a lot at auction.

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The original owner of the uniform has not been identified, although several pieces of clothing are marked with the same initials. Haviland-Heidgerd coordinator Carol Johnson is researching rosters of Hudson Valley regiments of the period in an effort to pinpoint the owner, Pierson notes. He calls the outfit “a head-to-toe uniform: everything minus the boots.” It includes a jacket, pants, shirt, hat, underwear, belt, socks, even a handkerchief. Mounted on a half-mannequin, “It makes a nice display,” says the collector. “It brings the distant past into Technicolor.”

The medal was awarded to a member of the 41st Infantry Division of the US Army, and insignia associated with the uniform identifies the wearer as a member of the Signal Corps. Since radio communication was a barely emergent technology by the end of World War I, it’s most likely that the uniform’s owner was a telegraph or telephone operator, or even a semaphore flagman. “The 41st never went into combat as a unit,” Pierson notes. “It was a replacement division, stationed in England.”

Pierson, who has a degree in History from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, grew up in Minnesota in a family of collectors: “I was raised in old stuff as far back as I can remember. It was my parents’ hobby.” Although he specializes in military memorabilia, he certainly doesn’t fit any of the “unsavory” stereotypes of Confederate-flag-flying gun collectors or Nazi-paraphernalia-wearing members of white supremacist militias; in fact, he says, “I’ve spent most of my life not wanting to talk to people about it.” Never a member of the armed services himself, Pierson credits his interest in military gear with “a fascination with a world so different from the safe Midwestern life that I was living…. My father was a hippie war protestor, but he never discouraged it.”

Collecting has been Pierson’s home-based business for about 18 years now, and has become immensely easier since the advent of eBay: “The Internet opened the world up. It has been a huge boost to the hobby.” He also currently sells his collectibles in three booths in the Antiques Barn at the Water Street Market in New Paltz. But he began to take a particular interest in the World War I era early on, and even managed to meet a 103-year-old veteran of that conflict at a trade show circa 1990. Picking an area of specialization was largely a matter of availability, he says. When he got started collecting seriously, “Getting stuff from World War II and Vietnam was too easy; getting stuff from the Civil War was impossible. World War I was more of a challenge.”

Particularly rare were items from Great Britain, since most poorer veterans took up the government’s offer to swap a new postwar “demob suit” for their uniforms, which were then burned. And in Australia, the sturdy bush jackets that were standard military issue were mostly worn after the war until they were totally threadbare, Pierson explains. “Canadians were better off, on average, so more of them kept their uniforms.”

Because they were frankly rather dorky-looking, with their itchy standup collars and baggy jodhpur trousers, American doughboy uniforms were not worn much on the homefront. Thus, they remain more commonly available and less valuable as collectibles. So Pierson developed a specialty in uniforms of the member nations of the British Commonwealth, and has made it his mission to recreate “head-to-toe” ensembles representing each. He recently managed to sell such an outfit from Australia to the US World War I Veterans’ Museum in Kansas City.

But, says Pierson, “The best sale I ever had on eBay was in 2000.” He had acquired an aerial observation camera used for reconnaissance during World War I: a large trapezoidal wooden box for which he had paid about $75. It sold for about $1,200 to a New Zealander, who wanted it shipped via express mail, and never mind the cost.

That purchaser turned out to be movie producer/director Peter Jackson, whose hobby is collecting World War I-era aviation memorabilia. (In fact, Jackson even cast himself in a cameo role as a pilot of one of the biplanes circling the Empire State Building in his remake of King Kong, according to Pierson.) Jackson’s “Knights of the Sky” collection, including the camera that Pierson found, is currently on loan to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Marlborough, New Zealand. “What a wonderful thing to do with your hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Pierson.

“Military collecting is expensive. There are not many young people getting involved in it,” he warns. “It’s difficult to start out.” But after a quarter of a century of buying and selling, John Pierson is making a living while having fun doing something challenging that enables him to be a stay-at-home father of two. “Part of my purpose is to remind people that there’s something to be revered about the sacrifices of our ancestors,” he says. “I feel that I’m doing a public service.”

The Elting Memorial Library is located at 93 Main Street in New Paltz. For more information on the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection and the World War I exhibit, call (845) 255-5030. ++

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